Five Elements: The Basics

The five elements can be found in all walks of life. They may be translated into foods and scents, seasons and weather, sights and colors … even behaviors/habits, actions, and words. The elements are found in the ‘voice’ of the interactions of life, and through intimate knowledge of the elements and their interactions, balance may be found. For example, if a life habit has one eating too many ‘hot-fiery’ foods, imbalance may result. To counter this imbalance, foods of an opposing element should be consumed for a time, or adapted into dietary habits to aide in bringing the system (and/or the meal) into balance.

Over centuries, Traditional Chinese Medicine has evolved into intricate systems through which one may view the natural world. One of these is the Five Elements. This elegant creation is the product of ancient Taoist physicians expanding upon the concepts of Yin and Yang. Maintaining the Yin/Yang paradigm, the Five Element System enfolds all natural phenomena, correlating them to the Five Elements of Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. Each element contains Yin and Yang aspects, thus maintaining the underlying principles of duality and unity so fundamental and central to Chinese thought.

Five Elements Overview

  • A classic example used for centuries to illustrate the Five Elements is the cycle of the seasons.

  • Wood corresponds to spring, the time of flourishing warmth that leads into summer, the Element of Fire.

  • Earth follows in the cycle and presents as Long Summer, showing the very beginnings of transition from the heat of summer to the growing coolness and shortening of days of

  • fall which corresponds to the Element of Metal.

  • Winter, the Element of Water, follows fall, and is represented by the darkness and coldness. And naturally, winter leads to spring, where the cycle starts all over again.

Traditional Chinese Medicine uses the Five Element viewpoint (it may also use the 8 Principles, 4 Pillars, or many other diagnostic tools, skills, and knowledge) to develop diagnostic and treatment strategies; the ancient Chinese realized no one diagnostic or treatment paradigm fits all situations. Thus the Five Elements evolved to correspond and have something to say regarding all physiological, anatomical, and pathological processes we encounter as we move through the cycles of change in a lifetime.

Qualities of the Five Elements

Each of the Five Elements has specific qualities distinguishing it and giving it a particular appearance.

  1. Wood - Qualities: Growing, expanding, flexibility - Organ System: Liver & Gall Bladder

  2. Fire - Qualities: Hot, dry, ascending, moving - Organ System: Heart & Small Intestine

  3. Earth - Qualities: Nourishing, fertile, productive - Organ System: Spleen & Stomach

  4. Metal - Qualities: Hard, cutting, discerning - Organ System: Lungs & Lg. Intestine

  5. Water - Qualities: Cool, descending, yielding, moist - Organ System: Kidney & Urinary Bladder

Correspondences of the Five Elements in Nature and the Body (Organs)

and Expressions of the Five Elements in the 5 Major Organ Systems

Traditional Chinese Medicine uses the energy of each of the Elements to assess the balance or imbalance of each of the organ systems. Using the Five Element correspondences helps us to understand how to maintain balance within our systems. Through observation, we learn to discern how the Elements interact with each other, for the essential understanding of the interconnectedness of all things applies deeply to the different physical, emotional and psychospiritual aspects of who we are. Below are some examples of using the Five Elements to help keep our organ systems healthy and some correlation information for the Five Elements.

 
The  Liver : Season -  Spring ; Color -  Green

The Liver: Season - Spring; Color - Green

Liver

Traditional Chinese Medicine views the Liver as the General in charge of commanding the ‘troops’. In this case, the ‘troops’ represent various types and functions of Qi (energy - life force) in the body, and the General’s job is to ensure all the troops are doing their job in a smooth and dynamic way.

The Liver is the organ most easily affected by stress or negative emotions, and thus a good strategy for maintaining a healthy Liver is to express your emotions in an appropriately and mindfully. This will keep the ‘troops’ moving in a thoughtful and smooth manner!

Element: WOOD

Season: Spring

Climate: Windy

Direction: East

Emotion: Anger

Sound: Shout

Color: Green

Taste: Sour

Yin Organ: Liver

Yang Organ: Gall Bladder

Orifices: Eyes

Tissues: Tendons

Fluids: Tears

The  Heart : Season -  Summer ; Color -  Red

The Heart: Season - Summer; Color - Red

Heart

The Heart is the seat of consciousness in Traditional Chinese Medicine. The Five Element emotions of happiness, love, and a state of equanimity, are often associated with a Heart in balance. As with the Liver, stress or lack of the expression of one’s creative potential can directly impact this organ’s function. So, express yourself and do what you love. This will bloom the Heart open to its potential … and your friends and family will appreciate your positive energy!

Element: FIRE

Season: Summer

Climate: Hot

Direction: South

Emotion: Joy

Sound: Laugh

Color: Red

Taste: Bitter

Yin Organ: Heart

Yang Organ: Small Intestine

Orifices: Tongue

Tissues: Blood

Fluids: Sweat

The  Spleen : Season -  Late Summer ; Color -  Yellow

The Spleen: Season - Late Summer; Color - Yellow

Spleen

Traditional Chinese Medicine views the Spleen as the organ overseeing and orchestrating the entire digestive process. Chronic stress, worry, and over thinking can damage the Spleen’s function and lead to digestive issues. Do you have digestive issues? Eating too much raw and cold foods can also tax the Spleen. Eat warm and nourishing foods, get plenty of exercise … and try to stop worrying!

Element: Earth

Season: Late Summer

Climate: Damp

Direction: Center

Emotion: Worry

Sound: Sing

Color: Yellow

Taste: Sweet

Yin Organ: Spleen

Yang Organ: Stomach

Orifices: Mouth

Tissues: Muscle

Fluids: Saliva

The  Lung : Season -  Fall ; Color -  White

The Lung: Season - Fall; Color - White

Lung

The Lungs are the ‘delicate’ organ in Traditional Chinese Medicine and are responsible for our ability to take in oxygen, nourishing every cell. Grief and sadness are the emotions most often negatively impacting the Lungs. Deep breathing is an ancient technique (there are many breathing techniques) for helping balance Lung energy. And the Lungs are partnered with the Large Intestine, and thus ‘letting go’ of things that no longer serve us is a good way .. these organs, together as a single organ-system in TCM, free the body of physical and emotional baggage.

Element: Metal

Season: Fall

Climate: Dry

Direction: West

Emotion: Grief

Sound: Weep

Color: White

Taste: Pungent

Yin Organ: Lungs

Yang Organ: Large Intestine

Orifices: Nose

Tissues: Skin

Fluids: Mucous

The  Kidney : Season -  Winter ; Color -  Black

The Kidney: Season - Winter; Color - Black

Kidney

The Kidney is the repository of energy for the body, supplying needed Qi to all the organs when necessary. Getting enough rest is essential for helping to maintain Kidney energy balance. The Five Element emotion associated with the Kidney is fear. Fear is a deep-seated emotion, central - realized or not - to much of existence as it is dictated through thought and action. Fear, when welcomed and addressed with discernment, can become a strength in the affairs of your daily life. Be aware. Be calm. Rest.

Element: Metal

Season: Winter

Climate: Cold

Direction: North

Emotion: Fear

Sound: Groan

Color: Black

Taste: Salty

Yin Organ: Kidney

Yang Organ: Urinary Bladder

Orifices: Ears

Tissues: Bones

Fluids: Urine