5 Elements of Traditional Chinese Medicine
Learn how the 5 elements co-exist to create balance and harmony, and how they offer us a map to navigate our internal and external landscapes.
Earth, Water, Fire, Metal and Wood — the five great elements revered in Traditional Chinese Medicine and many other asian cultures are believed to be the fundamental roots of life.
There are many similarities between TCM and Ayurveda, and in fact, the Chinese Five elements theory was based and was born from Ayurveda.
The essence of the five elements is enshrined in the understanding of relationships, inter-connectedness, movement and balance Everything is intricately connected and harmony is only truly possible when all five elements are in balance.
Similar to Ayurveda, TCM five element theory is based on observing nature's constant rhythmic flow, its a cycle of endless growth and decay. Everything in the natural world is governed and affected by the flow of these elements, including ourselves.
Drawing on similarities seen in Ayurveda, each of us has constitutional tendencies which remain with us throughout life. However, these are fluid and will increase or decrease depending on the seasons, the time of day, and our experiences.
Each one of the five elements stands independently but is intricately connected with the others. Each gives rise to the next then falls away in a continual process of creation and decay, with phase being as important as the one that precedes and proceeds it.
The Elements & The Seasons
Each season is associated with one the elements:
Fire ~ Summer
Earth~ Late Summer
Each season is born from the fullness of the one that came before. If, for whatever reason, one season fails to find its full expression, it has a knock-on effect on all the other seasons.
For examples, we can trace summer's fruitful abundance to the previous autumn. If the necessary shedding had not been thoroughly completed, the energy required by the plant seeds to be nurtured by winter's stillness will be hindered and unable to reach its potential the following spring. In the same way. spring's new growth would present as stilted, fractured, chaotic even and be unable to fully transition into an vibrant summer.
Just like the seasons, each element has an indirect relationship with the other.
Nature and the seasons are cyclical and so too are we. The same rhythms that govern the seasons influence us on every level of our being. Year by year, month by month, day by day, moment by moment.
There was a time when we lived by the seasons. We rose with the sun and retreated with the inky sky. Seasons dictated the pace of our lives. We listened, we observed, we felt. Today, many of us are so far removed from nature, we are oblivious to the seasonal shifts that take place within us.
We have forgotten the fact that we, just like nature, are cyclical beings. We move through life with little regard for our body's needs. We have been led to believe that to be ‘living’, we must be 'doing' rather than 'being'. We expect to be productive at all times and refuse to listen and respond to our body's messages when rest is required. And if we do hear it, we choose to push through it.
But this disconnection to our bodies, the seasons, and nature causes a tsunami of distress and dis-ease.
The Elements & The Organs
As well as the seasons, each element is associated with a particular organ and has specific functions, emotions and symptoms.
Balance is dynamic and in a constant state a flux. As humans, we are constantly navigating shifts in our external environment alongside seasonal and physiological changes. These changes create different energetic moods and physical experiences, which we can begin to observe and respond to with awareness of the elements.
And as cycles ebb and flow, we become better able to flow with the tides. We become sensitive to the practices, lifestyle observances and resources we need to call upon to align with the cyclical shifts in nature as well as our own intricate inner landscape and its ever changing needs.
We recognise energetic shifts in our mood, which areas of the body may be depleted so as we can successfully tweak our lifestyle to meet our needs and guide ourselves back towards balance and harmony.
Here is a brief overview of each of the elements and their internal representation within our bodies. This is by no means an exhaustive list. There are many physical and physiological factors present when elements are out of balance that have not been detailed here. Rather, I have focused in on a few of the emotional and more energetic effects of the elements.
The element of metal is heavy, condensed, and downward drawing. It has a still and slow quality unlike anything else in nature. It governs our ability to take in life, absorb what is good for us, and release what is no longer beneficial, thus creating space for new beginnings.
Associated organs: lungs & large intestine
Just like Autumn, metal is associated with the comings and goings of life. The end of cycles, the rhythms of the breath, and excretory functions.
Metal is associated with the lungs and large intestine.
The lungs transform the air we breath and are vital for our bodies to function. Through our lungs, we distribute oxygen to every cell in our body and remove co2 from the blood. Each inhale is life affirming and consolidating, while each exhale supports a letting go and a clearing out.
The large intestine eliminates the waste that our body no longer requires. Both organs support our ability to transition smoothly between life stages and cycles, encouraging a sort of surrender that allows for a profound transformation.
How metal manifests in body and mind
If the metal element is in balance, we can:
allow the process of grief and letting go to flow smoothly
release aspects of the past that help us gain wisdom
form healthy bonds and relationships without fear of loss.
be open to new ideas
If the metal element is out of balance, we may:
have unrealistic expectations of ourselves or others
have perfectionist tendencies
an underlying feeling of sorrow and sadness
find it difficult to let go
As we move into Winter, we delve even deeper into yin energy through the water element. Just as the trees shed the last of their leaves, we continue to shed and let go. In that way, we are able to conserve and nurture our energy for the renewal and rebirth to come in Spring.
