Five Elements in Chinese Nutrition
The five elements in Chinese medicine can help describe the different processes and aspects of every level of our existence. Each element represents an infinite group of phenomena with a common denominator and the same energetic frequency. The five elements are: Water, Wood, Fire, Earth and Metal. When the Chinese sages observed the constant change and characterizing phenomena of nature, it inspired the five elements concept.
Each element is dynamic, in perpetual motion and reciprocal with the other elements. The Chinese term for the five elements is WU XING, which describes five different types of movements or motions.
The changing seasons are an important natural process which we are easily aware of. Each season is related to a different element. In winter, Water is the dominant element, in spring it is Wood, Fire is the element of summer, Earth is the element of the end of summer when the seasons change, and in autumn, Metal is dominant.
Wood is a living and breathing organic element and its primal essence is movement. Throughout its layers, Wood is in incessant motion from its sprouting phase through and out of the layers of earth and into the air and light. In the warm seasons, the motion of Wood is upwards and outwards, growing towards the sun, with the emergence of leaves, flowers and fruit. There is a motion of breath occurring in the leaves through photosynthesis, along with the transportation of fluids and energy (carbohydrates) through the veins in the leaves, branches and trunk. In cold seasons, the motion in Wood is inward, the leaves fall and the tree shrinks, sending its essence downwards towards the roots.
The tree symbolizes freshness of growth and the ability to regenerate and adapt. The tree can always grow up towards the sky, regardless of the angle it’s growing in on the mountain, while it can also send roots into the ground and adapt its growth patterns to the environment where it is growing. This element requires an expanse, but in the right conditions, can also grow and thrive in a limited growing space. The tree has the power to expand and grow in any direction that serves its needs, but first it must find a path to the sun above and to the water below, two essential elements for its development.
The tree grows and develops according to the seed’s genetic make-up or basic DNA, which determines its nature but not its final shape. The internal and external environment and living conditions will affect its final appearance.
The tree “sees” its environment and reacts accordingly, it is amazingly agile and adaptable, just look at all the bent and twisted trees, the trees that grow on mountain slopes, in wastelands and treetops that were shaped by the wind. The tree plans its growth and progress according to the available resources and according to the season. The tree knows when to grow and blossom and when to preserve its energy and wait for the right minute to act.
Fire is an element of eruption and is capable of spreading. The essence of Fire is heat. Fire is essential for life and appears in different layers of nature and human life. The Fire element is expressed by the sun, in daylight and in the light of consciousness, in the human power of awareness, thinking, verbal communication, in warmth and love among living beings, in physical contact, in metabolic heat and in the heat of the cooking fire.
Fire needs flammable material and feeds on the element of Wood, is affected by the wind and its movement changes direction quickly. Fire can be wild and unexpected, like an erupting volcano in nature or like falling madly and wildly in unrestrained love.
Fire evokes inspiration and is responsible for all the mental functions such as cognitive perception, creating symbols, invoking ideas, insights and views. Fire helps express creative ideas in an organized, comprehensible and applicable manner, using symbolic, intelligent, verbal, mathematical, musical or visual methods. We connect with ourselves, with fellowmen and with our milieu through heat.
All living beings need and are dependent upon heat for their survival. Without heat we cannot function at all. All the physiological processes in our bodies slow down until we finally cool down completely and die. Heat promotes movement, stimulates the blood flow, is essential for digestion and food absorption and for all the chemical and metabolic processes that constantly occur in our bodies. Heat is vital for children’s physical, emotional and mental growth. In the circle of life, the Fire phase is expressed during puberty and in the transition to adulthood and independence.
The element of Fire is related to the summer and it provides nature and man with the heat they need to blossom and mature. This heat is the foundation for pleasure, openness and communication, which lead to mature love and joy. The essence of joy is in giving. Fire, love and joy must be given, shared and dispersed.
A central axis of stability is the essence of the Earth element, allowing processes and change to occur. Earth is capable of absorbing, receiving, including, nurturing and supporting motion and growth. Fertile earth with the right moistness will enable the transition of seed to tree. Mother Earth nurtures her children and lets them grow and develop. The initial connection between Mother Earth and her child is the most meaningful for the ability to identify with the human within and humanity as a whole. The stronger and healthier the initial connection is between Mother Earth and her child, the more the adult will believe in her/himself and feel confident, expand further connections with others thus fulfilling his purpose as an adult. Earth is the empathic glue that connects people. The stability and confidence Earth provides emerges from its ability to create a routine and a constant harmonious rhythm. This rhythm is expressed by the persistent renewal of flora and the transition of the seasons. Earth contributes to man’s peace and quiet, to homeliness, compassion and connection to the ground. This grounding connection provides for life’s practical aspects, family life, work, meals and rest.
