What Is The Five Element Theory

For several thousand years, the Five Element Theory has been used as the philosophical construct which together with 8 Principle Theory, forms the basis for Traditional Chinese medical diagnoses. The two theories serve as foundational methodologies to understand the cause of the disease (etiology) as well as the course of disease throughout the body (pathogenesis).

Five Element theory examines the interactions between the forces of nature in the external environment of the world around us and their effect on the interactions of the biological systems in the internal environment of the human body.

In contrast, 8 Principle Theory examines the quality and location of the ailment to which the body is being subjected. More specifically, the eight different principles are really four sets of opposing pairs of probing questions used to define the current state of disease.

What Are The Eight Principles

External / Internal - Is the disease on the outside of the body where it is still attacking and trying to make its way in, or has it broken through the body’s defences and is now wreaking havoc on the internal environment?

Yin / Yang - Is the disease one that embodies yin attributes like slowness, coolness, dampness, sinking or an empty feeling? Is the disease one that embodies yang attributes like movement, heat, dryness, rising or a full feeling?

Hot / Cold - Is the disease caused by or leading to a cold environment in the patient or is the disease caused by or leading to a hot environment in the patient?

Excess / Deficiency - Is the disease caused by or leading to too much of a certain quality in the body? Is the disease caused by or leading to too little of a certain quality in the body?

By narrowing down the principles from 8 to 4, the disease can be more specifically defined and understood as to the state of affairs. This gives the practitioner the ability to treat the current situation as efficiently as possible.

Japanese Rock Garden, Rock Garden, Summer, Yin Yang Symbol, Nature, tranquility. Pin

Now that we know the nature of the disease and the current state of the patient, next, we need to understand what caused the disharmony in the first place, as well as the path of destruction that is taken throughout the body to get there. This is where the 5 Element Theory comes in.

Everything in existence within the known universe is made up of a seamless sea of energy. Whether you refer to it as quantum energy, prana or Qi, it is that ever-connected energy that defines all of existence. The Chinese called that sea of energy Wuji. 

As form takes shape from the Wuji, that energy becomes defined by opposing pairs known as yin and yang. Not absolutes in themselves, but rather points of reference to describe contrast and difference. Finally, from there the five different elemental qualities are born. 

Beginning with the water element, the theoretical thought process moves clockwise through a circle of the five different elements, by way of what is called the “Generating cycle”. In effect, each element is looked at as the mother of the next in the series due to the fact that it generates the next in line. 

Generating Cycle

Water generates Wood 

Wood generates Fire

Fire generates Earth

Earth generates Metal

Metal generates Water.

Following this mother-child idea, every second element in the cycle creates a grandmother/grandchild relationship of control that moves through a pentagram shape. 

Controlling Cycle

Water controls Fire

Fire controls Metal

Metal controls Wood

Wood controls Earth

Earth Controls Water

The energy of each of the five elements connects to the energy of a paired set of yin and yang organs within the body. As with everything else in existence, there is always a yin and yang.

By understanding what creates the energy of the affected element as well as what controls the energy of that element, the Five Element Theory allows the practitioner to understand where the problem began and how it got to its current position in the body.

A chart depicting what is the five element theory. Pin

How do the different elements manifest in the body?

The Element of Water

Water forms the foundation of all life on earth. Without it, this garden of Eden would be nothing more than a huge lifeless rock hurtling through space. So it's no surprise that water also serves as the foundational element of life in the human body as well. 75% of the planet is made up of water and once again it also makes up 75% of us. 

Within the body, it is the Kidney that corresponds to the water element. The Kidneys lay the foundation for all other organs in the body. They are the storage location of the pre-natal energy derived from your parents. 

As foundational organs, the Kidney serves as the basis of all yin and yang in the body. The yin aspect of the kidneys provides the fluid nutrients which moisten and nourishes all fluids, blood and tissues in the body. The yang aspect of the kidneys is the basis of fire, heat and movement in the body.

The fluids which the kidney disperses around the body are finally gathered in the Bladder, its paired yang organ. The fluids accumulate here before being released from the body as urine.

