Five element theory is one of the most fundamental of traditional Chinese medicine. It is based on the idea that the five elements of nature (wood, fire, earth, metal and water) are also present within the human body. Each one is associated with a pair of organs, and has its own vital role to play in maintaining your health.
Your state of physical and mental well-being depends on a delicate balancing act, as an issue with one of the elements can quickly have a knock-on effect on any of the others, resulting in disease. This is because the elements are connected to one another through two cycles, one of generation and one of control.
The Generating Cycle
The generating cycle is called the sheng cycle in Chinese. It describes how one element gives birth to another, as can be observed in nature.
Wood generates fire, this is an obvious connection, like burning logs to fuel a stove.
Fire generates earth, as its ashes blend with the soil, nourishing and making it fertile.
Earth generates metal, the rich minerals formed deep below its surface.
Metal generates water, this can be seen as a spring emerging from deep within the mountains.
Finally, water generates wood, it is needed to allow any plant to grow, from the tiniest blade of grass, to the strongest tree.
This is also known as the law of mother and child. Wood is the mother of fire, fire is the child of wood. Earth is the mother of metal, metal is the child of earth and so on.
Each of the elements is associated with a pair of organs, and it is important that each element is healthy and strong. If not, this can result in disease in any of the other organs.
For example, metal is associated with the lungs and large intestine. If one of these is imbalanced, it can affect not only these organs but also those of its “mother”, earth (the stomach and spleen) or its “child”, water (the urinary bladder and kidneys).
The Controlling Cycle
Known as the k'e cycle in Chinese, the controlling cycle describes how each element is responsible for keeping another in check and preventing it from becoming overactive.
As in nature, water controls fire, putting out its flames.
Fire controls metal, softening and melting it with its heat.
Metal controls wood, like an axe, cutting down a tree.
Wood controls earth, holding it in place with its roots and sucking up its nutrients.
Finally, earth controls water, blocking it like a dam and limiting its flow.
This control is important, as if any of the elements or organs become excessively active, this can cause disease. However, it is also possible for an element to over-control another, which can be equally harmful.
One example of this is the liver (wood) which is prone to excess, invading the spleen (earth). This can result in symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and other digestive symptoms.
The Five Elements and You
Another important feature of five element theory is that every person has one element which is more prone to imbalance than the others, a constitutional weakness of sorts. This often plays a large part in any illnesses which they may experience throughout the course of their lifetime.
When you see an acupuncturist or traditional Chinese medicine practitioner for the first time, they will carry out a detailed consultation. They might ask about past and present symptoms and family history as well as your diet and lifestyle. This will help them to build up a detailed picture of how your body is functioning. This includes which of your elements is imbalanced and is the root cause of your condition.
By treating this element's associated organ, symptoms in other organs will also begin to resolve. Using acupuncture or herbs, coupled with dietary and lifestyle advice, your body will be rebalanced at its very deepest level. This means that not only will your symptoms improve, but you will also feel a deep sense of well-being that comes from all of your elements and organs working together in perfect harmony.