The Five Essential Substances in Traditional Chinese Medicine Philosophy

traditional-chinese-medicineWood, fire, earth, metal, water — you are no doubt familiar with these elements in a variety of contexts. But did you know that these five substances together make up the foundation of traditional Chinese medicine? Understanding this ancient health tradition requires knowledge of how these five essential substances underpin everything from the universe to the human body.

Associations with the elements  

The five substances are aspects of qi, or the life force energy, that flows between acupuncture points and throughout the body via meridians, or channels of energy flow. Each element has associations with seasons, organs in the body, colors, senses and emotions. These concepts inform the understanding of the body and its relationship to nature and the world in the philosophy of traditional Chinese medicine. On an individual level, they help us understand who we are, what illnesses we might be prone to and how to stay healthy.

How imbalances create health problems

Unlike traditional Western medicine, this philosophy treats the mind and body as inexorably combined. Each person is made up of a unique and individual blend of these five essential substances. A person in good health will experience a harmonious balance of the elements. However, an imbalance will create both mental and physical health problems, according to traditional Chinese medicine philosophy, and those are what the practitioner aims to address through holistic rebalancing therapies.

Learn about some of the characteristics of and associations with the five essential substances and what health problems might arise with an imbalance of that element.

1. Wood 

Season: Spring

Color: Green

Characteristics: Forward-thinking, clear headed, decisive

Associated organs: Liver, gall bladder

Potential health problems: Addiction, digestive issues, migraines, eye problems, sinus ailments and menstrual problems in women

2. Fire

Season: Early summer

Color: Red

Characteristics: Charismatic, social, warm

Associated Organs: Heart, small intestine

Potential health problems: Hypertension, heart irregularities, anxiety, insomnia and other sleep disorders

3. Earth 

Season: Late summer

Color: Yellow

Characteristics: Empathetic, compassionate, grounded

Associated Organs: Stomach, spleen

Potential health problems: Digestive issues, heartburn, food allergies and sensitivities, eating disorders, fatigue

4. Metal 

Season: Fall

Color: White

Characteristics: Disciplined, organized, principled

Associated Organs: Lungs, large intestine

Potential health problems: Asthma, allergies, eczema and other skin issues, bowel diseases

5. Water

Season: Winter

Color: Black/blue

Characteristics: Adaptable, courageous determined

Associated Organs: Kidneys, bladder



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