What are the 5 elements of Chinese medicine?
The 5 elements in Chinese medicine are a way of looking at how qualities and changes manifest energetically and physically within the human body as well as within the world at large.
The 5 elements are a way to divide everything in this world into 5 categories of functioning that interrelate with each other. This is a basic tenant of Chinese Philosophy and culture in general.
The 5 are: earth, metal, water, wood and fire. These elements in our bodies manifest with earth as the spleen and stomach, metal is the lung and large intestine, water is our kidney and bladder, wood is our liver and gall bladder, fire is our heart and small intestine.
The elements create each other in that order.
Earth creates metal, metal creates water and so on. They also control each other. Earth controls water, water controls fire, fire controls metal, metal controls wood and wood controls earth.
Right now the phase we are leaving is the fire phase which corresponds with the summertime, a time of growth, abundance, light, warmth. The associated organ is the heart and the associated emotion is joy. The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine written about 2,200 years ago and still studied today has this to say about the energetics of the fire phase:
“In the three months of summer there is an abundance of sunshine and rain. The heavenly energy descends, and the earthly energy rises. When these energies merge, there is intercourse between heaven and earth. As a result, plants mature and animals, flowers, and fruit appear abundantly.
One may retire somewhat later at this time of year, while still arising early. One should refrain from anger and stay physically active, to prevent the pores from closing and the qi from stagnating. One should not overindulge in sex, although one can indulge a bit more than in other seasons. Emotionally it is important to be happy and easygoing and not hold on to grudges, so that the energy can flow freely.”
The fire phase declines and gives way to the metal phase which is the energy of autumn and dryness. The sun is setting earlier and the weather is getting cooler. It’s the time for harvest and preparing for winter. The associated organ is the lung and the associated emotion is grief. Energetically everything is moving inward and downward, a kind of decline from the height of summer. From the Yellow Emperors classic, “The three months of autumn are the period in which the shapes of everything are formed. The energy of Heaven begins to blow swiftly, the energy of Earth begins to change color. It is desirable to sleep early and get up early with the crowing of the rooster, to maintain a peaceful will in order to slow down the killing effects of autumn, to constrict the energy of spirits in order to calm down the energy of autumn, to refrain from moving outward in order to clean up the energy of lungs. This is the way of nourishing life in response to the energy of autumn. To act to the contrary will cause injuries to the lungs and one will suffer diarrhea with undigested foods in winter, because one will be bound to be short of energy to cope with the winter.”
In our bodies each element represents organs, qualities and functions.
For example, the earth element its sweet, is where nourishment comes from, is the basis and ground for our lives, that which everything revolves around: our digestive systems, the spleen and stomach.
We use this system to figure out how to nudge the body into certain lines of changes. So for example if the earth element is weak, say showing diarrhea, tiredness and easy bruising we would strengthen the element which creates earth, fire, as well as directly strengthen the earth itself. This strategy uses certain acupuncture point combinations or herbal formulas. Whereas if the earth element is weak showing symptoms of abdominal pain followed by diarrhea we would look to strengthen the earth directly while also redirecting the wood energy which is over-controlling the earth. Or if there are weak earth symptoms along with seasonal allergies we would treat the lung and metal element along with strengthening the earth which creates metal.
It all sounds romantic, but grouping things and processes in this five fold way pans out in the real world. It is a way of making sense which groups these things together: wood, spring, sunrise, the east, sprouting plants and the sap rising, our liver, blood, tendons, the sour flavor, and the color green.
pivotal point oriental medicine, Faribault Minnesota