Sleep

From Return to Spring: Everything your acupuncturist is too busy to tell you!
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Ah, delicious sleep. Sleep is free, deeply rejuvenating, and available to all. But who amongst us gets enough of it, at the right time, every day?

If you rely on caffeine to get through the day and know what it’s like to feel drowsy a lot of the time, chances are high you need to pay attention to this section. The point here isn’t to give you a lecture on “civilized” bedtimes. But the fact is that TCM pretty much agrees with what your mom always told you: going to bed early and sleeping for around eight hours every night is good for you!

Readers who are wise enough to just listen to their moms are probably not on this webpage—they’re healthy and they don’t need any new advice! Those of you who are still surfing Return to Spring at two in the morning probably need to be convinced to turn off the computer and let your bodies and minds rest, so let’s get to it: why is sleep so important?

What's so great about vitamin Zzzzz?

Just like mom, TCM can offer you a million and one reasons why you need your shut-eye. We’ll start with one of the big ones:

Rest your sense organs to rejuvenate your inner organs

During the day we rely upon our sense organs to interact with the world. Especially in today’s world, we exhaust our eyes by constantly using them to read and watch TV, as well as to keep a lookout for oncoming traffic, that jerk coworker, etc. Our ears are equally exhausted keeping us attentive while we listen to the radio or music on the way to and from work, keeping us absorbing information during boring meetings, and keeping us in verbal communication with the people in our lives. In today’s world, our tongues, noses, and senses of touch don’t get such heavy workouts, but we use them all the time, too.

In TCM, each of the sense organs is intimately linked to in body’s internal zang-fu organ and qi meridian networks. In simplest terms, the interior of the body supplies the qi that keeps the five senses that connect us to the outside world chugging along. Using your five senses, then, directly taps into the qi of the organs, and tires them out. You need sleep, because only in sleep do we finally turn off the five senses, which not only gives your eyes, ears, nose, and tongue a chance to rest, but drastically reduces the burden on the qi of your internal organs by allowing your body to fully relax and function without the various interference that comes from a person undergoing the stimulation and stress of waking life.

Replenish yin and tonify yang

In TCM sleep is known to tonify both yin and yang. One can think of it this way: the body’s yin component is loosely analogous to the hardware in a computer. The yang is like the electricity constantly running through it, allowing the computer to “come to life” and function. When you’re awake, your body has to exhaust a huge amount of “electricity” to help you think, move, maintain your posture, digest, speak, and so forth. All of this “electricity” is very yang, so your body also needs to supply a lot of yin “fluid” to keep things from getting too hot in there—kind of like oil in an engine.

So, during the day, all your mental and physical exertions burn through a heck of a lot of yin and yang, which you need to replenish. Foods and supplements can only help so much—imagine what would happen to your car if you never turned it off, or if you drove it for 18 or 19 hours a day, every day! Letting the body shut down for 1/3 of the day is the most effective way to let the body replenish and rebalance itself.

How and when do we get good sleep?

To bed by 11pm, at the latest...

... and preferably by 10 or 10:30!

The mumbly, wizardly reasons

According to one of traditional Chinese medicine's more esoteric sub-disciplines, the dramatically-named chronoacupuncture, the qi of each of the twelve_meridians becomes active for two-hours at the same time each day. From 11 pm until 3 am the qi in the gallbladder-liver zang-fu organ pair's meridians becomes "active," so it's important to be in bed early enough that you'll be asleep by the time this process starts. This way, the thinking goes, your gallbladder and liver's qi can do their work without being exhausted in order to let you you paint the town red.

Phew. Actually, lots of websites can tell you the exact same thing, but what's it mean?


On a symbolic level, the liver zang also “stores blood” during the night. Additionally, your wei qi circulates around the surface of the body all day long, protecting the body from external pathogens and pernicious qi. During the night, however, the wei qi moves around the interior of the body, where it protects and promotes the health of the interior. All of these processes begin when thousands of years of evolution has programmed them to—the body clock is tuned to nature’s rhythms, and altering your body’s natural rhythms is almost as hard as changing what time the sun comes up. You need to be in harmony with these rhythms to reap good health!

In plain(er) English

Begin resting before you go to sleep

What this means is that after dinner one should naturally begin winding down one’s activities. Good ideas? Dimming the lights, listening to relaxing music, reading spiritual or uplifting books, having relaxed conversation, watching the fire, taking a stroll, doing a bit of gentle taiji or yoga, having one alcoholic drink, exchanging massage with a loved one, and so forth. Bad ideas? Getting into arguments, watching violent movies and TV, staring at computer screens, drinking caffeinated beverages, engaging in vigorous workouts, getting drunk, eating big late-night snacks, and so on. The key here is that your body and mind need to begin to rest long before your head hits the pillow. If you suffer from poor quality sleep or insomnia, the classical TCM advice is that before you bother your physician, you first need to pay attention to how you spend your time in the evenings.