How the Five Elements are Used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to Treat Various Health Conditions

The Five Elements Theory, a key concept in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), is used to explain health imbalances and conditions. It is rooted in the Chinese philosophy of Wuxing which also appears in Eastern astrology, feng shui, and other early Chinese fields of study. The five fundamental elements or ‘phases’ are wood, water, fire, earth and metal. Individuals each have certain characteristics of a particular element, used for diagnosis, and each element corresponds with different organs, energies and biological functions, which informs treatment options. In this blog, we’ll explore in more detail how these five elements are used in TCM to diagnose and treat various health conditions. 


Wood (Mu): The Liver and Gallbladder  


In TCM, the wood element governs the liver and gallbladder and is associated with feelings of anger, frustration and irritability when out of balance. The liver is responsible for blood flow and as a result, the flow of Qi (energy) in the body. For this reason, an imbalance in the wood element may lead to physical stagnation — causing headaches, tension, PMT, or digestive issues. To treat a wood element imbalance, TCM practitioners will look to improve liver health and ensure Qi is stimulated. Herbs like Bupleurum and Milk Thistle are often used to support liver function. Tai Chi and Qi Gong can help release tension and promote flexibility. When women are experiencing period pain and PMT, the herb cyperus may be used to relieve symptoms. 


When it comes to lifestyle recommendations, vigorous exercises such as running and boxing may be introduced, as individuals governed by this element tend to have a lot of built-up energy. Adequate rest is also important, to keep those affected by the wood element calm and centred. Alcohol, coffee, sugary drinks and food should be avoided and replaced with leafy green vegetables, sour flavours like lemon juice, and herbal tea — particularly peppermint tea — which can be used to aid natural detoxification processes. 


Fire (Huo): The Heart and Small Intestine 


Fire relates to a person’s heart and small intestine in Traditional Chinese Medicine. When a fire-influenced individual is out of balance, their nervous system will suffer, causing anxiety symptoms and restlessness. Similar to the liver in the wood element, the heart in the fire element regulates blood flow through the body and can influence a person’s energy — in this case, causing stress as opposed to sluggishness as it does in the wood element. In TCM, the heart is also regarded as the Emperor of the body, or the ‘spirit’ and an essential element for emotional well-being. The herb polygala or herbal formulas like Suan Zao Ren Tang may be prescribed to treat insomnia and anxiety symptoms. Remedial massage can also be particularly helpful, as it improves circulation and regulates blood pressure.


To counteract the heating effects of the fire element, switching to a diet of cooling foods including leafy greens, watermelon and cucumbers, and drinking plenty of water is advised, particularly during warmer weather. People ruled by fire should make reducing stress levels a primary focus by incorporating meditation and relaxation techniques such as gentle stretches and walks into their lifestyle.


Earth (Tu): The Stomach and Spleen


The element of earth in TCM is concerned with the stomach and spleen. It is central to digestion and nutrient absorption. An imbalance in this element can result in digestive problems and fatigue and people of this type may be more prone to excessive thinking. Aromatic herbs, associated with digestion are likely to be mentioned by Traditional Chinese Medicine herbalists treating an earth-influenced person. These include ginger, cinnamon, licorice root, star anise and ginseng. Citrus peel, also known as Chen Pi, is a common ingredient used in TCM which can relieve symptoms like nausea and bloating. A TCM practitioner may also recommend cupping therapy to treat digestive issues and drain toxins.


Those with an earth constitution should make nurturing their digestive system a primary health goal. They can do this by sticking to regular meal times, simplifying dishes and introducing friendly bacteria to their gut with fermented foods like sauerkraut or kimchi, or probiotic-rich foods. Warm, easy-to-digest foods such as soups and stews can also aid digestion. To reduce overthinking, stress-reduction techniques and taking additional time to rest should also be considered. 


Metal (Jin): The Lungs and Large Intestine 


In TCM’s Five Elements Theory, the metal element is believed to govern the lungs and large intestine. Consequently, those who experience an imbalance of this element may notice respiration issues, skin problems or the inability to eliminate waste in the body. It can also lead to difficulty processing emotions, as this element is associated with grief or sadness. As it encompasses the nose, throat and all aspects of breathing, metal is associated with the absorption of Qi from the air. Those treating an imbalance in the metal element will likely suggest herbs related to the immune system such as Chinese licorice, which works to relieve coughs and soothe sore throats, and Astragalus, which is traditionally used to strengthen lung gi and improve immunity. Qi gong exercises and therapeutic techniques such as journaling or counselling may also be incorporated to support emotional balance.                       


Immune system health is essential to metal-influenced individuals. Deep breathing techniques should be implemented to help circulate Qi around the body through the lungs. When it comes to diet, foods rich in antioxidants can prove beneficial, such as broccoli, cauliflower and citrus fruits (which are rich in vitamin C). Pungent foods such as garlic, onion, ginger and shallots should be included in meals from time to time as they are good for the lungs and can reduce mucus build-up.


Water (Shui): The Kidneys and Bladder


Water represents fluidity in the TCM Five Elements Theory and is associated with the kidneys and bladder. This element is also responsible for regulating and maintaining all the body’s fluids and is said to help balance yin and yang in the body. When there is an imbalance of this element in water-influenced individuals they are more likely to experience lower back pain, reproductive issues, or kidney-related problems, as well as feelings of fear. Herbs traditionally taken as kidney tonics are suggested for people experiencing an imbalance of the water element to nourish the kidneys and support longevity. Such tonics include Rehmannia, He Shou Wu, goji berry, and horny goat weed. Soothing practices like meditation and visualisation can also help an individual connect and strengthen kidney Qi.


Proper hydration should be the primary goal for people of this element. Caffeine, soft drinks and other stimulants should be avoided. Along with drinking plenty of water, swimming and bathing in it is also advised and calming exercises such as yoga and pilates will prove most beneficial. Salty foods are associated with the water element, but excessive intake can strain the kidneys, so moderation is crucial. 


Keen to Learn More?


While the above is used generally in Traditional Chinese Medicine for understanding one’s health and the interconnectedness of the body, mind and spirit, it’s important to note that treatment is highly individualised. A TCM practitioner will assess a person’s constitution and specific imbalances prior to recommending a tailored treatment plan. If you’re interested in learning more about TCM and the Five Element Theory, consider enrolling at the Sydney Institute of Traditional Chinese Medicine. We offer VET courses, Bachelor courses and appointments at our teaching clinic at affordable rates. Learn more about our courses and clinic today.