Your sleep patterns say a lot about you and can reveal far more than droopy eyelids, poor memory, increased hunger or for the lucky ones, vitality and a pep in your step, depending. Sleep is for sure the elixir of health. But if you can’t sleep, you’re like 30 percent of humans and may suffer from some form of insomnia, be it inability to fall asleep, restless sleeping, dream disturbed sleep, waking early, frequent waking or my favourite – waking at the same time each night. Regardless of your sleep status (or lack of), the time you wake can become an extremely handy tool in understanding what’s lying behind your insomnia. Your sleep patterns provide a window into the internal workings of your body.
Here’s what your sleep patterns reveal about you
Your sleep quality is most likely directly proportional to your stress status which can be extremely frustrating to learn and also something that only adds to the stress and anxiety of not sleeping.
Physiologically, cortisol peaks around 30 minutes after waking (when melatonin is low) and remains higher during the day. Melatonin (the hormone that makes us feel sleepy) slowly increases as the day goes on, peaking right before sleep; in time to make us feel tired and ready for bed. Together, cortisol and melatonin work to help us feel either alert or tired. So if melatonin is high, cortisol should be low and vice versa.
However, modern lifestyle can see our cortisol levels remain high caused by a variety of stimulants (screens, stress, over work etc), impacting our melatonin which affects our ability to fall asleep and for the first few hours of the sleep cycles, stay asleep.
In Chinese medicine we say the mind (Shen) resides in the heart. And when the heart energy is off so too are our hormones – our sleep will inevitably be affected.
We can’t dismiss the relationship between the mind and the body. For too long our western mindset has payed little attention to how these are intertwined. Thankfully we have become increasingly curious as to how our health and emotions are intertwined and play into our overall health and well-being.
Emotions and sleep patterns
From a Chinese medicine view point, we say that each organ has a relationship with a particular emotion. I go into detail about this in my latest book Beautiful You, where I outline exactly how a dominant emotion may be at the core of other health issues like hormone imbalance, infertility, PCOS or Endometriosis.
But to give a quick overview, here are the main organs according to TCM and the correlating emotions to help guide you a little further.
Worry affects the Spleen (aka gut)
Overwork/Fear impacts the Kidney
Anger affects the Liver
Sadness influences the Lung
Overjoy affects the Heart
Emotions will absolutely impact our overall health, but the key to your insomnia may not be so much physical, so checking in with your emotions can help you understand just one of the reasons why you’re up before the birds or find yourself trying to make 3am your new best friend.
The Chinese Medicine Body Clock
In TCM, energy (aka Qi) move through the meridians or channels and organs in a 24 hour cycle. Every two hours, qi is at its peak within the corresponding organ. When there is disharmony within an organ, it can show up at the same time each day for this very reason. This becomes a very useful diagnostic tool.
Qi flows through all organs and meridians over 24 hours but since we’re focusing on sleep, these simple diagrams shows the flow through the organs between 7pm to 7am. If you want the full time clock you can easily search to find it.
11pm – 1am – GALLBLADDER
1am – 3am – LIVER
3 – 5am – LUNGS
5-7am – LARGE INTESTINE
Images via Well & Good
Should you find yourself waking at the same time every night, it can be a further clue to what may be going on within the organ systems of the body. For example, waking at 3am each night corresponds with the time the Liver energy is at its peak. But if the liver (or any corresponding organ according to the waking time) is deficient or in overactive (say from drinking too much alcohol in the case of the liver) you may find yourself awake and stirring.
Most interestingly, a dominant emotion can line up with the corresponding organ as emotions are also said to be processed at the corresponding peak times. It may be no surprise to now learn that the end result is also waking at the same time each night. For example, the emotion of the liver is anger. So waking at 3pm may result if this emotion isn’t being dealt with efficiently OR remains undressed (alongside other symptoms). This definitely points to some kind of liver disharmony.
Now maybe your lack of shut eye has nothing to do with your internal environment and far more to do with your external conditions. We can’t dismiss good sleep hygiene to help assist us if we aren’t sleeping well. Here’s my best tips on creating the perfect sleeping environment.
- Introduce a wind down routine. Begin with minimising blue light at night which messes with your melatonin levels. Switching your phone to nightshift (if you have an iPhone) will reduce the amount of blue light hitting your eyes which will trick your body into thinking it’s daylight (and pep up your cortisol). Using blue blocker glasses also assists. Also introduce a shower before bed and read a few pages of your current book to help relax your body.
- The temperature of the room is beneficial to create an good sleeping environment. Somewhere around 23 degrees Celsius is considered optimal although like all things in life, this will differ slightly from person to person.
- Let dinner be your last meal. Allowing the digestive system to do work other than digestion at the time you are sleeping is essential for so many body processes including cellular repair, recovery, making hormones and more. Aim to eat dinner before 7pm.
- Your grandma was right. Every hour before midnight counts as two after midnight. Aim at getting to bed between 10-11pm for maximum benefits. In TCM we say this is the time the body builds blood.
- If you find it difficult to sleep, magnesium, a hot bath or shower, lavender and a cup of camomile may assist in the relaxation process. Tea can be wonderful.
- Practicing gratitude before bed has shown to not only improve sleep quality, but frame the next day more positively.
You and I – Let’s talk more
It can be a little odd to get your head around the idea of the meridians, qi, blood, emotions and all that sits in-between. But in a quest to help you understand your body, your body wisdom and the clues it serves to you each and every day, let’s create an opportunity to discuss this more.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about frequent waking, what tools you’ve used to assist your body to sleep better and if you’ve used the TCM Body Clock to help you.