Kidney energy is connected to and affected by;

The Orifice of the kidney - Ear.

The Tissue of the Kidney - bone

The Fluid of the Kidney - sputum 

The Flavour of the kidney - Salty

The Environment of the Kidney - cold

The Season of the Kidney - winter

The Colour of the kidney - sapphire blue

The Emotion of the kidney - fear and fright

The Element of Wood

Next in the generating cycle is the Wood element and its corresponding organ the Liver. The Liver is responsible for the smooth and effortless movement of Qi (energy) throughout the body. 

It is said that the Liver naturally moves energy up and outward in all directions like the branches of a tree growing toward the sun. It is that energy that helps the heart move the blood that nourishes the organs.

 It is that energy that helps the spleen move the fluids that moisten the tissues. It is that energy that animates all physical life and movement of the body.

Together with its paired Yang organ the Gallbladder, the liver promotes the cyclical flow of Qi up the yin meridians that run along the center of the body and down the yang meridians that flow down the sides of the body. It is that smooth movement of energy that is crucial for the health and functioning of the Liver.

Liver energy is connected to and affected by;

The Orifice of the Liver - Eyes

The Tissue of the Liver - Tendon

The Fluid of the Liver - Tears

The Flavor of the Liver - Sour

The Environment of the Liver - Wind

The Season of the Liver - Spring

The Colour of the Liver- Green

The Emotion of the Liver - Anger, Irritability, Stress

The Element of Fire

Next in the generating cycle is the Fire element and its corresponding organ the Heart. The yang nature of Fire provides the warmth of the blood, and it is the job of the heart to pump that warm, nourishing, oxygen-filled fluid to the tissues of the body.

As I mentioned before, the liver provides the smooth movement of qi in the body and the heart uses that energy to move the blood to the tissues.

Paired with the heart is its yang organ, the Small Intestine. Now in contrast to the digestion and absorption focus in western medicine, the major role of the small intestine in Chinese medicine is the movement of urine as well as the transfer and release of heat generated by the heart by way of urination.

The Orifice of the Heart - Tongue

The Tissue of the Heart - blood vessels

The Fluid of the Heart - sweat

The Flavor of the Heart - Bitter

The Environment of the Heart - Hot

The Season of the Heart - Summer

The Color of the Heart - Red

The Emotion of the Heart - Joy

The Element of Earth

Next in the generating cycle is the Earth element and its corresponding organ the Spleen. The Spleen’s main job is to Transform and Transport. It is basically one-half of the digestive machine used to process raw materials.

It works in conjunction with its paired yang organ the Stomach to transform the food we eat into blood and energy (Qi) and then to transport it around the body.

The Orifice of the Spleen - Mouth

The Tissue of the Spleen - Muscles

The Fluid of the Spleen - Salvia

The Environment of the Spleen - Dampness

The Season of the Spleen - Late Summer

The Colour of the Spleen - Yellow

The Emotion of the Spleen - Anxiety

The Element of Metal

Last in the generating cycle is the Metal element and its corresponding organ The Lung. The lung has been referred to as the “Tender Organ”. It gently perches itself atop the other organs. 

Its position as the most yang of the yin organs is due to its superior position within the thoracic cavity. Its function is to descend and disperse fluids to the rest of the body to nourish the tissue.

Its descending function moves fluids via the water passage down to the large intestine, its paired yang organ, allowing for proper metabolism and elimination of the waste components of the food consumed. 

Its dispersing function mists fluid to the skin, allowing for the proper regulation of the pores. It is this regulatory function that provides a protective barrier between the body and the outside environment.

The Orifice of the Lung - Nose

The Tissue of the Lung - Skin

The Fluid of the Lung - Nasal Discharge

The Flavour of the Lung - Pungent

The Environment of the Lung - Dry

The Season of the Lung - Fall

The Color of the Lung - White

The Emotion of the Lung - sadness, grief, depression

By understanding what symptoms correspond to which organ and element. We can then examine how each element affects the others through both the generating and controlling cycles.

In doing so, The Five Element Theory allows us to not only determine what the original cause (etiology) of the illness was but also how it moved through to the body and the damage it has caused.


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