A Discussion of the Five Element Theory and Applications to Life – Seasons, Diet, Relations and Wellbeing

To continue our foray into a better understanding of Chinese Medicine and its usefulness within our lives, this article will explore the five element system – or the “system of correspondences.” This article is in many ways a proper follow up to our recent discussions of each of the main organ systems in Chinese Medicine (the heart, spleen, lungs, kidneys, and liver) as we touched on aspects of this theory within those articles. The five elements theory is a useful way to help us re-integrate (even though just our minds and habits may have left) ourselves back into the natural world and to understand our relationships with the seasons, our emotions, our health, and ultimately with ourselves and our society. While it may sound like an incredibly useful theory, which it is, it is also crucial to not take it too far. As with many theory systems it is best used as a pointer and a guide rather than definitive truth. With the proper caveats the five element system can open us up to a better understanding of who we are and how best to live in the world.

When did the Five Element theory originate?

The first recorded references to the five element theory appear within Chinese texts from the warring states period which dates from 476-221 BC. While those are the first recorded descriptions, in reality the five element theory is largely based on common sense observance and aspects of the theory would have been understood by people naturally. Wood burns and creates fire, water nourishes trees and plants (wood), the summer is hot (fire), the winter is cool (water), etc. The formalization of the theory happens over time as it was used more in a medical context as well as in political, religious, and social contexts.

For our purposes here I am going to focus on the medical/personal aspects of the system and leave the historical/political uses to the history books. Suffice it to say that many of the historical/political uses were in violation of my caveat above in not taking this theory too far – not that they would have know then or that I am of sufficient intelligence to judge their actions… However, an example of possibly taking the theory too far is ancient philosophers associating particular rulers with a given element and coordinating ceremonies and societal planning based on these relationships.  As you will see the five element theory is a useful modality to bring greater awareness of our relationships with ourselves, eachother and the natural world.  It cannot, however, explain every minute detail of our lives…

What are the Five Elements?

The five elements are Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood. Each of the elements has correspondences with the seasons, foods, emotional states, diseases, senses, etc. We will discuss these relationships in more detail beginning with the chart below from our five element theory and applications in acupuncture section.

FIRE
EARTH
METAL
WATER
WOOD
Yin OrgansHeart &
Pericardium
SpleenLungsKidneysLiver
Yang OrgansSmall Intestine &
Triple Heater
StomachLarge IntestineUrinary BladderGall Bladder
Sense OrgansTongueMouthNoseEarsEyes
TissuesVesselsMusclesSkinBoneTendons
TastesBitterSweetPungentSaltySour
Colorsredyellowwhiteblue/blackgreen
SoundsLaughingSingingCryingGroaningShouting
Odorscorchedfragrantrottenputridrancid
EmotionsJoyWorry/PensivenessGrief/SadnessFearAnger
SeasonsSummerLate SummerAutumnWinterSpring
EnvironmentHeatDampnessDrynessColdWind
Developmental StagesGrowthTransformationHarvestStorageBirth
Directionsouthcenterwestnortheast
Body Typespointed features
small hands
quick energetic
large features
strong legs
calm generous
triangular features
strong voice
meticulous, strong willed
round features
strong digestion
loyal, enjoy movement
tall slender
strong bones and joints
hard workers

How do the Five Elements relate to the Seasons?

As you can see from the chart, we see the following Seasonal and Climactic Correspondences:

  • Fire (Heart) – corresponds with the Summer and Heat
  • Metal (Lung) – corresponds with Autumn or “Fall” and Dryness
  • Water (Kidneys) – corresponds with Winter and Coldness
  • Wood (Liver) – corresponds with Spring and Wind

If you notice the earth element appears to be missing a season. The Earth element (the Spleen) corresponds with the change of the seasons (and in some texts as “Indian Summer”) and with the climatic influence of dampness. In clinical reality the earth element is about the vulnerability that happens during the change of the seasons. The spleen system being an important part of our strength and energy overall must be maintained in order for our body to adjust to a new season.  And, as we have discussed in previous articles, dampness both in our environment and due to poor dietary habits leads to many health problems (see My Spleen is What? for more information).

