Updated: Mar 30
By Barbara Poczyniak, R.Ac
This year, one of the most frequent issues that comes up in conversation with my patients is sleep. Whether seeking treatment for pain, stress or help with digestive or reproductive concerns, sleep quality and quantity have become a much bigger contributing factor to health issues during this pandemic. What time you experience sleep disruption can say a lot, according to TCM.
Yin and Yang and the Clock
One of the founding concepts in Chinese Medicine is that of Yin and Yang. According to TCM there is a time for everything, much like the well known circadian clock model. Night time is considered a time of Yin and daytime is a time of Yang. Night time is for being asleep: cool, dark, quiet, sleep provides a time of nourishment for our body and mind to recuperate and reset. Daytime is for being awake: bustling, busy and the most active time for both body and mind. Both yin and yang energies are equally important and necessary for us to function as healthy beings.
But what happens when our “yang daytime activities” or behaviours get extended into the yin nighttime hours? Often, this might be due to staying up late, watching screens with blue light that may confuse our inner senses into thinking it’s daylight. Sleep disruption may also be felt from drinking caffeine (very yang) too late in the day, or for some this may occur with alcohol. Yang categorization also extends to mental activities: thinking, worrying (also known as thinking in circles) and planning are all busy mind activities that tend to creep into the yin hours, often despite our best efforts to keep them out.
So, why 3am?
But sometimes, you are SO tired, and fall asleep just fine – but then awaken “for no reason” at 3am? Maybe it’s 3.30am? Why are these times so common? What’s happening if you’re awake during this yin time (even though you really do not want to be)?
Chinese Medicine uses the time of day as a diagnostic tool when considering physical and emotional symptoms or signs in the body. Each organ system is assigned a set of hours during which it does the bulk of its job, according to TCM. The “most yin” time of night from midnight to about 3am subscribes to conventional knowledge about this being the time for deep restorative sleep. It is also the time on the organ clock that TCM theory sets aside for the Liver.
The Liver organ system uses this time to do its main thing: filter and detox blood, smooth the flow of Qi energy in the body and help us process emotions. It is also the organ system that is energetically linked to making plans. If your Liver energy is healthy and balanced, planning is easy, efficient and timely. If unbalanced it may show up as more frustration or ‘over-planning’. If depleted it may show up as anxious feelings about working through uncertainty. Since all of the organ systems are deeply interrelated, the longer an imbalance continues, the more likely it will start to affect other systems (and potentially show up as issues in digestion, elimination, mental focus, skin health etc).
As we near dawn, yang energy starts to creep back into the picture – our body’s internal clocks feel that night time will end soon and therefore daylight must be on the horizon. This exact time will adjust a bit during each season but may start at around 5am or later, when most of us have had enough sleep. If it’s happening at 3am, obviously the clock is somehow off – as we have NOT yet had enough sleep. If the Liver organ system has not adequately done its job, we are likely to snap wide awake and fall into our thinking, worrying and planning mode, right around 3am. If this happens once in a while, that may still be acceptable to you, but if it has become a routine it can quickly make life miserable.
3 Tips to help you sleep through the night
If you’re suffering from disrupted sleep you may have already tested a number of approaches, it is important to determine what works for your lifestyle and seek help if needed. These simple self care methods can be used on their own, or in combination with other things you’ve already added to your sleepcare routine.
Heart-Focused Breathing™ Technique.
Although there are many great apps for mindfulness and meditation, I don’t recommend reaching for your phone at 3am. Instead, here is a straightforward method that is easy to remember and can help reset and tame ‘monkey mind’ in the middle of the night. It is courtesy of the HeartMath Institute, and can be used at night or at any time you need to neutralize the emotions of a moment.
How to do: Close your eyes and focus your attention in the area of the heart. Imagine your breath is flowing in and out of your heart or chest area, breathing a little slower and deeper than usual. Find an easy rhythm that’s comfortable, and continue for 1-3 minutes.
Soaking Your Feet.
Perhaps you already include a warm bath in your nightly wind-down routine. This is a proven method to help induce sleep, but did you know a full body bath is not necessary to get the benefits? Not everyone loves taking baths, or has the time or even a tub! This time-tested foot bath method can ease you into a deeper, more restful slumber. A number of yin-natured acupuncture channels originate in the feet, as well as important acupressure points for grounding and calming the body’s energy. Adding Magnesium Flakes also boosts the body’s own detoxing abilities.
How to do: Fill a basin or bucket with very warm (but not too hot) water, making sure it comes up well over your ankles. Add 1 cup of epsom salts, or preferably Magnesium Flakes. Soak feet for 10-12 minutes (up to 20 minutes), then towel dry and put on warm socks or slippers. Breaking a sweat during the soak is good, but try not to stay excessively hot and aim to cool down a bit before heading off to bed.
Optional: sprinkle a few drops of essential oil such as Lavender onto the salts before adding to water. If looking for alternatives to Lavender, I like Black Spruce essential oil for this time of year – it is a fresh yet grounding scent that is renewable and easy to source.
Acupressure on the sole of the foot.
After your foot soaks, try massaging these two acupressure points on the foot. They will help you further unwind and ground your energy for a deeper, longer sleep, while supporting the Liver and Kidney organ systems.
How to do: Acupressure can be done with the pad of finger or thumb and should be medium to firm pressure held for 30-60 seconds at a time. Do not use your nail. Pressing/massaging in slight circles is recommended on each point. Don’t worry if you think you can’t find the exact point. The area of acupressure points is about the size of a nickel, so as long as you are massaging the general area you are activating the point.
Note: the points may feel slightly sore or tender on palpation. Unless you have an injury in this area it should be fine to continue – just press and massage gently over the tender acupressure point. With regular acupressure massage the spots should become less sore.
LIVER 3 – “Great Surge” on the dorsum of the foot, between the 1st and 2nd toe, proximal to the margin of the web.
KIDNEY 1 – “Gushing Spring” on the sole of the foot, approximately at the junction of the anterior third and posterior two thirds of the sole.
Caution: Pregnant women should first check with an Acupuncturist for guidance on the best points to use in their situation. While acupressure and acupuncture are safe during pregnancy, points on the feet should be chosen with care.
Acupuncture can also be extremely effective for sleep issues, and since it is a holistic approach it can help with stress and/or pain issues that may be related. I invite you to explore acupuncture as a possible option, and contact me at Darou Wellness if you’d like further information on how it can help you best.
Handbook of Oriental Medicine, HB Kim, L.Ac
Heart-Focused Breathing™ Technique Handout, HeartMath Institute
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