Five Elements of Traditional Chinese Medicine

What Are the Five Elements of Traditional Chinese Medicine?

Everyone experiences life differently. One of the fundamental teachings of Traditional Chinese Medicine is that each individual has a unique response to a disease based on their constitution and the energy balance of their organs. Traditional Chinese Medicine explains energy balance in terms of five elements that are balanced or imbalanced in those five organs.

The five elements are water, wood, fire, earth, and metal. They can be used to classify every aspect of a person’s physical, emotional, and spiritual health. The five elements generate and control each other. Water generates wood. Wood feeds fire. Fire creates ashes, or earth. Earth condenses into metal. Metal releases water. Water controls fire. Wood controls earth. Fire controls metal. Earth controls water. Metal controls wood. But how is this ancient scheme useful to modern, scientific people?

Modern people can use the five elements to understand how they respond to health and disease. Each of the elements is a metaphor for the way people feel. A “fire” person tends to exhibit anxiety. A” metal “person tends to experience grief and a sense of lacking purpose. A “water” person may live in a flood of emotions.

Each element describes a way of thinking, a lifestyle, or everyday health habit that is useful in moderation but toxic in excess. Each imbalance generates symptoms, but it also points to the kinds of changes in thinking, lifestyle, and habits that will bring health back into balance. Your herbalist can deal with the physical aspects of the five elements. You can deal with lifestyle changes in terms of the five elements to enjoy good health. Let’s look at examples for each element.


The Water Element

In your physical body, the water element refers to a set of processes that focus on the kidney and bladder. In your emotional life, the water element refers to hidden power and deep emotions.

Water holds hidden power. In the United States, the Colorado River is at places so shallow it is possible to wade across. But that same river has carved out a Grand Canyon that is over 1500 meters deep.

Water is the power that holds the mysteries of our lives. The kidneys house the essence called Jing, which holds the key not just to physical reproduction but also to parenthood in a spiritual sense. The body’s water element holds in the right place in the flow of life. We find our place in the flow of life by practicing stillness. When we aren’t still often enough, our lives float out of place, and our physical bodies generate the diseases associated with imbalances in the water element, such as kidney disease, bladder problems, diabetes, difficulties in having good sex, infertility, and diabetes.

At a deeper level, the water element allows us to create our lives, to manifest our dreams and insights. This power is called Zhi Wang. It is our water element that enables us to hold to our desires and achieve our goals, and it is also our connection to family and history.

Disease Caused by Imbalances of the Water Element

The Zhi Wang gives us our ability to project our will into the world, but the Jing gives us an inheritance from our ancestors. Both are functions of the water element. Just as what your grandfather and grandmother ate could have activated genes that were passed down to you, the Jing can endow you with your ancestors’ trauma. These traumas interfere with your ability to project your will and they cause diseases associated with the kidneys. As you overcome these physical diseases, you also overcome the emotional trauma that came to you on the streams of life, and vice versa. What we do echoes in our lives and in future generations, both through changes in our genes, and in the mysterious set of energies and experiences that make up the water element.

The Wood Element


The wood element is that set of physical and emotional energies, knowledge and spirit that enables adventure. The wood energy fuels adventure. Wood people are doers, usually to the point that other people regard them as pushy. They are organised. They are assertive. They get things done.

Wood is fed by water. Water is released by the force of metal, and gathered in pools by calm reflection. When “wood” people don’t spend enough time gathering their energies and making wise decisions, their energies burst out in anger and fire.

Traditional Chinese Medicine associates the wood element with the liver and gallbladder. It also associates “fiery” conditions with imbalances of the liver. Emotions that spill over into headaches and eye aches and breast pain all relate to imbalances of the liver, and treating with liver herbs and needling liver points, cures them.

Inverted Wood

“Wood” people often suffer anxiety, headaches, and outbursts of emotion when their natural need to be active and growing is thwarted. When people with this kind of temperament are faced with lifes difficulties and decide to “ride it out,” their bodies rebel. The problem is even worse if they don’t exercise. The wood energies have to be expressed of the liver’s natural flow, both physically and energetically becomes blocked.

At a deeper level, the wood element relates the ethereal soul, the Hun. A healthy Hun gives the individual power to act as needed. Action relieves emotional distress—and diseases of the physical liver. The Hun, or “liver mind,” gives the individual the ability to make accurate assessments of the situation. A wood person might naturally be the one to burst into a burning building to save a baby. The Hun gives that person the ability to look for the safest entry and exit; both hero and baby will escape the fire. Similarly, the Hun gives the wood person the ability to move around and away from emotional trauma, to live a life unencumbered by situations that cannot be changed.

