The Best Time to Sleep

by Jade Shutes

Contributed by: Robert Sachs

In most cultures, we are familiar with the increments and movement of time – the seconds, minutes, hours, days, and years. We may be familiar with the concepts of centuries or millennium, but for the most part, it is in the seconds, minutes, hours, days, and years where most of us are focused. We create markers of significance in various decades – turning, twenty (We can now do whatever we want!), thirty (Oh no. Why can’t I be “forever twenty-one?” And how many twenty-ninth birthdays can I have before someone notices?), fifty (This is really getting embarrassing – don’t really want to talk about it at all.), or sixty (Like twenty, I feel entitled to do whatever I want or to say whatever I want to say. I’ve earned it!). Beyond what we can define as objective time and the cultural markers we establish regarding the significance of our age, there is the macrocosmic study of the subtle electro-magnetic affects of stars, planets, etc., commonly known as astrology, there is a micro-study of the movement of subtle energy or life force or ch’I in relation to our organ systems and the impact of such in what in Chinese medical tradition is simply called the Chinese Clock.

In the orient, the cultural and astrological dimensions have their own place of honor. But, what is even more interesting to me in the discussion of sleep is what is known as the Chinese Clock, paid attention to in the practice of acupuncture, but also with respect to time and timing.

The Chinese Clock breaks the hours of the day into twelve 2-hour increments. These increments of time relate to the flow of Ch’I, prana (in Ayurveda), or what we may call more generically electro-magnetic life force. This life force travels through the body in a very systematic way and its flow is identified in terms of the Five Elements or Transformations of Chinese medicine and philosophy and their related physical organ systems.

According to this theory, there is a continuous flow of electro-magnetic force coursing through us that stimulates and affects different parts of us at different times. This flow, from organ to organ, element to element is as follows…

3am-5am – Lungs (Metal element)

5am-7am – Large Intestine/Colon (Metal element)

7am-9am – Stomach (Earth element)

9am-11am – Spleen/Pancreas (Earth element)

11am-1pm – Heart (Fire element)

1pm-3pm – Small Intestine (Fire element)

3pm-5pm – Bladder (Water element)

5pm-7pm – Kidneys (Water element)

7pm-9pm – Circulation-Sex Process (Fire element)

9pm-11pm – Gall Bladder (Wood element)

11pm-1am – Liver (Wood element)

In general it is said that the hours that you sleep before midnight give you twice as much rest as those after midnight.

And, the hours of darkness are the healthiest times to sleep. This is our natural sleep cycle and follows a sensibility, which is documented in scientific and esoteric traditions alike. And, in keeping with this wisdom, it is said that sleeping during the day is not advised. In both the systems of Chinese medicine and Ayurveda, it is explained that the systems of the body that need stimulation during the day become more sluggish if we sleep through the time when they should be active. Let us explore this a little more closely with respect to the above Chinese Clock schemata.

While there are probably some of you who cannot follow this next recommendation (and your concerns will be addressed shortly), the optimal time for the average adult to get to bed is between 9 and 11pm. This is the time of the Gall Bladder and the beginning of the stimulation of the Wood or Tree element. Before getting into the organs of the Wood element themselves, let’s talk about the tissue associated with the Wood element – the muscles and connective tissue in general. The idea here is that you have been working, doing this and that all day, moving through space, demanding attention of your muscles and connective tissue. Maybe you have not been so active during the day, so you want to go out and party or go to the gym to work out some of that tension built up. That is understandable. However, some gentle stretching, maybe some yoga would be far more effective in getting this tension out than getting your system pumped and too active for the time. Rest and quietude are an important factor that needs to be considered when developing any workout, especially if you do it at night.

With respect to the organs, particularly the gall bladder and the liver, here you have the systems that are going to break down fatty substances, cleanse and rebuild your blood and replenish your muscles. To do this, the Wood element is best served when you are lying down.

So, what about those of you who cannot abide by this recommendation? What if you are a person works the “graveyard” shifts? Or, what if you think of yourself as a “night owl” and write or do some activity, be it writing or partying into the wee hours of the night?

The simple truth is that many such people look paler – even jaundice-ly sallow – and more stressed in general? They may have adjusted to getting up and working at midnight or built their lifestyle to be nocturnal, but the body knows better.

