What's the Value of a Good Night's Sleep?
It is no secret that sleep is a priceless commodity and most of us never seem to get enough. There are countless studies that are being done to look at the benefits of sleep and among the research they are finding that sleep is crucial for everything from anti-aging to proper immune function. So what does Chinese medicine believe about sleep?
In Chinese medicine we are constantly looking at the cycles of nature. We honor the passing of the seasons, we look at how the seasons effect our organs and our energetics. We observe how the body functions both day and night prescribing yin and yang energetics to the sun and the moon and how these translate into our physical person. We take into account the passing of time and how change also effects our development as humans and how this may influence our susceptibility to disease.
Sleep, like these other rotations of time and space, is a rhythm. It is an internal drive that we all have and can vary greatly from person to person. The young need a lot of it and the elderly seem to do without much of it. So what happens when we are sleeping?
In Chinese medicine we look at a triad of things to get the broader picture of a person's life and how their body is functioning. Physiologically, each of the 12 organs has a 2 hour window in which their energetics are at their peak. We begin from 1-3am for the Lungs moving in the following pattern:
1-3am Lungs, 3-5am Large Intestines, 5-7am Stomach, 7-9am Spleen, 9-11am Heart, 11-1pm Small Intestines, 1-3pm Bladder, 3-5pm Kidneys, 5-7pm Pericardium, 7-9pm San Jiao (more on this in another blog), 9-11pm Gall Bladder, 11-1am Liver. We look at this organ clock for a variety of reasons, one of which is to find patterns in pathology. Often a person who has a deficiency of the lung's energy may wake every morning between 3-5am. A person who has creative energy and a lot of liver yang may find it difficult to fall asleep between 11-1am and can only find rest when the clock reaches 2am. We may also see someone who has extreme Spleen qi deficiency who has a difficult time waking up in the morning between 7-9am. Perhaps we may see someone who can't eat breakfast when they first wake up in the morning because they have deficient stomach fire and the idea of food makes them nauseous. This list could go on an on.
When we take into account the organ clock we are often looking at the hours of 9pm to 7am as our sleeping time. This will focus our energy on the organs of the Gall Bladder, Liver, Lungs, Large Intestines, Stomach and subsequently the Spleen as it relates to waking.
The Gall Bladder and Liver are partner pairs int he body and they are very important as they influence aspects of creativity, change, ambition, goal setting, as well as taking a direct role in the storage of our blood, the function of our digestion and the regulation of the menstrual cycle. The liver, also houses the spiritual aspect of the soul called the Ethereal Soul. The ethereal soul, called the Hun, is the part of our soul that links our consciousness with the greater spiritual ethos sometimes referred to as Heaven. This part of our soul enters our body when we are born and when we die it leaves the body and reconnects with heaven. It is said that when we sleep at night our Hun wanders the universe connecting to the greater spirit gathering knowledge and wisdom that will help inform us as we expand spiritually and then comes back into our body when we open our eyes (if the Hun is a little late at entering the body as we are waking it can leave us with that feeling of falling that can jolt us out of a sleep). For the Liver and the Gall bladder sleep is about nourishing yin blood and fluids to give us the opportunity to connect to our creativity, see our goals through in spite of the challenges we may face and to help us move freely both physically as well as spiritually.
In essence, when we sleep the body can begin to focus inward and repair and replenish what is used and abused during our waking hours. We have to take the occurrences of the day and bring them inward so we can incorporate them into our consciousness to learn and grow as individuals.
The Lungs house the aspect of the spirit called the Po, the corporeal soul. The Po is described as the somatic expression of the soul. It goes us the capacity for sensation, feeling, hearing and sight. When we pass away this aspect dies with our body and returns to the energy of the earth. During sleep we allow for the resting of our external sensory organs so that we can bring all the things that we see, hear and feel into our consciousness and then decide what we need to keep and what needs to be let go. The lungs and the large intestines are all about letting go and allowing for things to pass in and out of our bodies, only absorbing what we really need and then moving the rest back out into the universe. Sleep is about allowing for us to continue with the movement of our breath, with the seamless in and out of information and the ability to move through our worlds without being overwhelmed or encumbered by the things that are unnecessary.
The stomach is an organ about digestion and assimilation. We take in our external world and then we divide it up into small digestible peaces so that we may use these bits to construct our world both microcosmically (our cells, our blood, our muscles and bones) as well as macrocosmically (the construction of our lives, our houses, our families and friends) in our daily lives. Sleep allows for this digestive organ to cool off and slow down so it can be ready to fire up at full blast during the course of our waking hours. There are many people who love to eat late at night causing the stomach to work overtime which can create all kinds of issues with stomach fire and stasis. This can create everything from acid reflux to nightmares as well as insomnia and the inability to close our eyes at night even when we are really tired. When the flames of the stomach are working our eyes (the first point on the stomach channel is right under the eye) won't be able to close because this is a signal that energy is moving and we are not done digesting the information from our day.
We finally get to waking hours where we greet the Spleen which houses another aspect of our spirit called the Yi. The Yi corresponds to our capacity for applied thinking, studying, concentrating and memorizing. The Yi is our intellect and this is the aspect of our mind that is ready to begin the day. If we have not had enough sleep the yi is not ready to be open and expanded and we can have difficulty concentrating, thinking or accomplishing the tasks of our day. The spleen directly relates to the heart (which houses the memory) so if the spleen is deficient and cannot do it's tasks then the heart will have a difficult time holding on to memory both short term as well as long term.
Sleep allows us to nourish our memory and store blood so we can manage the challenges of our day and the information that is perpetually coming our way to help inform and challenge us. It is with sleep that we are able to convert our challenges into wisdom and to give our body the nourishment it needs so that it can handle our lives. It is the closing of the eyes that puts the body at rest so we can focus on our creativity, our connection with our spiritual selves, our memory and our intellect and to use these tools to help us grow, change and adapt to the unfolding of who we are and who we want to become.
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