The Five Elements in Taoism and Eastern Medicine

The Five Elements Theory in Taoism and Traditional Eastern Medicine

The Five Elements theory is a very important concept in Taoism. It also constitutes the fundamental basis of traditional Chinese, Korean, and Japanese medicine. However, the Five Elements still remain relatively little known or misunderstood in many parts of the world.

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What is the Five Elements theory?

The Five Elements are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. According to Taoist cosmology, the Five Elements are generated by the interaction between Yin and Yang. The Five Elements are not so much the actual substances of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Instead, each of the Five Elements can be understood as an expression of qualities and as building blocks of life and matter.

The Wood Element and the Fire Element pertain to Yang, while the Metal Element and the Water Element pertain to Yin. The Earth Element represents perfect harmony between Yin and Yang. Conceptually, we can understand the Five Elements as energetic forces created by interactions between Yin and Yang.

Traditionally, Easterners used the principle of the Five Elements to shed light on various phenomena in the Universe, such as seasons, directions, stars and planets, plants and animals, as well as the weather and temperature. The following is a brief description of each of the Five Elements.

<Wood Element>

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The Wood Element is an energy that promotes growth and development. The Wood Element manifests after midnight and at dawn, in the east, in the windy weather and in spring, according to the Taoist Five Elements theory. It is the beginning of a budding new life and the beginner of the Five Elemental cycle.

<Fire Element>

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The Fire Element is an energy that promotes passion, development and expansion in all directions. Fire manifests in the morning, in the south, in the hot weather and in summer, according to the Taoist Five Elements theory. 

<Earth Element>

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The Earth Element is an energy that promotes nourishment and balance. Earth manifests in the midday, in the center, in the humid weather and in late summer, according to the Taoist Five Elements theory. Spring and Summer are Yang, while autumn and winter are Yin. In the late summer, the transition from the Yang season to the Yin season takes place. With its serene nature, Earth energy makes a seamless transition possible from the Yang season to the Yin season.

<Metal Element>

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The Metal Element is an energy that promotes order, organization and the  completion of tasks. Metal manifests in the afternoon, in the west, in the dry weather and in autumn, according to the Taoist Five Elements theory.

<Water Element>

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The Water Element is an energy that promotes conservation and inner development. Water manifests in the evening and at nighttime before midnight, in the north, in the cold weather and in winter, according to the Taoist Five Elements theory. It is the energy that has an unbounded potential even though it may appear to be inactive from outside. The Water Element is comparable to a small seed that has a potential to bloom into a towering tree.

The generation cycle of the Five Elements

There are constant interactions among the Five Elements, which, according to the Taoist Five Elements theory, affect the whole human body system and the Universe at large, given that the Five Elements are basically energetic building blocks of all physical matter in the Universe.

According to the Five Elements theory, there is a generation cycle, as well as a control cycle, of the Five Elements. In the generation cycle, energy circulates from Wood to Water in the order of Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and back to Wood, forming a circle. Think of it this way: Wood, combustible in nature, burns itself to produce Fire. Fire engenders ashes to enrich Earth. Earth generates Metal. Metal can be liquefied to enrich and vitalize Water. Water nourishes Wood.

Five Elements

The relationship among the Five Elements is comparable to that of mother and son. We can understand it this way: Wood gives birth to Fire; Fire to Earth; Earth to Metal; Metal to Water; and Water to Wood.

It is not much different from the four seasons on earth. Spring gives rise to summer; summer to autumn; autumn to winter; and winter to spring.

The generation cycle applies to internal organs in our bodies as well. The liver (organ of Wood) stores the blood that nurtures the spirit that resides in the heart (organ of Fire). In Taoism, this spirit is referred to as Shen. Shen provides a link to the Universe and a path to intuition and spirituality. The heart nourishes the spleen (organ of Earth) by transmitting the energy and blood that are needed. The spleen nurtures the lungs (organ of Metal) and the lungs nurture the kidneys (organ of Water).

Due to this generation cycle, a disorder in a particular organ will affect other areas as well. For example, a problem in the liver will, over time, affect the heart, which, in its turn, could cause a problem in the spleen. The problem in the spleen will be transmitted to the lungs which will affect the kidneys. In the end, the kidneys will transmit the problem back to its source – the liver, further weakening the organ.

Consequently, when you have a certain problem in your organ, this will affect other organs in one way or another. For example, if you have a pulmonary disease, it will not only affect your lungs but could end up debilitating other organs. Therefore, the longer you are afflicted with a certain disease, the more it will affect other areas. This may not be immediately noticeable because even after it creates problems in other organs, it could be dormant before it develops into a diagnosable problem.

Traditional Eastern medicine views that everything is interconnected in the human body. Therefore, it is important to maintain balance among the Five Elements in our body, according to traditional Eastern medicine.

The control cycle of the Five Elements

According to the Five Elements theory, each of the Five Elements not only nourishes but also restrains each other, thus preventing the dominance of one particular element. In this cycle called the control cycle, Wood controls Earth; Fire controls Metal; Earth controls Water; Metal controls Wood; and Water controls Fire.

Think of these five substances in nature. Wood affects the earth by taking roots in the soil and absorbs nutrients from the earth; fire has the power to liquefy metal; earth (soil) can fill up water and thus turn it to land; metal can cut wood into pieces; and water can extinguish fire.

taoist five elements

The Five Elements and the human organic system

The control cycle also applies to our internal organs.

– The Wood Element governs the liver. If the Wood energy of the liver becomes too strong, it weakens the spleen (organ of Earth).

– The Fire Element governs the heart. If the Fire energy of the heart becomes too strong, it weakens the lungs (organ of Metal).

