Earth, Fire, Water, Metal, Wood.
No we are not trying to call upon Captain Planet, although apparently there was a philosopher that went around gallivanting around town wearing a bright purple get up as he expounded his theory of elements, but that’s not what we are talking about here. We are talking about the five elements in Chinese Medicine. Or better, it is considered the five phases. After observing the process and changes of nature they were given the characterization and description of the 5 phases. So what do these elements or phases have to do with our body?
Well, along with noting what each element is characteristic of they also ascribed them to specific Chinese organ pairs. The names of the organs are the same as in western anatomy, but the functions and understanding of these organs are very different. Water is composed of the Kidney and Bladder, Wood is Liver and Gallbladder, Fire has a few more, the Heart, Small Intestine, Pericardium and a unique designation called the Triple Burner, Earth is composed of the Spleen and Stomach and lastly Metal is the Lung and Large Intestine. Along with the characteristics of the elements, each organ also has a characteristic and function. There are descriptions of the physiology of the organ as well as what can be expected in disease. These functions are not only ascribed to our physical condition but our mental/emotional states as well.
It is important to point out that the five elements are meant to represent the organs that each are associated with and that these have a relationship, but that the elements are meant to be symbolic and that we need to look at the functions of the organs themselves. The relationship that these have are the following. There is the generating cycle and the controlling cycle. The generating cycle means that one element supports the next. This is similar in western medicine where the heart and kidneys have a delicate relationship in maintaining blood pressure by the amount of sodium the kidneys retain to how much pressure is being exerted by the heart through the vessels. If you look at the image in this post you can see how Water feeds into Wood and Wood into Fire and so on. We call this the mother and child relationship. By knowing this we can also start to see patterns of disharmony. Sometimes the mother is excessive and smothers the child. At other times the child is excessive and either takes the energy of the mother or will go and flow in the opposite direction attacking the mother. In the controlling cycle the element skips one to control the next, we call this the grandmother. It is there to make sure that the child is well behaved. However there are times where the grandmother over steps and can be overpowering of the child. At other times the child is so excessive that it even overpowers the grandmother.
This observational technique is one of the ways we are able to understand one’s condition of health and also why one might be experiencing and imbalance, resulting in some form of condition. For example, one common relationship we see is between the Wood and Earth. The Liver from the wood is meant to provide a smooth and coherent functioning of our bodily systems and the Spleen from the Earth is responsible for our digestive properties. When these two are in disharmony we can often see a situation of Wood overacting on Earth, which in western terms looks like irritable bowel syndrome.
When western diagnosis or scientific research is unable to offer guidance or treat some of the conditions we have it is not necessarily their fault, they just have a different way of understanding and looking at the body. In Chinese medicine we take a global perspective and look at the relationships between the various systems at play in our body. Albeit the language and descriptions may be somewhat metaphoric, with the 1000 of years of clinical practice and application, this medicine is still practiced today so they were on to something when they looked theses phases and elements.