What does this mean to me?

Nothing yet! We will get into the interplay of the elements in more detail later, for now, however, it is interesting to begin noting our natural relationships as described by the elements. Here are a few more correspondences so we can better analyze how this works together towards our physical and mental health…

Correspondences with our Senses:

  • Fire (Heart) – corresponds with our Tongue
  • Earth (Spleen) – corresponds with our Mouth
  • Metal (Lung) – corresponds with our Nose
  • Water (Kidneys) – corresponds with our Ears
  • Wood (Liver) – corresponds with our Eyes

We can note here that in fall if our lung system is weak we are prone to colds, flus and allergies. If our kidney system is weak we may have poor hearing and/or tinnitus. A stagnant liver may lead to blurry vision or poor night vision, etc. These are “simple” relationships to disease conditions as we have not yet explored how the elements relate to one another. They are provided simply to offer context to the discussion.

Correspondences with our Physical Body:

  • Fire (Heart) – corresponds with our Heart and Pericardium Organs and our Blood Vessels
  • Earth (Spleen) – corresponds with our Spleen and Stomach Organs and our Muscles
  • Metal (Lung) – corresponds with our Lung and Large Intestine Organs and our Skin
  • Water (Kidneys) – corresponds with our Kidneys and Urinary Bladder Organs and our Bones
  • Wood (Liver) – corresponds with our Liver and Gall Bladder Organs and our Ligaments/Sinews

We can note here that a weak heart leads to circulatory problems, digestive problems may lead to poor development, a congested Liver may lead to tight tendons and stiffness. Again, as simple examples…

Correspondences with our Tastes:

  • Fire (Heart) – corresponds with the Bitter flavor
  • Earth (Spleen) – corresponds with the Sweet flavor
  • Metal (Lung) – corresponds with the Pungent flavor
  • Water (Kidneys) – corresponds with the Salty flavor
  • Wood (Liver) – corresponds with the Sour flavor

Simple, direct examples of these relationships can be seen in why we want sweets when our energy is low (weak spleen – earth element) or why an excess of salty foods interrupts the function of the water element (kidneys) and may lead to hypertension. These also correspond with food categories in TCM dietary therapy. That is foods are divided by flavor (as are herbs) in Chinese Medicine. Applying this theory to our dietary habits is a way of using food for medicine (which it is) perhaps in a more guided and better informed way that we have access to in our western history. For a more detailed presentation read our TCM dietary therapy section, particularly the five element nutrition section.

Finally, the Correspondences with our Emotions:

  • Fire (Heart) – corresponds with the emotion of Joy
  • Earth (Spleen) – corresponds with the emotion of Worry/Pensiveness
  • Metal (Lung) – corresponds with the emotion of Grief/Sadness
  • Water (Kidneys) – corresponds with the emotion of Fear
  • Wood (Liver) – corresponds with the emotion of Anger

Our emotions (and all of the other relationships) pertain to either excessive experiences of the related emotion or an inability to express them. For example, excessive anger can arise from a stagnant liver (or contribute to it) – but the inability to express anger can come from a weak liver system. A weak spleen (earth element) can be related to certain types of depression, Heart and Spleen Qi Deficiency as a clinical example.

Now before you avoid my initial recommendation about taking the theory too far and stop eating salt to help your fearfulness or eat a bunch of dark chocolate to ease your depressed and worried emotional state, let’s discuss how the elements interact…

How Do The Five Elements Relate to Eachother?

five-element-generating-cycleNow that we have a description of some of the basic correspondences we can discuss theory on how the elements relate to one another. While there are other relationships as you get further into the theory I am going to limit our discussion to the two most basic interactions – what is known as the generating cycle and the control cycle. These two charts below give a visual representation of these theories.

ke_cycleHow May I Use These Relationships to Better Apply Five Element Theory?

The relationships are in many ways about respect, awareness and moderation – concepts which are far too often distant from our minds in our modern world. The generating cycle (also called the mother-son relationship) describes a process of mutual support from element to element. For example, by having a good diet and eating in moderation (i.e. benefiting the earth element) we will have energy to support our metal element (our lungs). The metal element provides good immunity and facilitates proper circulation of our energy, and so on….

