Tick Tock: How to Follow the Clock of Life

It’s been about a decade since I wrote a series of articles about the “Chinese clock,” and I’ve been asked about it recently by several students and patients, so I decided it was time to revisit the topic. The “Chinese clock” is a concept of diurnal Qi movement in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) – meaning, the way energy ebbs and flows through the body over the course of the day. There are twelve main organs and each has a two-hour period of the day when its energy peaks. Paying attention to this cycle can help us achieve better health and can also offer clues about where problems may originate.

Before we explore the significance of each two-hour block, it’s important to note that I’ll be discussing the organs from a TCM perspective, which is a bit deeper than our Western understanding. Through this expanded view, each organ has both physical and mental functions, and it encompasses not just the internal organ but an energetic circuit called a channel or meridian.

5:00 to 7:00 AM – Large Intestine Time

According to Edison Research, among people who wake up before 10 AM, 30% are awake by 6:00. Another 23% awaken between 6:00 and 6:30, and 13% more wake up between 6:30 and 7:00. So, 66% of morning-wakers arise during Large Intestine Time. And to put it bluntly, this is the ideal time to poop. If you’re constipated, sometimes you can reset your bowels by simply sitting on the toilet during this period and waiting. (You can improve your chances by drinking a glass of hot water.)

The expanded version of the large intestine is that it represents our capacity to “take out the trash” – that is, to recognize and let go of the garbage we’re carrying around: thoughts, beliefs, habits, and attachments that burden, disempower, or degrade us rather than serving us. Anytime is a good time to let go, but during these two hours, before most of us get busy, before we check our email, get on Facebook, read the news, and start filling our minds with data, we have a special capacity to release.

When you have a bowel movement (regardless of whether or not it’s between 5:00 and 7:00 AM), you can intend that you’re letting go of anything you’re done with, even visualizing that you’re directing it into your intestines. The large intestine also has a close relationship with the lungs, which can facilitate letting go through the breath. Every exhale is a letting go and deepening the breath while relaxing the belly can help promote the wringing (peristaltic) movement of the intestines.

7:00 to 9:00 AM – Stomach Time

The stomach is the organ that first receives the food we swallow, and begins the process of breaking it down so we can absorb its nutrients. In the broader TCM concept of the stomach, it represents our ability to receive and accept nurturing and support, to recognize the fruits of our labors, and to allow ourselves to be mothered.

The peak period of the stomach is from 7:00 to 9:00 AM, which is the ideal time to have a fortifying meal. Your body is most likely to process this meal efficiently, which lends some credibility to the saying that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. In order to make the most of this special digestive mojo, it’s actually a great time to have some vegetables and protein, rather than, say, the empty calories of a bagel and coffee.

Meanwhile, set aside at least a moment in the breakfast process to consciously choose to be nourished and to receive the abundant gifts in your life. Close your eyes, savor the tastes and textures of what you’re chewing and be grateful. Of course, you can exercise your metaphoric stomach at any time by bringing your consciousness to the “harvest” that’s available to you.

9:00 to 11:00 AM – Pi Time

Following the stomach, our food passes into the small intestine where enzymes from the pancreas and bile from the gallbladder further prepare it to be absorbed and distributed. Most of these digestive functions fall under the role of the organ called the pi (pronounced “pee”) in Chinese Medicine. (It’s often mistranslated as “spleen,” an organ that has nothing to do with digestion.) The pi has two main jobs – the transformation of food into something the body can assimilate, and the transportation of these nutrients throughout the body.

To extend this idea beyond nutrition, the pi represents your capacity to nurture and hold the many parts of yourself, your life, and your world – people, projects, career, etc. The pi is associated with the earth element and works for us much in the same way that Mother Earth holds, supports, and feeds everything that lives upon her.

During this time of day, imagine that the energy from your breakfast is making its way into all your cells, fortifying your body, and strengthening and stabilizing your mind. You can facilitate this process by avoiding stress and intense exercise at this time. Consider the whole world, even the parts you dislike or disagree with, as an extension of your own body, and exclude nourishment from none of it.

I’ll discuss the remaining time periods over the next couple weeks, but for now, I wanted to avoid giving you too much new information to digest. Think about just these three time periods in the morning, and see how you’re affected by bringing consciousness to these phases of your day.

Be well,

Dr. Peter Borten

36 thoughts on “Tick Tock: How to Follow the Clock of Life

  1. awesome info! thank you and I look forward to learning Ingram more of the TCM body clock

    1. sorry, it was an email I received from the Dragontree.com

    2. You’re welcome, Maria! More soon.
      Be well,

  2. What? Aww hell no! You didn’t just leave us hanging???

    1. Ha! Sorry Teresa, but since these three time slots were all about good digestion, I didn’t want to feed you more information than you could digest at once!

  3. Very interesting. Thank you! I look forward to learning more about the time periods that follow. Especially interested in which timing seems to fit nicely with exercise since it appears to be discouraged in the morning. Thanks again!

    1. You’re welcome, Charlene. In my opinion, mid-day is ideal for intense exercise, though mild exercise can be done any time of day.

  4. This is my first opportunity to be exposed to this teaching even though I have practiced yoga for several years. Thank you so so much for bring this topic up for us newbies to Dragontree. The timing for me is much appreciated!
    Thanks again!