– The Earth Element governs the spleen. If the Earth energy of the spleen becomes too strong, it weakens the kidneys (organ of Water).

– The Metal Element governs the lungs. If the Metal energy of the lungs  becomes too strong, it weakens the liver (organ of Wood).

– The Water Element governs the kidneys. If the Water energy of the kidneys  becomes too strong, it weakens the heart (organ of Fire).

Five Elements theory: How food affects human organs

With this in mind, we can deduce how foods can affect the Five Elements and internal organs in our bodies, based on the Five Elements theory.

– Sour foods are associated with the Wood Element. Therefore, the consumption of sour foods nourishes the liver (organ of Wood), but when excessive, weakens the spleen (organ of Earth).

– Bitter foods are associated with the Fire Element. Therefore, the consumption of bitter foods nourishes the heart (organ of Fire), but when excessive, weakens the lungs (organ of Metal).

– Sweet foods are associated with the Earth Element. Therefore, the consumption of sweet foods nourishes the spleen (organ of Earth), but when excessive, weakens the kidneys (organ of Water).

– Pungent foods are associated with the Metal Element. Therefore, the consumption of pungent foods nourishes the lungs (organ of Metal), but when excessive, weakens the liver (organ of Wood).

– Salty foods are associated with the Water Element. Therefore, the consumption of salty foods nourishes the kidneys (organ of Water), but when excessive, weakens the heart (organ of Fire).

<Five Elements Table>

Element Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Yin/Yang Small Yang Big Yang Balance between Yin and Yang Small Yin Big Yin
Gender Male Male Female Female Female
Season Spring Summer Late summer Autumn Winter
Weather Windy Hot Damp Dry Cold
Energy Type Generative Expansive Harmonizing Contracting Conserving
Planet Jupiter Mars Saturn Venus Mercury
Direction East South Center West North
Color Green Red Yellow White Black
Taste Sour Bitter Sweet Pungent Salty
Odor Rancid Scorched Fragrant Rotten Putrid
Face Eyes Tongue Mouth

Eyelids

Nose Ears
System Nervous Circulatory Digestive Respiratory Excretory
Bodily Fluids Tears Sweats Saliva Mucus Urine
Bodily Reaction Sigh Hiccup Belch Sneeze Yawn
Yin Organ Liver Heart Spleen Lungs Kidneys
Yang Organ Gallbladder Small Intestine Stomach Large Intestine Bladder
Emotion Anger

 

Joy

 

Worry

Rumination

Grief

 

Fear

 

Strengths Planning

Organization Skills

Confidence

Enthusiasm

Charisma

Mental Clarity

Stability

Accuracy

Common Sense

Discipline

Sharpness

Justice

Perseverance

Courage

Strong Will

Seeks Arousal

Work

Pleasure

Stimulation

Company

Security

Order

Justice

Solitude

Mystery

Time Dawn Morning Midday Afternoon Evening Night
Movement Outward Upward Stabilized Inward Downward
Effects Disperses Ascends Accumulates Shrinks Depletes
Development Birth Growth Transformation Harvest Storing
War Strategy Battle Enforcement Order

Tyranny

Weapons

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Trees and plants in the Five Elements control cycle

Since the five components of a tree (leaves, flowers, trunk, fruits, roots) respectively represent each of the Five Elements, we can observe the dynamics of the Five Elements control cycle in a tree.

Wood Element Fire Element Earth Element Metal Element Water Element
Trunk Leaves Flowers Fruits Roots

Let us examine a bamboo tree from the perspective of the Five Elements theory. It is known to be one of the fastest-growing trees. The trunk of the tree is filled with the energy of the Wood Element, which has a tendency to grow and reach upward. In the control cycle, the Wood Element restrains the Earth Element.

The flowering (Earth) of bamboos is rare, and this is because the power of the trunk (Wood) undermines the energy of flowers (Earth), seen from the perspective of the Five Elements theory,.

Have you ever seen a fruit tree that is excessively filled with green leaves? Chances are, these trees probably will not bear as many fruits, compared to other trees with fewer leaves. Leaves are associated with the Fire Element and fruits with the Metal Element. According to the Five Elements theory, when the Fire Element is too strong, it debilitates the Metal Element. Therefore, excessive amounts of leaves (Fire) will restrain the growth of fruits (Metal).

Let us go back to a bamboo tree. Bamboo blossom is a rare occurrence and when it happens, many of them begin to lose their vitality and start to die. According to the Five Elements theory, flowers are associated with the Earth Element and roots with the Water Element. When the Earth Element becomes too strong, it debilitates the Water Element. Therefore, seen from the principle of the Five Elements, the flowering of bamboos greatly weakens the roots.

While a bamboo tree is the one that most clearly demonstrates the dynamics of the Five Elements control cycle, this could be observed in other trees and plants as well. Think of a rice field in autumn when the time of harvest draws near. As the rice ripens, the rice stems become weak. In the end, farmers remove the rice from the stems.

According to the Five Elements theory, the Metal Element restrains the Wood Element. Therefore, the abundance of fruits (Metal) undermines the health of the stem (Wood). This can be observed quite often in plants with one year life-span. As soon as they bear fruits, their stems become weak.

In winter, the energy of a tree is directed inward. As a result, trees may look unhealthy from outside. However, they are actually condensing their energy in order to prepare for the next spring. Winter is the time when trees internally take care of the energy of their roots and let them have a well-deserved rest.

As the energy of the roots grows strong inside, leaves tend to wither away. According to the Five Elements theory, roots are associated with the Water Element and leaves are associated with the Fire Element. Like water that extinguishes fire, roots (Water) restrain leaves (Fire).

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