There is a frustrating and all-too-common phenomenon that plagues many a sleeper. It goes something like this: Falling asleep is no problem, but in the early morning hours, one wakes up agitated and restless. This can last up to an hour or two before finally falling back asleep. Upon rising is the feeling of being unrested, what we call “non-restorative sleep” in integrative medicine.
If this describes your sleep cycle, here are two related explanations that directly lead to actionable strategies to help you sleep through the night. The first is the traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) theory that posits that the body’s vital energy peaks in two-hour timeframes as it circulates through the body. Between 1 and 3 a.m. is when Liver function is most active. This concurs with Western biomedical physiology that understands that the body performs much of its repair and detoxification while asleep.
This brings up an important distinction that must be made at this juncture. TCM capitalizes an organ name when we’re referring to it in Eastern medicine. This delineates the TCM organ and its holistic relationship with body, mind, emotions, and spirit. Thus, lowercase “liver” is the organ as we think of it in Western terms and our understanding of its physiology. There is overlap between the two medical paradigms. Both recognize the liver’s capacity to cleanse the body of toxicants, but the Eastern model upholds that the Liver is also responsible for cleansing our system of toxic thoughts and emotions.
Waking around 3 a.m., at the end of Liver time, suggests that the body has worked hard processing environmental and emotional stressors. Dreams are more pronounced during the early morning hours as unresolved issues from the days and weeks prior play out in bizarre and disturbing dreamscapes. This alone can wake us up with a racing heart and mind, but a Western understanding of liver function grants another perspective to connect the dots.
The liver stores glycogen as a quick fuel source to tide metabolism over in between meals. This will provide about 12 hours of accessible glucose (sugar) after which the body breaks down adipose tissue (body fat) and liberates ketones for fuel. With a healthy and flexible metabolism, this shift is seamless, and fasting for several hours is uneventful. If metabolism depends on sugar for fuel, the transition elicits a stress response by the body whereby the adrenal glands release the hormone cortisol to raise blood sugar.
A drop in blood sugar is a root cause of waking in the night, stemming from Liver’s increased need for energy to metabolize life in the form of dreams as well as the liver’s demand for fuel to detoxify pollutants.