In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), we frequently talk about the Five Elements – but what exactly are these mysterious “elements”? The Five Elements refer to 5 fundamental forces of nature – these forces play out in our bodies and in the rhythms of the natural world. The Five Elements offer a way for me, as an acupuncturist, to understand the complex relationships at play between various energy systems in your body. Each energy system in the body (and therefore each meridian), represents one of these elements. There are delicately paired meridians in each of these 5 elements, representing two sides of the elemental force (a Yin side and a Yang side.) There is also a complex system of correspondences with each of the 5 elements, including tastes, smells, body types, sounds, seasons, colors, etc – that correlate with each of the elements, and help me as an acupuncturist diagnose and treat whatever systems are out of balance in you.
For me, the best way to understand the 5 elements is to understand the seasons. Spring – Summer – “Indian Summer” – Fall – Winter is the cycle of the natural world. It is also the cycle of the elements generating one another: Wood – Fire – Earth – Metal – Water.
The Wood element is the energy of expansion, of growth. It wants to move upward and outward, to expand, to flow. It is the energy of new buds bursting forth in the springtime. We have this same energy in our bodies, and in TCM, we call this energy the Liver energy and the Gall Bladder energy. When we do not allow it to flow properly – from inactivity, stress, or poor diet – then pathologies relating to the Wood element arise. Common symptoms of such imbalance include headaches, migraines, tight neck and shoulders, a “nervous stomach”, menstrual irregularity or pain, tension and stress, rib pain, ringing in the ears, waking in the middle of the night.
Wood generates fire. It is easy to see this in the natural world – think of a forest fire. The energy of the Fire element is hot, rising. It can be warm, joyful, and nurturing, but also erratic and restless. In TCM, there are 4 energy systems associated with the Fire element – the Heart and Pericardium, and also the Small Intestine and “Triple Heater” (which can be thought of as an energy that helps govern metabolism, fluids, and immunity). When the Wood energy is compromised, the Fire is not nourished the way it should be. When there is a pathology in the Fire element, common medical symptoms include symptoms of our mental-emotional faculties (such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, bipolar disorder, sleep disorders, etc), or problems with heat and temperature regulation.
Fire, after it burns, generates Earth. Earth is the time in between summer and fall. It is harvest, it is root vegetables, squashes, pumpkins. Earth is a balancing energy – it is our center, it is our grounding force. Earth is the digestive energy in our bodies – the Spleenand the Stomach. When the Earth energy in our bodies is weak, we have troubledigesting – this manifests on a physical level as problems such as bloating, reflux, ulcers, IBS, constipation, or loose stools. On a mental/emotional level, this manifests as problems digesting information, such as trouble focusing, memory issues, excessively worrying about certain things while disregarding others, or certain learning challenges.
In the Five Element cycle of generation, as we move from one element to another, the next element is the force of Metal. Metal is the element of the fall. Its energy is one of slowly turning inward and downward, of storing up for winter. It is about shields, and boundaries, and strengthening our exterior for the winter ahead. In our bodies, the Metal energy systems are the Lung and Large Intestine. Both of these systems are particularly susceptible to outside pathogens during the Fall, which is why so many people come down sick when the weather changes and the days get colder and shorter. The Lung energy controls our immunity, our outside shield against sickness. And the Metal element is associated with grief in Chinese Medicine – grief weakens these defenses and allows us to get sick more easily.
Water is the last element in the Cycle. It is the energy of stillness, of deep inward turning, of quiet, of death. It is the end of the yearly cycle, only to have the next cycle be born again each spring. Water is the energy of winter – of quiet snowy woods, of stillness. Water is the deepest energy in the body – we talk in Chinese Medicine about how it is the seed of all Yin and all Yang within our bodies. We talk about the Water element as being related to the energy of the Kidneys and the Bladder. Pathologies effecting these energy systems include problems with hormone regulation, fear, water passages, and bone. Water pathologies tend to be deeper-rooted, and take longer to heal, as everything moves slower in the winter.
Out of water, wood is born – think of placing seeds in water and growing sprouts. This is the cycle beginning again.
Understanding the energies of the Five Elements allows me to understand some of the complex relationships at play within our bodies, between different physiological systems. As outlined above, the elements generate one another. This is symbolized by the arrows creating a circle, in the image on the right. The arrows in the center, creating a star, symbolize other relationships at play between these forces. Each element controls another, and in turn is controlled by yet another element. So you can easily see how an imbalance in one system creates an imbalance in another. A good example of this that we see in clinic is represented in the Chinese Herbal formula Xiao Yao San. The details of that are explained here.
The Five Elements, to me, are a useful tool to understand my patients. They are also an astute and beautiful observation of the natural world, and a powerful statement about how we are not distinct from the world around us, but part and parcel of the whole.