What is the Five Elements Theory?

Based on observations of the natural world, ancient Chinese people recognized continuous patterns of transformation and change in the universe. Initially, these observations were interpreted using yin yang logic, but later these interpretations were expanded using a new theory called the five elements.

The five elements theory evolved from the study of various processes, functions, and phenomena of nature. The theory asserts substances can be divided into one of five basic elements: wood, fire, water, metal and earth, which contain their own specific characteristics and properties. Today, the five elements theory is still used as a tool for grouping objects, and as a method for analyzing changes of natural phenomena.

The Origin of the Five Elements Theory

The yin yang theory has a close relationship with the five elements theory. They are often used simultaneously to explain natural phenomena. Ancient Chinese medical philosophers integrated the yin yang and five elements theories into their medical practices as early as the Warring States Period(475-221BC)) . As integration of these theories took place, a more formalized system of medicine was established. Today we refer to this medical system as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

The Five Elements and their Relationships with Nature and the Body

The five elements correspond to different aspects of the natural world and the body. Wood, for example, corresponds to spring and wind in the natural world and to the liver, gall bladder, eyes and tendons in the body. (See Table 1 for a summary of these relationships.)

Table 1
  Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Orientation East South Middle West North
Season Spring Summer Late Summer Autumn Winter
Climate Wind Summer Heat Dampness Dryness Cold
Cultivation Germinate Grow Transform Reap Store
Yin Organ Liver Heart Spleen Lung Kidney
Yang Organ Gall Bladder Small Intestine Stomach Large Intestine Bladder
Orifice Eye Tongue Mouth Nose Ear
Tissues Tendons Vessels Muscles Skin & Hair Bones
Emotions Anger Joy Pensiveness Grief Fear
Colour Blue/ Green Red Yellow White Black
Taste Sour Bitter Sweet Pungent Salty
Voice Shout Laugh Sing Cry Groan

As shown in the above table, there are organized relationships between the elements, nature and the body. The different vertical characteristics belong to the same element, and horizontally, each characteristic interacts with another according to a specific order and element. Working within this system of thought, everything has a correlation in nature.

 Brief Definitions of Some Traditional Chinese Medicine Terms

Damp Heat

Collection of Dampness and Heat, often resulting in infection (bacterial or viral).

Deficient Blood

Blood, one of the five essential energies of the body in Oriental Medicine. Blood is the physical manifestation of Qi and is responsible for carrying nourishment and moisture to the Organs, tissues, and muscles. Deficient blood shows a general pattern of dizziness; pale, lusterless face; pale lips; dry skin or hair; scant menses; pale Tongue material; thin Pulse.

Deficient Qi

Qi is the fundamental life force or energy that is found in all living things and is formed from the interaction of yin and yang energies. Deficient Qi shows general weakness; pale, bright face; shallow respiration; low or soft voice; spontaneous sweating; pale Tongue material; Empty, weak Pulse.

Deficient Yang

Yang is one of the two fundamental polar energies found in all living things. Yang qualities or conditions are hot, dry, excessive, on or near the surface of the body. Yang complements yin. Deficient Yang is similar to Deficient Qi but with signs of Interior Cold, including cold limbs; aversion to cold; puffy Tongue; slow Pulse.

Deficient Yin

Yin is one of the two fundamental polar energies found in all living things. Yin qualities or conditions are cold, damp, deficient, and found in the interior of the body. Yin complements yang. Deficient Yin is similar to Deficient Blood, but characterized by "appearance of Heat,' including agitated manner; red cheeks; warm palms and soles; night sweats; red Tongue material and rapid, thin Pulse.

Empty Fire

In Excess/Heat conditions where the "Fire" often rises to the head, and there are signs such as splitting headaches; dizziness; red face and eyes; dry mouth; deafness or sudden ringing in the ears. In addition, irritability, frequent anger and insomnia may be present, as well as constipation; dark, scanty urine; red Tongue with rough, yellow moss; and a rapid and full, as well as Wiry Pulse. This pattern is often seen in Western medicine as essential hypertension, migraine headaches, bleeding of the upper digestive tract, menopausal complaints; eye diseases such as acute conjunctivitis and glaucoma; or ear disturbances such as labyrinthitis, Meniere's disease, or otitis.