Nature isn’t just phenomena that we get to witness — it also serves as a conducting force for our physical inner workings, too. Just like the passing of seasons, our own bodies experience cycles and rhythms that are directly connected to the natural world. In fact, there are five specific elements considered to directly tie to our physical health. In traditional Chinese medicine, there's a name for this ideology: five element theory.
By looking inward at the way these elements affect us, we can better understand our own health. Let’s take a closer look at what five element theory means, and how you can better understand the role of each fundamental element in your own life.
What is Five Element Theory?
During the Zhou dynasty -- around the same time that yin-yang theory was born -- a new understanding of medicine and disease began to take form. Up until this point, health issues were attributed to mystic forces, such as evil spirits. But during this time, ancient Chinese philosophers began looking more to natural occurrences, materials, and lifestyle as the roots of our physical health instead of the supernatural.
Upon observing patterns in nature, ancient Chinese healers and philosophers charted a natural cycle that was believed to impact all things -- our health, our daily lives, changes in seasons, etc. More specifically, this ideology centered on five fundamental, natural materials: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. It was believed that these materials represented the five ways that qi (energy) moves and impacts our health. In other words, humans and all of our inner workings are the manifestation of these five elements and how they behave. Thus, five element theory was born.
The term “element” here is interchangeable with “phases.” Each of these five elements isn’t just a physical property, but also represents the five phases of the cycle mentioned above. Similar to how nature has predictable patterns we can follow, the phases of five element theory can be used as a tool to treat illness and other health-related issues. Each of these elements represents specific movements, emotions, seasons, organs, and more. Let’s take a closer look at what each of the five elements contain, and how they impact us.
What are the five elements?
The element of wood is associated with bending and straightening, like a tree. Anything containing properties of wood is linked to growing, rising, unfolding, and extending. Wood represents the season of spring, and is connected to the liver and gallbladder. When unbalanced, wood results in anger, gastro-intestinal disorders, eye problems, and even tendon injuries.
Balance wood by:
Staying active, taking new opportunities and challenges
Exercising with tai-chi, walking, yoga, stretching
Eating green vegetables, green apples, less fatty foods, lean meats, picked vegetables, liver kale, spinach, sour foods, artichoke
The fire element is attributed to properties of heat, warmth, brightness, and rising. Fire is associated with the season of summer, and is connected to the heart and small intestines. When fire is not balanced, it manifests as anxiety, intense reactions, heart and circulatory issues, lack of focus, and issues with the central nervous system.
Balance fire by:
Adding passion and adventure to your daily life
Exercising with high-intensity training, muscle training, high jumping, short sprinting
Eating cherries, cayenne pepper, beets, grass-fed beef, dark chocolate, coffee, and red vegetables
The earth element is associated with holding, receiving, nourishing, and creating. Earth represents the season of late summer, and is connected to the spleen, pancreas, and stomach. When one’s earth is unbalanced, this can result in anxiety, digestion issues, diabetes, weight gain, and circulatory issues.
Balance earth by:
Spending time with friends who encourage and motivate you
Exercising by biking, hiking, and running
Eating pumpkin, potatoes, astragalus, sweet potatoes, persimmon, turmeric, cinnamon, oranges, papaya, and honey
Metal is considered to contain properties of change, compression, and compliance. This element is associated with the season of fall, and is connected to the lungs and large intestine. When metal is unbalanced, it can culminate as grief, coldness, a weakened immune system, living in the past, and feeling critical.
Balance metal by:
Grounding yourself in nature, practicing breathing exercises
Exercising with a focus on upper-body strength training, like swimming and rock climbing
Eating ginger, American ginseng, astragalus, scallions, tangerine peel, almond, and apricot seed
The water element is associated with cooling, flowing downwards, storing, moistening, creativity, and self-reflection. Water represents the season of winter, and is connected to the kidney, urinary bladder, and adrenal glands. When unbalanced, water can cause hormonal issues, feelings of fear, fatigue, infertility, lower back pain, urinary issues, bone issues, and feeling withdrawn.
Balance water by:
Maintaining healthy boundaries and structure
Exercising with endurance training, such as biking and hiking
Eating spinach, berries, beans, eggs, figs, ginseng, holy basil, pomegranate, grape, dark seaweed, walnuts, chestnuts, and cinnamon
Five Element Theory In Your Own Life
When it comes to acupuncture, five element theory is used to examine the health of the patient. Using five element theory, the acupuncturist will look at the “health” of each element or phase in the scope of the patient’s body. By doing so, the practitioner will be able to create a carefully-curated acupuncture plan for the patient.
By looking into the health of each of the five elements within us, we can gain a much clearer understanding of our own health -- our strengths and weaknesses, and how we can cultivate a healthier life. A key part of this practice is understanding our own prevailing elements. Just like how certain geographical regions are strongly ruled by certain seasons (think of heat in southern regions and cold in northern regions) each of us has a particular element that has a heavy hand in our physical cycles.
By working with your Chinese medicine doctor, you can dive deeper into your body’s own elements to determine which parts need more attention than others.
We are so much more than flesh, blood, and bone; we are a mirror of our natural surroundings, and even the smallest details of our daily lives can be attributed to the organic rhythms around us. Take note of your own strengths and weaknesses, and create an intentional practice that focuses on the ever changing needs throughout the seasons of your life.
Komorebi Center for Healing
Written by: Sarah Judsen