If your schedule or work-life demands of you this kind of schedule, here are some remedies. These can also apply to anyone who stays up during these time periods.

  • During breaks, lie down. If possible, try the progressive relaxation exercise in Appendix One. If there is not enough time for this, try the technique called speed napping, again found in the final chapter that includes some exercises and other solutions.
  • Avoid eating fatty, heavy foods during the night. If you can, stick to light fruit and vegetable dishes that are easy to digest.
  • Practice the breathing exercise presented in Appendix One.

There are some exceptions to the general advice not to sleep during the day, such as for the very young or the elderly, and for persons that are weak from illness, tired from too much sex or intoxication, overwork, or emotional distress. A 10 to 20 minute catnap or progressive relaxation session can actually be helpful to recharge the body and mind if it is taken in the early afternoon. Longer naps are also sometimes advised in very hot weather between noon and three or four o’clock in the afternoon, like in the traditional `siesta.’ More will be said shortly about progressive relaxation exercises.

Looking at other time periods and sleep.

It may be of interest to note that the Chinese clock begins at 3am, the time of the Lungs. The idea here is that the first real breath of the day, the Ch’I that you will need for the day, becomes replenished in our own breath via our lungs. So, in monastic and yogic traditions around the world, practitioners get up. Catholic monks and nuns begin Vespers at 3am. Yogis think of pranayama – regulated breathing. It’s an amazing time to meditate.

Yet, for the average person, the shift from the Wood element to the Metal element may only be noticed as a time to pee or one of those times when your beautiful night’s sleep gets “interrupted.” After all, shouldn’t we get eight hours of uninterrupted sleep?

While the spiritual aspirant may look at this shift of electro-magnetics as a divine blessing, for the average person, it may feel like an intrusion. But, I contend, that it is made worse if we label this interruption as an intrusion, a sign or symptom that needs to be addressed, with therapy or medication – and more often than not, just medication.

What I would like to suggest to those who awaken at this time is to first understand what is going on and relax. When lying in bed, become aware of your breath. If you are not a meditator or yogi, just enjoy the rising and fall of your breath without judgment. This can go a long way getting you back off to sleep.

If you get back to sleep or slept through this time, probably the next “call of nature” will come between 7 and 9am. And, this literally is a call of nature. It is the time where your Large Intestine or colon is being activated. You shift around, maybe pass some gas, then you can’t hold back or hold down the fort anymore. You have to go relieve yourself.

This is actually quite healthy. You may have the idea that you should not have to get up until 8 or 9am. But the fact is that this is the time of the Earth element and the stomach, spleen, pancreas, and lymphatics. It is much better to already be up and moving. With your colon clean between 5 and 7am, you are ready to meet your day.

The Ages and Stages of Our Lives – An Ayurvedic Understanding

Other than the Chinese daily clock, I mentioned earlier how age also has its own impact on sleeping. In Ayurveda, there are energetics known as doshas – Vata, Pitta, and Kapha – that are more dominant at different stages of life. Rather than get into a long description of the theory and energetics of each of these doshas, I shall just identify the time periods that they represent and how this impacts sleep. If you want more information about Ayurveda, I encourage you to look at our books referenced in the Source Appendix at the end of this booklet.


From infancy to the time we are about 9 years of age, we are in what is called the Kapha stage of life. The Kapha stage of life shows an accentuation of the Earth and Water elements as explained earlier in my descriptions of the Chinese Clock. In this stage the physicality of our body is forming and our lymphatics are particularly active as we grow through the maturation process to the point where each system is basically functioning, as it should.

This Kapha stage of life demands a lot of sleep; 10 to 12 hours a night. We start off nursing and eating and sleeping and nursing and eating and sleeping in 3-4 hour cycles day and night. Gradually, though, as our metabolic processes begin to develop and our organ systems become well established, day sleeping is replaced by naps, which then eventually dwindle to longer periods of rest at night.

This is a crucial time to trust the forces of nature and support healthy sleeping habits. Sadly, more and more parents are using media stimulation (TVs and tech devices) as baby sitters. Many “progressive” parents want to believe that their children should be able to determine when it is time to go to bed. With excess stimulation and lack of parental encouragement, more and more kids pass out in front of media, which creates its own electro-magnetic distortion. Add to this the sad tendency for manufactured treat and snack foods of children to be laden with high amounts of sugar and other additives, our lack of understanding of our Kapha/baby needs, is creating a generation more susceptible to chronic fatigue and immune compromise.