    1. You’re welcome, Leila. I’m glad you found it interesting!

  5. Awesome info! This really gives support to my natural schedule, I accept the responsibility now with full knowledge!
    Thank you,

    1. Hi Margie. It’s great when you naturally happen upon what’s ideal for you. Be well.

  6. Thank you for this piece. I found it both interesting and helpful and am looking forward to future installments. 🙂

    1. You’re welcome, Molly. Thanks for your feedback.

  7. Very interesting, thank you Dr Borten:
    I am most interested in your thoughts about how this data relates to myself who
    a) had bariatric (sleeve) surgery on Dec 1, 2015 and
    b) currently works a night shift (10p-6a) five or six nights a week.
    Lately I
    a) have nothing (much) to eat during my shift
    b) get home around 6:30am, have my first meal around 7am (with meds)
    c) do a second light meal around 1pm and
    d) eat yogurt with meds around 6pm and
    e) go off to work around 9:30 pm.
    mike rodgers
    Grove City, PA

    1. Hi Mike,
      Working a graveyard shift is hard on your system. I’m sorry to say, there are so many factors that are less than ideal, from insufficient, interrupted sleep, to light exposure at night and disruption of production of the sleep hormone melatonin, etc. The best advice I could give would be to get on a daytime shift and sleep at night.
      Assuming that’s not possible, I would recommend that you experiment with reversing your day completely, eating all your meals at night, and then when you get home, retreating into a room with blackout curtains and remaining in total darkness for 8 hours, whether you’re awake or asleep. We all need a dark cycle. Even though you won’t be abiding by the actual times prescribed in Chinese Medicine, you’ll at least have a routine that sort of approximates that, when you eat when you’re active and in the light.
      Good luck,

  8. Thank you. I’m looking forward to your posts.

    1. You’re welcome, Nadia

  9. Really interesting. I will think on this

    1. Thanks, hope it’s helpful for you.

  10. Thanks for this Dr Peter! This information comes at a good time for me and my life!

    1. You’re welcome, aQui. Hope this framework works with your training schedule.

  11. Thank you for this!! And the guidebook!

    1. You’re welcome, Candace. I’m glad you like it.

  12. Excellent discussion of the Chinese clock

    1. Thank you, Kay.

  13. Awesome. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you. And you’re welcome!

  14. I found this article cathartic. I stopped eating breakfast around age 10. My mother was not a nurturer, and I was always, from a very young age (my earliest memory of fixing my own breakfast is 3), expected to take care of myself. The catharsis is recognizing that I have not allowed myself to be “mothered” for a great portion of my life, and perhaps even not felt deserving of nurturing. I am in my mid fifties now, and without going into great detail on a public post, I experienced some trauma around the time I stopped eating breakfast. I pushed that experience so far and deep down inside myself, that even to this day I feel ill, and quite nauseous if I eat breakfast. Now that I have made this mental/physical/emotional connection regarding breakfast and my stomach, I think I will try to reintroduce a regular breakfast in to my life. A cup of broth might be a good start. Namaste.

    1. Hi Colby,
      Thanks for your willingness to really go deep with this material. I think you’re spot on with regard to the connections you’ve unearthed and I hope this is the beginning of a major healing.
      take care,

  15. I think you have universal ESP. I am experiencing exclusion at work and discrimination and just work behavior I have never experienced in 31 years at my company. I am feeling truly heart sick over it. Your post on the 7-9 PM time was especially timely on Valentines Day! I am trying to accept it and move to understanding; but I am stuck. I am over rotating on and allowing a couple people I have never even been aware of before to permeate and control all of me. I wake up 2-3 times a night and it is my first thoughts. It dominates all thoughts and my conversations with my spouse. I need your posts in order to get well again before I get sick again. Thank you.

    1. Hi Toni,
      Sorry to hear you’re experiencing this – but I’m glad these posts have been helpful. It sounds like you’re in tune with what’s going on inside you and that’s a good thing. Just don’t let those feelings RUN you. See if you can get in touch with what comes up in your body while you focus on the work drama and then just allow those feelings without resisting them, allowing them completely, even inviting them to be felt with your whole self, breathing deeply into the feeling and letting go on your exhale.
      Be well,

  16. I know this may be a stupid question but, are these times relevant to the current time we live in? Whether it’s Pacific or Eastern time? Or daylight saving time?

    I love your writing!

    1. Hi Barb,
      It’s not a stupid question. It’s one that comes up a lot and that there’s no perfect answer to. My guess is that the clock is somewhat organic in terms of the actual times and that they orient relative to whatever time is actual noon where you live – i.e., when the sun is directly overhead. So, if you live toward the eastern edge of a time zone, true noon is probably later than 12:00 PM, and we could probably assume that all the organ times shift a bit later. If you live near the western edge of a time zone, true noon is probably earlier than 12:00 PM and therefore, the organ times may actually occur a bit earlier than the specific times they’re ascribed. During Daylight Savings, we’re calling it an hour than it “actually” is – so the different organ times might also occur earlier than what the clock says. I know it’s tricky. I say just choose what you’re going to observe and go with it. However, the best determinant of all would be to get really in tune with yoru body and *feel* when these organs are dominant. Even if you could perceive just one time slot (based on, say, your large intestine’s tendency to be active in the early morning), you would then know how the rest of the time slots should shift one way or the other.
      Be well,

  17. Hi. I found this article by googling words related to the question asked on 3/30/17. I keep waking up at around 2:10/2:20am lately and this is interesting because I remember a few years ago I used to wake up at precisely 3:14am most nights for months and then it happened less often but still was a consistent time of sudden waking up. I am not sure what season it was during those 3am or so wake ups but it is currently daylight savings time here in NY and now I often wake up suddenly roughly one hour earlier. I am interested to hear (read) your thoughts on this.
    Your website seems to be rife with valuable and interesting information and I am happy to have come across it (at 2:30am ha ha).

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