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  • Writer's pictureJake Pinnick

Five Element Theory

Five Elements Daily Chart
Anyone who begins their dive into the depths of Traditional Chinese Medicine, has first been introduced to the Five Elemental Theory. This understanding is the imagery, the framework, the tool used throughout the study and practice of TCM. From daily life management, seasonal changes, acupressure, acupuncture, tongue diagnosis, body type observation, personality tendencies, internal circulation and communication, to just the general tides of life, this theory is key to seeing the different constitutions of different people as well as the conditions and patterns that have effect on them in different ways.

In Chinese medical understanding, there are five elements of nature that affect each other through specific patterns. These five elements are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. Each one represents different characteristics through a range of categories. Wood is associated with birth and anger, fire with growth and joy, and so on. Furthermore each element interacts in certain relationships. In metaphorical terms they are sometimes referred to as mother-son or grandfather-grandson elements.
The mother to son relationships are, respectively, Wood to Fire, Fire to Earth, Earth to Metal, Metal to Water, and Water to Wood. This relationship is understood as the 'mother' element nurturing the 'son' element. In metaphorical terminology it can be understood as such: Wood fuels Fire, Fire creates Earth (ash), Earth supplements Metal (minerals), Metal refines Water, and Water feeds Wood. The relationship of grandfather to grandson skips a generation, so to say. In this way, Wood watches Earth, Fire watches Metal, Earth watches Water, Metal watches, Wood, and Water watches Fire. The analogy for this is as follows: Wood overgrows on Earth, Fire melts excess Metal, Earth dams overflowing Water, Metal cuts overgrowing Wood, and Water extinguishes overbearing Fire.
Conversely each element can also overbear its counterpart. The 'mother' or 'grandfather' can overbear on the children. For example Water completely extinguishing Fire or Metal cutting the entire tree (Wood) down. Even the children can retaliate against their adult figures. Like when Fire burns the forest (Wood) or when too much Wood grows and drains away all Water.
This imagery is abundant throughout TCM. The threads weave together to create an understanding, and, in patterns of deficiency or imbalance, can help to attain proper diagnosis. When the source is understood, the problem can be weeded out appropriately.

Five Phase Theory

The idea that these elements all function within circular patterns is very important in the Chinese Medicine modality. Just as nature can be influenced in many different ways and combinations of those patterns are expressed differently, so the human body can express many different symptoms that may come from similar sources. Take a mild headache for example. This could be from something external as simple as being around something too loud and overbearing for too long. Although simultaneously, a headache could come from lack of nutrients, emotional stress, lack of sleep, or a myriad amount of other causes.

Understanding the system within Five Element Theory is essential for students of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Although, this system is also a logical, well-laid, and simplistic process first and foremost designed for individuals to become their own doctors. To paraphrase from the book "Between Heaven And Earth," Western medicine has compartmentalized and complicated the human body and its condition. In doing so, we are now removed from full awareness of our self in a physical sense. The specialization, in due process, removes the communication between the body and the mind. This creates a barrier for self-diagnosis because those who accept this model now assume that only the specialized doctor is able to decipher the puzzle that our bodies and symptoms have become. While the west views the doctor as a mechanic, changing parts into pristine new versions and eliminating short term symptoms, we should strive to follow the eastern course and view the doctor as a gardener, tending to the field as the seasons change and removing problems before they harm the integrity of the crop itself.

Following is a simple introduction into the different elements and their characteristics.


The Wood element is associated with the springtime. This is when things are born and enter the first stages of life. The green buds pushing up from fertile ground. Wood is the symbol for the liver which also gives rise to anger. The liver, and therefore Wood, houses the soul. The imbalances to the wood element can be seen in the eyes. The phrase "The eyes are the window to the soul" correspond interestingly with the wood element.


Next in the generating cycle is Fire, the element symbolizing summer. Just as fire rises, this is when all growing things reach upwards, gathering the nurturing energy of the sun. Fire is the element that coordinates with the heart. In turn, the heart is the organ through which joy is felt and expressed. In summer, nature enters a state of Pure Yang. During this time it is natural to rise early from bed and stay up late, thus keeping true to the long days of summertime. Here is where the mind is kept as well. Though it is easy to think of all of the projects to complete, it is essential to keep discipline in order to not overwork or stress yourself during this time.


Earth is the middle of the elemental cycle and is referred to as such in the seasons as well by coining the term 'late summer.' This is the time in between seasons, the changing period when things ripe and come to their full capacity. This is when Yin and Yang are balanced. Standing on the knife edge of this balance, worry starts to build in the mind. The spleen is the home of worry and thought. This overthinking during the lull of the tides of life can cause stress if not properly contained.


The refining characteristics of Metal are bonded with Autumn season. This is when things begin to dry and wither away as the prepare for winter. Attributed to the lungs, metal is a pure element. When it is contaminated, as in when a foreign body enters the lungs, it quickly loses its potential. Metal is the defender or the body. Opening to the nose, and showing in the skin and hair, metal is the first layer of defense against that which invades the body. Since metal is bound with the emotion of grief, tightness of the chest, shallow breathing, and the heaviness that comes with this feeling directly affects the lungs.


Finally is the Water element. Water is an integral aspect to the Kidneys. The kidneys are the regulators of the metabolism in the body. Supplying moisture to where it is needed and aiding the body is maintaining its suppleness and pliability. Water is part of the winter season in the yearly cycle. This is when things go dormant and collect themselves, storing that which is needed and planning for the future. The signals of imbalance can be ascertained through the function of the ears. For example, tinnitus (ringing of the ears) may be cause of a kidney deficiency. Just as we must push ourselves to make it through the cold winter months, this element is associated with the Will of a person, the power to strive through struggle.
The five elements permeate every characteristic of nature. Constantly generating, insulting, overbearing, and reacting towards each other in a perpetual cycle. Through observing this cyclone we divide sections and frame them into what we classify as our own existence and experience. From what we eat to how we interact as a society, the five elements are ever present. Understanding their relationships can help us to live in harmony with these changes and ultimately assist us in preventing unnecessary and extreme imbalances, whether they be emotional, physical or spiritual.

The philosophy of the Five Element Theory stretches to many aspects further than discussed here. To such an end, below are a few more interesting charts as well as a few links to recommended readings should you be interested into delving farther into the study. There is always something more to learn. I hope this process can become another tool into discovering a self-doctor within yourself.

Recommended Reading List

​Great introduction to TCM. Great source of information for the beginner as well as novice practitioner.

Full of perfectly worded imagery towards understanding basic ideologies in eastern medicine. Great reference for individual learning their own traits.

For athletic injury, minor stress, or simple symptoms, this reference is a great tool to learning the basics towards fixing your body and mind using natural energy channels and massage.

The Yellow Emperor is one of the main accredited sources of a wealth of information pertaining to everything in Chinese Medicine. This book offers a simple reading with helpful breakdowns and drawings to chart it all out.

The pinnacle of everything TCM, this canon contains a mountain of answers. Worth a read, but something that you may have to come back to. As a once over, it does not digest as well as some of the more modern and organized books.

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