Kapha as an energetic and the Kapha stage of life needs structure and information. To not support children in this way and think that a laissez faire, loosey-goosey approach shows progressive thinking is to miss the boat altogether about how to encourage healthy and health-giving habits for a lifetime. So, in this stage of life, parents, show up! Get your kids to bed.


From the age of nine to about fifty, we are in the Pitta stage of life. It begins with us becoming “hormone-ized;” that is, the metabolic process with all its chemicals of transformation for shaping our bodies into the shape we shall take through our adult life. Through this transformation, hormones ebb and flow with the lunar and solar cycles of time, and the various fires (or what in Ayurveda is known as agni) help us to regulate our body temperature and metabolize our food. Unlike our Kapha stage, where we are more passive than active in being responsive or reactive to our environment, here we certainly become much more as active participants in the day-to- day aspects of our lives. We have to develop our critical thinking skills and our discernment as we interact with our world. Thus along with the more physical aspects of our lives that were essential to our survival in the Kapha stage of life, our active participation, our choices and our giving into subconscious patterns has more of an impact on us. Thus, in the morass and turmoil of our teen and early adult years, sleep is not only about getting physical rest, it is also becomes vital for emotional processing. Thus it can be that – depending on what is going on around them – a teen may need hours and hours of sleep, or very little, often times dependent upon mood. If you have ever had a teenager (or can remember and/or be honest about your own teen years), you may recall that when they are bored, they can doze on and on. But, the minute a friend calls and something cool is happening, they are up like a tiger coming out of sleep to go hunt the antelope it just sniffed.

One of the hormones implicated with sleep and our bodies’ rhythms is melatonin. It especially gets triggered at night in dark environments. Thus, if a TV or screen of some sort is on or the nightlights of a room are too bright, by virtue of the eyes being stimulated (the eyes being one of the “seats” of Pitta), melatonin is not activated, as it would be in a better sleeping environment. The solution, therefore, is not to buy some melatonin, but to have a more darkened, peaceful atmosphere to be in. You may recall that when I was speaking about light, I did mention the use of an eye pad that would also cover your forehead, hence your pineal gland. Deciding to flood your system with melatonin as a supplement, therefore, is an attempt to over-ride the stimulation of your sleep environment. That said, I have known of people who take melatonin when they travel by plane with good effect. But, even then, a good eye pad can be almost as helpful. In general, for this time of our life, the darker the room, the better.

In the Pitta stage of life, a combination of the water and fire elements according to Indian Ayurveda (but also including aspects of the air or metal element according to Tibetan Ayurveda), it is important to develop habits of relaxation to offset the increase of work and activity that is the hallmark of this stage of life. Being able to separate work from play, and play from relaxation; establishing a clean, comfortable sleeping environment, having good sleeping habits, avoiding excessively stimulating food or environments close to bed time, working on finding balance with respect to emotions like anger, frustration, and so forth through meditation, relaxation exercises and the many benefits of exercise regimens such as Tai Chi or the practice of yoga (especially savasana – the corpse pose) are some of the features necessary for good rest and sleep during the Pitta stage of life. Because of what life throws at us if you have a partner, kids, various responsibilities, this may be the stage of life where you get great, undisturbed sleep sometimes, then not very much at all. In this stage of life, if you have good, established habits, it will all even out. But, too often, the Pitta stage of life sees people burning the candle from both ends. If this happens over a prolonged period of time, hormones and body systems get over-taxed and stretched, the result being patterns that aggravate Vata, the next stage of life and set us up for Vata-like problems, such as insomnia. A well-known Ayurvedic physician use to tell his patients, most of whom were in the Pitta stage of their lives, that they needed to be wary of too much “hurry, worry, and curry;” being fast-paced, not resolving troublesome emotions, and indulging their senses with strong foods and beverages.

So, if you are in this stage of life, take heed! Learn to chill out and shut down. Otherwise, be aware that payback is just around the corner.


