Thousands of years ago (476-221 BC) in China, a doctor devised a theory for understanding illness and health called The Theory of the Five Elements. His name was Zou Yen. After much observation and study, Zou Yen saw that everything in the world from the tiniest parts to the largest, have an influence on each other. In the body, your internal organs like your heart and your stomach work with your blood and energy to keep you going. In a similar way, humans are a working part of the environment and things like the seasons and weather have an effect on our bodies.
Zou Yen, along with others, wrote down all the details of his complex theory and today, Practitioners of Traditional Chinese medicine use it to help them recognize patterns of illness.
The five elements are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. They help to show how natural states work together in cycles. Sometimes this theory is called the Five Phases because it describes these cycles better. The creation, or generation, cycle shows how one element nurtures the other to help it grow. Zou Yen said it was like a mother tending a child. Wood feeds fire, or wood is the mother of fire, fire creates earth (by turning wood to ash so it can return to the soil), earth bears metal (like how you can mine for gold in a mountain), metal enriches water (that’s why people always want water with minerals in it!), and water nourishes wood (think of how rain helps the trees to grow). If you look at the chart below, you can follow the arrows from one element to the other.
When it was seen that the interactions of the organ systems of the body made a circle of five things, Zou Yen mapped them onto the Five Elements. Well, now I need to talk about the organ systems for a minute. The internal organs work in buddy teams according to their function. Each team has a yin organ and a yang organ. Yin and Yang is a big idea which says that opposite properties complement each other and work together to keep harmony in the world. The grouping together of internal organs into a system is called Zang Fu. Zang is Yin and Fu is Yang.
Zang organs manufacture and store energy and blood and the purpose of Fu organs is to digest and transmit energy and body fluids.
- Small Intestine
- Large Intestine
- Gall Bladder
The Buddy Teams Together With the Five Elements
- Heart & Small Intestine are placed with Fire
- Spleen & Stomach are placed with Earth
- Lung & Large Intestine are placed with Metal
- Kidney & Bladder are placed with Water
- Liver and Gall Bladder are placed with Wood
If you are healthy, like if you have enough healthy food but not too much, all the elements work together to nourish and balance each other. But, for instance, if you eat too much heavy, rich, or overly sweet foods, you can get a condition called Damp Spleen which means you have too much Water. Too much Water puts out the Fire and the Fire is what helps your body have enough energy. This means your digestion can become sluggish so you get stomachaches or you may have low energy. This is just one example. A Practitioner of Traditional Chinese medicine can help get these systems back in balance so that your body works in better harmony.
When modern doctors and scientists describe the body, they speak in a straightforward way but in ancient times, doctors like to make pictures or stories when they talked about body processes. They often are talking about the same thing, but in different ways.
Looking at the Five Elements is just one way to learn how all the parts of your body work together to give you a healthy and happy life!