Five Elements in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)

What is traditional Chinese medicine (TCM)?

        Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) consists of six types of modalities that have been evolving over thousands of years. It consists of acupuncture, cupping, moxibustion, Chinese herbs, Tui Na, and Qi Gong. TCM differs from Western medicine: instead of trying to heal individuals by focusing on science and medicine, they focus on maintaining and promoting balance and energy within the body. Although all the TCM modalities have the same purpose, each of them is very different from one another.

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History of the five elements

        The TCM theory of five elements was originally called the moving stars or planets. These elements were first called Xing and were later translated into the term “element.” Between the 4th and 6th century A.D., Taoist scholar-physicians expanded these five Xings into abstractive concepts by using basic materials such as wood, fire, earth, metal, and water, as their representatives. These five basic elements represent the relationship between the different elements in nature and the “Qi” that flows through them. Every person has their unique combination of these five elements, and they are always changing so there may be times where one element is more dominant and stronger than another.

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relationship between the elements

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        In TCM, it is widely known that all body parts are connected, so if one fails, the rest of the organs will fail. For an individual to be in their optimum health, all of these elements should be balanced. All five elements correlate by promoting or controlling each other. For example, wood promotes fire and controls the earth. Fire promotes the Earth and controls Metal. Earth promotes Metal and controls Water. Metal promotes Water and controls Wood, and lastly, Water promotes Wood and controls Fire. 

What are the five elements?

  • Wood Element

        Each element is identified with its own Zang-organ, Fu-organ, sense organ, and body constituents, etc. According to the Traditional Chinese Medicine World Foundation, the element of wood is related to Spring. The most important body organ in the wood element is the Liver. Then next in line would be the Gallbladder because it is a partner organ with Liver. In Spring, the energy of the Liver and the Gallbladder is the strongest because their energy is at its peak. The nature of the Liver is to freely move its energy upward and outward just like the branches of a tree. Liver is the most important body organ in the wood element because not only does it create a foundation for summer, but it also ensures consistent blood flow, recovers energy when at rest, and helps nourish muscles that are being used. Liver is very important when it comes to smoothing things out in the body such as Qi and blood. With a smooth flowing Liver Qi, food can be easily digested by Spleen/Stomach which helps sustain the body. For women specifically, Liver is super important because a pain-free menstrual cycle is based on the blood regulation and storage of Liver. Aside from Liver and Gallbladder, eyes, tendons, and nails are also connected to the wood element. If there were any issues with Liver, these body organs would be impaired and not be able to function properly or at their optimum function. 

  • fire element

        In the fire element, the most important body organ would be Heart because it is the powerhouse of individuals’ emotional and mental activity. The fire element is the strongest in summer and it strongly coincides with Yang because Yang represents light and warmth. With a balanced Heart, individuals would be more optimistic, enthusiastic, compassionate, creative, and expressive about themselves and their future. Nonetheless, the fire element also consists of Small Intestine, pulse, tongue, and face. 

  • earth element

        Moving forward to the earth element, the main body organ is Spleen (pancreas actually) which is a part of the digestive system. The pancreas produces insulin which allows cells to absorb glucose to supply the body much like people fostering crops on earth. The other body organs that relate to the earth element are Stomach, muscle, mouth, and lips. This element relates to the late summer season. Spleen and stomach play an important role in our overall health because they are the center of one’s health. While Spleen oversees making the body’s Qi and blood, it also transforms the food we eat into energy to other parts of the body. Therefore, if there was an issue with Spleen, our digestive, gynecological, or emotional systems would also have issues. In TCM, every organ has a spirit. So in this case, Spleen relates to the spirit called Yi which includes our thoughts and intellects. This spirit influences how we study, concentrate, memorize, etc. Because Spleen deals with our thoughts, the emotion connected with the earth element is pensive, which means deep thought. Meditation is one way to care for the health of Spleen. As listed below, we can also see that the earth element dislikes dampness. A few symptoms of dampness in the body include limb heaviness, dizziness or mental fogginess, digestive problems, etc. Since Spleen/Stomach are heavily impacted by dampness, healthy eating habit is very important to maintain its optimal function.

  • metal element

        The metal element’s main body organ is Lung because it is responsible for breathing by turning oxygen into carbon dioxide which is a metal-like attribute. The metal element also includes the Large Intestine, skin, noses, and body hair. This element relates to the autumn season. If there’s an imbalance within the metal element, it is most likely because Lung and Large Intestine are not working together. Prolonged grief, for example, can lead to Lung Qi deficiency with low immunity. Viral infection and poor air quality can also negatively impact Lung which may cause phlegm, dryness, or weakness. This is the reason why dryness is the metal element’s dislike. If there is a functional issue with Lung and Large Intestine, symptoms like constipation and asthma can occur. Lung controls the outermost layer of Qi which is called Wei Qi. This is a first-line defensive Qi that protects us from any foreign pathogens. Especially during the current COVID-19 pandemic, our lungs require more care and attention. Acupuncture and Chinese herbs are powerful tools that can strengthen this Qi even more.

  • water element

        Lastly, the water element’s most important body organ is Kidney because its function is to filter waste from the body for removal while producing urine. The water that is excreted from kidneys gives them water-type characteristics. The water element is connected with the winter season and should be able to move smoothly. Aside from Kidney, the water element also consists of the Gladder, bone, ears, and hair. Similar to Kidney, Gallbladder also has a role in fluid regulation. If Kidney function is weak, our body will experience symptoms like weak knees or low back pain. Kidney is also known as the Storehouse of the Vital Essence because it triggers all the functions within the body, mind, and spirit. The reason why fear is tied with the water element is that fear is vital to survival. It allows individuals to make the correct choices during certain situations. Kidney also provides the willpower to get through obstacles to reach our goals. This is similar to how fear drives us to work through obstacles to live our life to the fullest.

Looking at the table, we can see that apart from the organs that we have listed above for each element, each element also has other unique attributes such as flavor, emotion, lustre, strain, and dislike. 

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Personalities of each element

        The characteristics that are tied to these elements create their personalities. For example, the wood element is very goal-oriented and an entrepreneur. The Fire element would be the entertainer. The Earth element is the caretaker. The Metal element is a perfectionist and the Water element is the philosopher or dreamer. As mentioned, each individual would have a balance of all these elements inside of them. There just may be times where one element is stronger than the other.

References

 

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Traditional Chinese Medicine World Foundation. (2020). The wood element. https://www.tcmworld.org/wood-element/