As you may have already figured out, problems may arise when either the mother is weak (cannot provide for her son) or the son is too immoderate and wastes all of her money on candy and videogames (sound familiar!?)… A real life example is illustrated by a stagnant liver from too much stress and an unhealthy lifestyle. A stagnant liver can not feed the heart leading to depression, anxiety, etc. and it will pull too much energy from the kidneys leading to fatigue, sexual problems, and more.  And for many of us that clinical depiction strikes right at home… On the other side of the equation a poor diet leads to dampness which then weakens the lungs leading to asthma and/or allergies (why people with allergies need to watch their diet and avoid dairy particularly) – see my Lungs are What? article for more information on that subject.

The control cycle (also called the grandparent-grandchild relationship) is perhaps best described as the bodies backup plan. When the mother can no longer control her son she asks her mother (the grandparent) for help. To continue with the liver stagnation (i.e. stress) example from above – the kidneys are weakened in part because they use their water to try to control the fire (heart – anxiety) as the liver is no longer providing the proper generative function. If this continues for a long period of time you then end up with a stagnant liver, heart fire burning out of control and weak kidneys (no cooling aspect of the body) which can translate as nightsweats, low libido, fertility problems, and more.

Awareness of the Elements, Aids Us In Fostering Health…

Health, then, requires that all of the elements are given their due respect, honored in the ways that benefit them individually and collectively.

This implies quite a bit of commonsense that we already “know” but less often “act” on. That is the key to health is to control our emotions, eat in season and in moderation, to respect and acknowledge different seasons and climactic factors and to respect our senses.

How Do I Apply This Theory on A Societal/Relationship Level?

On a personal level this makes sense and provides some good theories to bring our awareness towards. On a societal/relationship level, however, we can further apply these theories. We start by first acknowledging that our problems are generally no different from everyone elses – that is we are all human and live more or less under the same universal conditions. This thought alone provides for compassion towards ourselves and others which is an antidote to stress, anger and hostility. A slightly more analytical way of using the theory is to try to understand the specific imbalance that others have.

Now this article is not long enough to get into this application with any incredible detail – our section on forming a diagnosis with classical five element acupuncture goes a bit further for those who are interested. For our purposes here suffice it to say that many of us, personality wise, will fall into a particular element as a whole. That is we will tend to act and be primarily affected by the relationships of one element more than any other.  The water element person lives with fear and needs reassurance, for example, the liver element person may be a bit pushy and easily irritated (similar to Type “A” personalities), and so forth. Understanding the other person may help you to (a) not push all of their respective buttons and (b) to learn how to dissipate the imbalances that they have without dissipating yourself in the process.

For a simplified example of this, let’s take the wood type person (liver) – within a relationship they may not do well with a fearful/water type person as their anger would drain the other person – they may also not do well with a fire/heart person who might feed off of the anger and become very anxious or depressed (just as our own body would). They may, however, do well with their grandparent element (earth in this case) who is solid and grounded and provides a safe landing pad for their bouts of frustration and spurts of outgoing energy.

Now we all cannot control who we are around but a quick analysis of our co-workers and other associates can allow us to adapt our behavior slightly to “make the world a better place” so to speak. For example, getting angry at a liver/wood/angry person does nothing to help the situation nor does scaring a kidney/water type. As in our body, our personal relationships are no different with respect to the five element theory. We speak assuredly and calmly to the water person and they feel heard and are happy, we speak plainly with groundedness and a neutral tone to the liver person and they calm down and feel acknowledged.

While those are general examples, I hope this article helps you to understand the basic concepts and their practicality.  Obviously this is not all that easy to apply without both some training and enough awareness and practice to have some flexibility with the applications. Generally, however, it allows us to understand our lifestyle, diet, and relationships in a way that helps us to maintain awareness of our impact on others, on ourselves, as well as the impact our environment (personal, seasonal, etc.) has on us. With my initial caveat about not taking the theory too far, the five element theory can help foster health and wellbeing on every level of our lives.


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