5 Elements in Chinese Medicine

5 Elements: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, Water on the Beachside Blog

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Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has a very different way of viewing the body that includes a variety of parameters. Yin and Yang set a foundation for diagnosing and treating imbalances, but the Five Element Theory provides even more insight. The Five Elements in TCM are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water, and each has interactions with the others as well connections to everything from animals to planets and more. While we're not going to dive into the Elements' relationships to each other or list ALL of correspondences each has - there are a lot! - we will cover those that are the most useful in day-to-day life. We've already written about tastes and emotions in previous posts, but here are a few others...

Organ Systems

TCM sees the organs from a different perspective, more as sets of functions than physical objects. A Licensed Acupuncturist may find that you have a Liver disharmony - many people do - but that doesn't mean anything is wrong with your liver from a Western medical standpoint. Therefore, if you notice that you have many signs of an imbalance in a particular organ, there's no need for alarm! Just use that knowledge as a starting point to adjust your diet, lifestyle, etc. 

  • Wood: Liver and Gallbladder
  • Fire: Heart and Small Intestine (and often Pericardium and San Jiao)
  • Earth: Spleen and Stomach
  • Metal: Lungs and Large Intestine
  • Water: Kidneys and Urinary Bladder

Pathogenic Factors

Millennia ago, practitioners didn't know about bacteria and viruses, so pathogens were often related back to the environment. Each Element has a pathogenic factor to which it's the most vulnerable. For instance, you've probably felt your respiratory system affected by dryness in the form of nosebleeds or discomfort in your nasal cavity.

  • Wood: Wind
  • Fire: Heat
  • Earth: Dampness
  • Metal: Dryness
  • Water: Cold

Seasons

Every Element also has an associated time of the year...

  • Wood: Spring
  • Fire: Summer
  • Earth: Late summer (or some say the short time between each season)
  • Metal: Autumn
  • Water: Winter

Sense Organs

Having an issue with one of the sense organs in your head? There may be a local reason - i.e. you can't hear because you ruptured your eardrum - or it might relate back to a Five Element imbalance.

  • Wood: Eyes
  • Fire: Tongue
  • Earth: Mouth
  • Metal: Nose
  • Water: Ears

Body Tissues

Are these associations starting to seem random? To some extent, acupuncture students simply need to memorize them, but on a closer look they do have a deeper logic. Going back to Metal and Dryness, in addition to experiencing a dry nose at some point in your life, you've probably also had dry skin, right?

  • Wood: Tendons
  • Fire: Blood vessels
  • Earth: Muscles
  • Metal: Skin
  • Water: Bones

External Manifestations

An imbalance in one of the Elements may also appear as something you can physically see. For example, the vital substances housed in our Kidney system tend to gradually decline with age but can decline more rapidly if someone runs himself or herself down. If your mother told you that she was getting gray hairs trying to keep up with you as a child, now you know why.

  • Wood: Nails
  • Fire: Complexion
  • Earth: Lips
  • Metal: Hair (body)
  • Water: Hair (head)

Colors

If you're wondering how to correct imbalances, this is the section you've been waiting for! While colors can be used diagnostically, they're also a great way to pick foods to boost specific body systems. Think leafy vegetables for the Liver (by the way, Western research agrees), sweet potatoes for the Spleen, and black beans for the Kidneys.

  • Wood: Green
  • Fire: Red
  • Earth: Yellow (or orange)
  • Metal: White
  • Water: Black (or dark)
"Use the Five Elements to better understand and treat your body" over wood, metal, fire, earth, water on the Beachside Blog
Your body WANTS to feel balanced.

Concerned that you have a disharmony in one of the Elements? Never fear, acupuncture can help! There is a branch of TCM called Five Element Acupuncture that focuses specifically on them, but in general any Licensed Acupuncturist is going to incorporate this theory into his or her treatment plan. This post was meant to give you a little more understanding of the amazing connections within your body and maybe elucidate some of your acupuncturist's point choices. If you'd like to learn more about personality and body typing with Five Element Theory, we highly recommend the book Between Heaven and Earth: A Guide to Chinese Medicine, especially because it has an easy quiz included within it. Otherwise just know that your body is constantly giving you clues to what it needs, and it's within your hands to help it function at its best.

Kathleen Ellerie is a Licensed Acupuncturist and the owner of Beachside Community Acupuncture. She loves providing affordable acupuncture to the residents of Addison, Dallas, and Farmers Branch, Texas, and educating the general public on how acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine can treat everything from pain to infertility to stress and beyond. Click "Book Now" at the top of this page to book an appointment or feel free to contact her at (214) 417-2260.