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  • Writer's pictureTeresa Green

Five Elements Part 1: Overview




This post is the first of a 6-part series on the Five Elements--the way Asian medicine organizes health functioning and just about everything else. As you will see, while it is different from modern science ways of looking at things, there is a lot of overlap, and modern research backs up these ancient ways of viewing the world.


The Five Elements are: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. In the diagram above, the purple arrows represents how one element feeds / leads another. The pink element represents how one element guides / governs another.


  • Wood: relates to spring, the function of the Liver and Gallbladder, and some aspects of Pericardium and San Jiao (a system that represents the interaction of all the body's organs), eye health, many of the hormonal functions, creativity, anger, ambition, goals, moving forward. Relates to things happening at the right time,whether that's digestion and sleep or within the realms of project management. The Wood Element is fed by the Water element, led by the Fire element, and guided / governed by the Metal element. It feeds the Fire element and guides / governs the Earth element.

  • Fire: relates to summer, the function of the Heart and Small Intestine as well as sharing influence with the Wood element over the Pericardium and San Jiao, the function of speech, influences logical thinking, sorting, both in terms of mental function and recognizing nutrients and waste in the body, social life, activity, and the general function of the upper body. It is associated with joy, mania, and social interaction. It is fed by the Wood element, is led by the Earth element, and guided / governed by the Waterh element. It feeds the Earth element and guides / governs the Metal element.

  • Earth: relates to the transition from one season to another as well as late summer, to the Spleen, Stomach, and Pancreas, to taste and the mouth, to digestion, both in digesting food and figuratively in digesting events. It has to do with sense of self, comfort and contentment, or a sense of obsessing on difficulty and feeling dissatisfied with life. It is fed by the Fire element, is led by the Metal element, and is guided / governed by the Wood element. It feeds the Metal element, and guides / governs the Water element.

  • Metal: relates to Autumn, dryness, breathing, the Lungs and Large Intestine, to the sense of smell, to the ability to set boundaries and choose what to bring into your life and what to release, your sense of control, to grief, memory, especially memory with emotional overtones, to digestion, immune function, skin, and bowel function. It is fed by the Earth element, led by the Water element, and guided / governed by the Fire element, It feeds the Water element, and guides/ governs the Wood element.

  • Water: Relates to the Kidney / Adrenals and Bladder, to hormonal function, hearing, the ability to be calm and willpower, to brain, bone, low back and knees. It also relates to your genetic inheritance, to possibility, the unknown, to fear, to the unconscious, to daydreaming, and to potential. It is fed by the Metal element, led by the Wood element, and guided / governed by the Earth element. It feeds the Wood element and guides / governs the Fire element.


So, what does that all mean? When looking at health, it helps us find factors in healing that might not always be obvious. For example, PMS in TCM (and frequently in other holistic health modalities) is generally thought to be closely related to the Wood element (the Wood element governs functions that have a set timing, like a menstrual cycle). The most common formula used for PMS (an many other things) is a formula called "Free and Easy Wanderer" and it's function is described as "moving qi and building blood." Sometimes practitioners will use points and herbs to treat the Liver and Gallbladder function when a patient has PMS, and will get results--but as soon as the patient stops coming for acupuncture, or stops taking their herbs, the symptoms might come back. Or they might be from a long line of women who have menstrual problems.


Using the Five Element model, we can look deeper. If a patient has a family history of other women having PMS, then we can look at Water element function to see if there is a genetic predisposition for menstrual problems and use herbs to help shore up the woman's constitutional strength. Perhaps she may also not give herself enough quiet time, which can also weaken the Water element so it cannot properly feed the Wood element. Perhaps her Metal element is not functioning at its best, either because of immune function irregularities, or because of not setting good boundaries to allow for self care. Perhaps she has digestive issues that can affect her Earth or Fire element, so that the Earth element is "over-governed" by the Wood element, or the Fire element taxes the Wood element, perhaps with too much or too little social life, or to little joy. Or perhaps with foods that the Small Intestine portion of the Fire element has a hard time sorting, such as foods containing a lot of artificial ingredients. Perhaps she has an undeveloped sense of self-compassion, and cannot "digest" painful experiences. Any of these factors can create more trouble in the body that can cause PMS symptoms to be stubborn.


In modern integrative medicine, we recognize all of these factors. Poor gut health can affect inflammation levels, mood, and immune response, which can cause pain and hormone imbalances. Stress, whether from responses to situations past or present, or outlook on life, or how food or inappropriate exercise affects our nervous system, creates hormonal imbalances, especially in the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis, and that dramatically affects the entire reproductive system.


When treating someone for PMS, an experienced practitioner will look at all of these interactions, and choose a blend of areas to address to not only help while a person is actually receiving treatment, but will give a woman ways to regulate her own health so she can have healthy menstrual cycles after her acupuncture jump start is done. All health issues, and indeed, any part of life can be looked at through the Five Element lens with good results.


If you'd like to learn how to improve your health and / or life situation with Five Element coaching, or any other services from Slow Paths Wellness, please visit the Contact Page.

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