The Fire Element

Every textbook of Traditional Chinese Medicine will tell you that the fire element is associated with the heart, pericardium, and small intestine, as well as the energy channel connecting them. What usually gets lost in translation is that the fire element, and the organs with which it is associated, are powered by fun.

Fire embodies movement, enjoyment, and play. “Fire” people aren’t angry people. They are naturally bubbly and spontaneous. But when they have difficulty accepting their spontaneous, playful nature, the fire element within them, they can feel shamed for being a dreamer or are told they are comedians not to be taken seriously, they can achieve healing through the realization that they can be the spark even if they aren’t the fire. They don’t have to achieve their dreams by themselves. They can be the inspiration.

The Heart As Mirror

But how can fire people be an inspiration to the world? Traditional Chinese Medicine teaches that the heart is a mirror, or more precisely, a reflecting pool. Fire people provide the reflecting pool through which other people understand themselves. However, fire people can also generate a ripple in the pool, so that other people can imagine themselves to be something new. The heart person’s joyful, playful, fun emotions create the healthy ripple that stirs the pool.

Just as the physical heart sends blood throughout the body, the spiritual heart can send joy throughout the universe. However, in some people, the heart is captured by trauma. Post-traumatic stress causes the reflecting pool of the heart to replay unhappy, unresolved traumatic memories over and over again. Water transmits shock, not joy. The energy heart is healed by making wise choices between allowing the pool to be stirred and seeking to achieve a calm, reflecting pool. When people stretch themselves to control the reflecting pool, they develop shen, the ability to reach out from their trauma to the good of themselves, their neighbors, and the world.

The Earth Element

The earth organs are the stomach and spleen. They provide “homeliness” for the spirit. They “hug” the rest of the energy body. They are the reason we have so many warm feelings associated with meals for special occasions and why we enjoy comfort food.

This emotional comfort is necessary for rationality. The Yi of the spleen organizes rational thought. Conversely, smoothly rational thinking tonifies the stomach and spleen. When we cease to be grounded, we lose touch with our emotional home and let our emotions overpower rationality, our stomach and spleen suffer. Worry, confusion, and a lack of direction lead to cravings for comforting foods, and nausea, indigestion, excessive appetite or deficient appetite, fatigue, and bowel problems.

Rumination Causes Imbalances in the Earth Element

Ruminants are animals like cows that chew their cud. They eat grass, chew it, send it to one stomach for digestion, up-chuck it for a little more chewing, send to a different stomach for digestion, and then chew it some more.

Rumination in human beings can be the process of questioning things that have already been decided. It can be a long process of second-guessing. And it can lead to imbalances of the stomach and spleen energies that lead to actual disease of the stomach and spleen. The cure for both physical and metaphysical problems of the stomach and spleen is always to re-establish the normal flow. Well-timed rational thought, in addition to acupuncture and herbs, will help resolve stomach problems.

The Metal Element

The metal organs are the lung and large intestine. Together they balance Yin and Yang. Centuries before theory of quantum entanglement, Traditional Chinese Medicine theorised that they also process tiny bits of rock and metals from the air, water, and food that link us with all that has gone before. Metal expands, and the metal organs expand our connections with the universe into our bodies and into the world.

All of this connecting with universe makes “metal” people emotionally sensitive. They get physically sick when they cannot let go of the connections they receive. The large intestine becomes constipated. The lungs become congested. People who are constantly starting over, never able to move on from what they have received from the universe, develop problems in their lungs and large intestine.

Curing Imbalances of the Metal Element

In modern terms, the lifestyle changes that help to resolve energy imbalances of the metal element that manifest themselves in the lungs and large intestine is setting boundaries. Setting emotional limits strengthens the energy called Po. And healing physical problems of the lungs and large intestine also strengthens the limiting energy called Po.

What the Five Elements Mean for You

The five elements are a metaphor. They are symbolic representations for five aspects of our spiritual and emotional lives.

The five elements are also mnemonic. They stand for physical functions that, in a mysterious way, tie into five aspects of our life choices and life experiences.

But the five elements also provide the music of our lives. As the sage Lao Zi said, “That the musical notes and tones become harmonious through the relation to another, before and behind gives the idea of following another.”

The five elements lead each other but they also follow each other. They  drive the cycles of human experience and human health. Keeping them in balance and in motion is the foundation of a healthy life.