The Five Elements in Chinese Medicine

by John & Barbara Connor, M.Ac., L.Ac.

John & I thought we would write a little bit today about the significance of the Five Elements in Chinese Medicine.  Along with the Eight Principles (Yin and Yang, excess and deficiency, hot and cold, interior and exterior), the various forms of Qi (energy) that course through the meridians or bioelectric pathways, Blood, the Zang and Fu organs — the theory of the Five Elements forms the basis for the understanding of how acupuncture and Chinese Medicine works. By means of the interconnecting system of the meridians, the Five Elements maintain a relative balance and coordination in the body.

As you know Chinese Medicine has been around for at least 3000 years since the Shang Dynasty when the hieroglyphs of acupuncture and moxibustion first appeared.  The theory of the Five Elements was developed by the same school that developed the theory of Yin and Yang. The chief exponent of this school being Zou Yan (circa 350-270 BC).

The key to diagnosis in Five Element Acupuncture is discerning the root imbalance. Each of the Five Elements has a corresponding emotion, flavor, organ, sense, tissue, season, color, etc. that can be perceived when that element is out of balance.

The Five Elements are comprised of the following:

  1. Fire – Heart – Shen or Mind. Associated with consciousness and relatedness, inspiration, joy, laughing, communication, oneness, compassion. Connected with the blood vessels and the tongue. The Ruler of Spirit. Responsible for nourishing his kingdom.  Anything which disturbs the Shen or the Mind causes memory problems. The season of Summer.
  2. Earth – Spleen – Yi or Thought, the capability to create structures — physically, mentally and emotionally. Understanding, receiving, contemplation on the positive side. Worry or getting into a rut on the negative side. Connected with digestion and the muscles. Indian Summer.
  3. Metal – Lungs – Po or Corporeal Soul, the Storehouse of Vitality. Your “shield” — the immune system. The energy which keeps you protected. The ability to let go. Associated with the emotions of grief and letting go. The season of Fall.
  4. Water – Kidney – Zhi or Will Power. The storehouse of the Will to survive. Connected with the Bones. On a positive note it nourishes the backbone. On the negative side it results in fear. Relates to the season of Winter, hibernation, conservation, preservation, sexual power, the Fountain of Youth, fertility, long term memory, the low back, knees and the ears.
  5. Wood – Liver – Hun or Ethereal Soul. Wood’s function is about maintaining a harmony of flow, a strategizing function.  It gives a sense of one’s ability to wander gracefully through life. Connected with the emotions of depression, frustration and anger: When the spirit is obstructed people “snap”. Connected with “Wind” as manifested in convulsions and tremors. Connected with ligaments, tendons, spasms and vertigo. The season of Spring.

Foods which Nurture based on the Five Elements:
(Eat foods from organic/pasture-raised animals, or wild-caught foods whenever possible. Avoid foods that have been exposed to pesticides or antibiotics.)

Foods which nurture the Heart: Whole wheat, brown rice, oats, mushrooms, barley gruel, cucumber, celery, lettuce, mulberries, lemons, jujube seeds, cow and goat milk, clarified butter (ghee). 

Foods which nurture the Spleen: Barley, bean curd, beef, bitter gourd, black soybean, dehydrated unprocessed brown sugar, carp (common, gold and grass), carrot, chestnut, chicken, cinnamon bark, clove, coriander, cucumber, date (red and black), dill seed, eel, eggplant, fig,garlic, ginger (fresh and dried), ginseng, grape, grapefruit peel, green pepper, hawthorn fruit, honey, Job’s tears, licorice, litchi, longan, loquat, lotus fruit and seed, malt, mutton, nutmeg, peanuts, pork, red pepper, rice, squash, star anise, string bean, sweet basil, wheat, yellow soybean.

Foods which nurture the Lungs: Carrot, castor bean, Chinese wax gourd, cinnamon twig, common button mushroom, coriander, crab apple, duck, garlic, ginger, leek, licorice, lily flower, loquat, milk, olive, peanut, pear, peppermint, persimmon, radish, dehydrated unprocessed sugar cane, sweet basil, tangerine, walnut, water chestnut, wine.

Foods which nurture the Kidneys: Black sesame seed, black soybean, caraway, kidney beans, asparagus, chestnut, chicken egg yolk, chive, chive seeds, cinnamon bark, clam (freshwater), clove, cuttlebone, cuttlefish, dill seed, duck, eel, fennel, grape, grapefruit peel, Job’s tears, lotus fruit and seed, mutton, plum, pork, salt, star anise, string bean, tangerine, walnut, wheat, watermelon and other melons, blackberry, mulberry, blueberry, sardine, crab, lamb, seaweed.

Foods which nurture the Liver: Black sesame seed, brown sugar (raw unrefined), celery chicory, chive, chive seed, clam (freshwater, clamshell (river), crab, crab apple, cuttlefish, eel, hawthorn fruits, leek, litchi, loquat, peppermint, plum, saffron, sour plum, star anise, vinegar, wine, kale, collards, spinach, turnip tops, beet tops, dandelion greens, romaine lettuce, endive, radicchio, arugula, turmeric, basil, cardamom, cumin, fennel, ginger, strawberry, peach, cherry.

Kaptchuk, Ted J., The Web That Has No Weaver, Chicago, Congdon and Weed, 1983
Lu, Henry C., Chinese System of Food Cures, Prevention and Remedies, New York, Sterling Publishing Co., 1986
Ma, Shou-Chun, MTCM, 
Chinese Nutrition Class Notes from Northwest Institute of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, Seattle, 1994
Maciocia, Giovanni, The Foundations of Chinese Medicine, Edinburgh: Churchill Livingston, 1989
Pitchford, Paul, Healing with Whole Foods, Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1993
Xinnong, Cheng (Ed), Chinese Acupuncture and Moxibustion, Beijing: Foreign Languages Press 1987

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Compassionate Acupuncture and Healing Arts, providing craniosacral acupuncture, herbal and nutritional medicine in Durham, North Carolina. Phone number 919-475-1005.

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