chinese medicine

The Five Elements

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.

What is Yin and Yang?

Foundational to Acupuncture and Chinese medicine is the concept of Yin and Yang. It’s a fairly simple idea but can become very complex and multi layered. It is probably something you have seen more often than thought about or heard about. The symbol is depicted by a circle, one half white with a black dot and the other half black with  white dot, both drawn in a way where they are encircling and merging into and out of each other.

What these two colors indicate is that where there is life there is duality, we have light and heavy, cold and hot, active and passive and so on so forth. It is the simplest way to observe the world around us. Yin and Yang can be applied to anything and everything.

One of the ways that we use this in acupuncture is that it helps us to differentiate the diagnosis. Yin and Yang are broken down to the following;

Yang   /   Yin

Hot   /   Cold

Exterior   /    Interior

Excess   /    Deficient

All aspects of the condition of someone’s symptoms can be differentiated with these categories. If we are talking about place, an exterior condition involves the more superficial aspects of the body closer to the skin. Exterior often refers to some form of outside influence that is affecting the person. For example, if the temperature is cold outside if we have a strong system we are able to combat the advances of the cold but if we are run down and down have the energy to fight this, the cold may invade the body causing us to have a reaction and show symptoms of “catching a cold”. If it is interior we are talking about deeper parts of our body, which would refer more to our organs. We won’t go into depth here but the organs in Acupuncture each have a special function and if they are out of balance they can manifest with their own set of symptoms. Most interior imbalances arise from emotional stress, diet and working too hard. Looking at the difference of hot and cold, if one has a raging fever or there is red, hot swelling or the person just tends to run hot these would point to patterns of heat. However if they have the chills and feeling cold, have a sensation of cold in their joints or their body is cool to the touch that would indicate patterns of cold. Then the last set of differences is the comparison of excess and deficient. When in excess this refers to the body’s ability to be strong and be full of the necessary energy to combat the disease. If one is deficient, this indicates that the body is weak, tired and if there is some form of illness that it is not able to fight against it very well.

This is just a very small part of a much greater, much more complex theory of chinese medicine and acupuncture, but hopefully it give you a glimpse into the way that we think and the way that we see the world. These methods and techniques have been around for centuries. They might not adhere to western, scientific method of analysis, but these practices continue to this day so the proof is in the pudding.