After about fifty, until our mortal end, we are in the Vata stage of life. Known as the wind-like dosha, this is a combination of the tree/wood/or space element and the air/metal element in the five element schemata. We all begin to cool down and dry up. The heat of Pitta is subsiding and the metabolic processes that would burn away toxins, help us get over things with fevers, begins to subside. So, toxins stay with us longer and are harder to eliminate. Our bodies begin to slow down and do not respond as they did when we are young, but our brain – in many respects – does not age, at least in the same way. (Here we shall not address the issue of the epidemic of dementia.)

As the wind-like energy of Vata increases, our central nervous system is more and more stimulated. Our body is not moving as much and our mind is moving more. In traditional societies, this is the time of the sage, the wise person; someone who has time to rest and reflects and offers their pearls of wisdom. Sadly, in most post-industrial societies, once you hit fifty, you are just “over-the-hill.” What elders think is not that important. We are not even good consumers, with the exception of medication – and one of the medications often prescribed is for sleep and insomnia. With time on our hands and being considered of little value or consequence, it stands to reason that we have difficulty sleeping.

More to the point, if we have spent a life, doing, doing, doing, we do not know how to be. We have to distract ourselves from the stillness, try to fill in the time with games and activities that only bespeak our irrelevance in everyday life.

Yet, the potential of this time lies in learning how to effectively relax and meditate; i.e. going within. Hopefully, in our Pitta stage of life, we learned about these practices. Now is the time for to master them. Thus, the problems of rest and sleep in this stage of life, I contend, have more to do with how we define and do not know how to manage this stage of life.

In this time period, because of the higher levels of stimulation to our more cerebral activity, the nature of rest and sleep changes again. We may find that we rest plenty through the day, but do not need so much complete sleep at night. After all, our body is not working as hard or at least we have less activity than when you were in your Pitta stage of life. Rather than holding ourselves to our 8-hour routine and thinking that if we do not achieve this that we are pathologically risking full system breakdown, can we learn to tap into the rhythms that come with a new stage of life?

In Ayurveda, as it is understood that this Vata stage of life comes with this heightened sense of stimulation, practitioners encourage their clients to do self-oil massage daily. Oil nourishes and calms Vata. This activity alone, called abhyanga, can go a long way in taking care of what we think of as rest and sleep problems. This process of self-abhyanga will, again, be explained in the Appendices.

In this stage of life, to calm the winds, you are encouraged to eat warmer, cooked rather than raw foods in general. You can look at our other books on Ayurvedic lifestyle mentioned in the Bibliography to get a more complete explanation as to what is most useful in diet for this stage (as well as the other stages) of life. But one of the most important things to include in your diets are healthy fats, Omega 3 fatty acids, found in a wide variety of organic, cold-pressed vegetable oils. Such oils are considered in the tradition of Ayurveda to sooth the nervous system and nourish the brain. This is different from my recommendation earlier to not eat heavy, fatty foods just before bed.

The point in mentioning these doshas or energies of Ayurveda is to point out that the various stages of our life have their own rhythms, thus needs when it comes to sleep. We need to adapt, become resilient and resourceful. If we take the needs of these energetics in combination with the understanding of the Chinese clock, follow the rules about food, napping, relaxation exercises, exercise in general and develop ways to process constricting, difficult emotions, we go a long way in preparing ourselves to live a sleep enriched life.

About Robert Sachs

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Robert’s most formative education in oriental philosophies and healing arts began when he moved to England during his late teenage years. It was there that he received his B.A. in comparative religion and sociology at the University of Lancaster, began his studies with Tibetan Buddhist masters, and was introduced to the Asian healing arts with such reknown teachers as Macrobiotics master Michio Kushi and shiatsu master Rex Lassalle and began training in hatha yoga.  Before returning to America in 1976, Robert was certified as a hatha yoga instructor with the All India Board and Inner London education Authority.  He also completed a conventional training as a mental health counselor with the Richmond Fellowship College. A later stint in London saw Robert completing his shiatsu training with Rex Lassalle and being instrumental with his wife, Melanie, in starting the Community Health Foundation’s “Growing Family Center.”

“Start Your Day with A Good Night’s Sleep” is Robert Sachs newest offering. This book focuses on issues of sleeplessness, insomnia, and how to address the many issues that cause problems in getting good, deep rest. Physical and mental exercises are explained with clear instruction as well as how to create the optimal sleeping environment. Thus is a “how to” book that you will find useful for years to come and an excellent resource and guide for friends, loved ones, and clients.

Learn more about his new book, here.