The wisdom of water is in its quiet, graceful strength. It can change the very landscape of the earth without force. Water's fluid energy enables us to respond to life's the ebbs and flows of life from a place of clarity and awareness — we are better able to sit with our emotions without the need to stifle or overindulge them.
Associated organs: kidneys & bladder
The kidneys and bladder are the organs associated with the water element. These are the primary organs responsible for transporting water through the body, removing waste and filtering the blood.
According to TCM, the kidneys house our "Jing" (essence) and are responsible for feeding and nourishing our cells. "Jing" cools the body and is therefore yin in nature.
The kidneys are responsible for transporting and distributing "Jing" to all of the other organs and affect all of life processes from birth onwards. As such, they are seen as an essential component for the healthy functioning of the body.
Kidney energy is responsible for controlling the long term cycles of life, giving us stamina and vitality to both body and mind. If balanced (and we have a healthy ample supply), we are better able to grow old with grace and good health.
How water manifests in body and mind
If the water element is in balance, we may:
have faith in the flow of life
feel more energetic
experience more motivation
be undeterred by life's obstacles
embrace uncertainty more easily
If the water element is out of balance, we may experience:
fatigue or exhaustion
Wood is the element associated with Spring. It is related to vision, imagination and dreams and associated with renewal and rebirth. Spring is a time pregnant with possibility. We experience expansion and growth and a feeling of newly-found buoyancy.
The virtue of wood is forgiveness and benevolence. It encourages us to stand tall in the present moment whilst being well rooted in the past and having the vision and insight to stay open to the future.
Associated organs: liver & gallbladder
The wood element is associated with the liver and gallbladder. The liver controls the free flow of energy (chi) and substances around the body. It is called the ‘General” of the body and harmonises our emotions. On a physical level, it controls bile secretion and works to detoxify and purify the blood.
How wood manifests in body and mind
If the wood element is in balance, we may:
be more open-minded
feel considerate of others
have clarity when it comes to decision making
feel more flexible in body and mind
be able to expand but remain grounded
If the wood element is out of balance, we may experience:
a sense of rigidity and stubbornness
The fire element is vital for expressing joy, feeling optimistic and experiencing passion for life. Fire gives meaning in our relationships and enables us to express ourselves fully. It ignites all of life.
Fire is associated with summer and is also the height of yang, which represents light, warmth and dynamism. The plants, flowers, and trees are at their most vibrant and abundant with fruit. The warmth of the sunshine helps us to feel expansive, radiant, and energised.
Associated organs: heart, small intestine, pericardium & triple heater
Unlike any of the other elements, the fire element has four organs associated with it — the heart, small intestine, pericardium and triple heater. The heart is the most important of these as it houses our spirit ("Shen") and is responsible for our thoughts.
In TCM, the heart is the centre of our emotional and mental activity. It sets our rhythm in life, and we need the consistent flickering of flame to allow us to respond appropriately to the demands of living.
The fire element helps us become conscious of ourselves and others. It is seen as representing the spark of divine love that dwells within us and radiates out into the world.
How fire manifests in body and mind
If the fire element is in balance, we may experience:
ease when it comes to disappointments in our relationships
an open-hearted attitude to love and life
an abundance of emotional warmth and radiance
If the fire element is out of balance, we may experience:
lack of self-love
difficulty believing in ourselves
feelings of loneliness
difficulty in connecting to others despite seeking connection
a sense of being unloved or unloveable
The earth element manifests between every season and particularly at the end of the summer — it’s associated with a shorter season known as the "Late Indian Summer" .
The energy of the earth element is related to re-centering and gathering and expresses itself as a downwards and grounding energy. When we are connected to the earth, we feel physically connected to the centre of ourselves and the centre of all things through Mother Earth.
Earth is the foundation of our physical wellbeing and the element provides nourishment for all others elements, supporting and replenishing our entire system. It is a constant presence in our lives and comes to the fore during big life episodes such as parenthood, embarking on a new job, or moving home.
Associated organs: stomach & spleen
The earth element is associated with the stomach and spleen, which are responsible for the transformation and transportation of nutrients around the body.
Earth isn't only related to the ability to digest and absorb nutrients but also our experiences in life. The stomach and spleen work together to make ‘Middle Burner' where Yi energy resides. This energy rules logic and thought.
How earth manifests in body and mind
If the earth element is in balance, we:
feel steady and grounded
feel more connected with ourselves and others
experience a sense of embodiment or feeling 'at home' in the body
are able to balance giving with receiving with grace and gratitude
If the earth element is out of balance, we may experience:
possessiveness in relationships
a craving for attention