The Earth is responsible for digestion, absorption, secretion, changing matter into energy and transporting it throughout the body. The digestion process occurs both physically and mentally, in unison, with food as with thoughts. Therefore, Earth has a crucial role in man’s development of cognitive abilities, focus, memory and separating the wheat from the chaff.
Metal has clear boundaries and its essence is extraction, concentration, inward contemplation and separation. In ancient Chinese writing the Metal element isn’t described as a hard and robust substance, quite the opposite is true: ‘The quality of Metal is to obey the artist’s desire and bend into different shapes’. While Metal is tougher than Water or Wood, it yields to the intensity of Fire, and is much easier to mold. Water takes the shape of its vessel but it cannot keep shape on its own. Wood can be bent, only to straighten back again. Metal can be melted and worked on countless times, molded into shape while maintaining stability.
Autumn is the season that reflects the element of Metal. In autumn there is an abundance of crops on the one hand and the fear of insufficiency on the other. The same goes for sunset; at sunset, light intensities are great, while it’s also the onset of night, darkness and cold. Decomposition and death of plants in autumn prepare the ground for renewed growth. The ground absorbs the elements and minerals of last year’s flora through the rain that washes the dead dry leaves. Together these form the strata for strong lively growth in spring. Nature’s process of letting go of the old and letting in the new is quite the same in man. Autumn symbolizes a time for cleansing, ending and harvesting. The body is cleansed by the Metal element and its related body tissues which communicate with the universe: the lungs, the skin and the large intestine.
Water is an element that flows downwards and its essence is will power, consistency and persistence. Water flows in one direction and overcomes every obstacle in its way. Unlike the Wood element, which is in principle a creative motion towards a goal, still waters run deep, advancing passively yet with characteristic persistence. Water can wear down the strongest rock effortlessly, and penetrate tough to reach areas. Winter reflects the element of Water. The natural motion of nature in Winter is downward. The role of winter in the circle of life is to surreptitiously preserve and renew the body and nature’s deepest powers, before their full manifestation in spring and summer. During winter, daylight shortness and night is prolonged, and a process of inward motion, animal hibernation and deciduous trees occurs. Water symbolizes the abyss and death on the one hand, and also the beginning of covert motion and creation of new life.
The following table includes additional features of each element:
|Season||Winter||Spring||Summer||End of Summer/Between Seasons||Autumn|
|Motion||Downwards||Outwards in all Directions||Upwards||Static||Constriction|
|Phase in Life||Fetal||Childhood||Puberty||Adulthood||Old Age|
|Tissue||Bones||Tendons and Ligaments||Blood Vessels||Muscles||Skin|
|Internal Organ||Kidneys and Bladder||Liver and Gallbladder||Heart and Small Intestine||Spleen and Stomach||Lungs and Large Intestine|
|Cooking Method||Low heat prolonged cooking||Light cooking crispy food||Strong heat short cooking||Moderate cooking, a little water||More water, more time|
There are nutritional and regulating cyclical relations between the different elements. Each element in the circle feeds the next element after it, so Water irrigates the tree, Wood inflames the Fire, ash from the Fire turns into fertile Earth, deep in the Earth’s soil metals are forged, and Metal collects the Water. In the circle of regulation, Water regulates Fire, Fire melts Metal, Metal cuts the Wood, Wood holds on to Earth, Earth delimits Water.
Each element has an entire group of foods that characterize it:
|Millet||Rice (all types)|
|Vegetables||Roots||Stalks||Leaves and Flowers||Bulbs||White Vegetables|
|Oils and Seeds||Black Sesame||Pumpkin Seeds||Sunflower Seeds||Whole Sesame||Flax|
Applying the Five Elements Model in Therapy
Chinese nutrition therapy is based on diagnosing which element is out of balance and recommending foods that will help restore the patient’s balance. The five elements are used as medicine which enable to precisely match the food to the patient’s character, his medical needs, age and type of work he does.
For example: a patient complains about lower back pain, knee problems, nocturia and loss of hearing. There is seemingly no connection between the different symptoms the patient related, but according to Chinese medicine, all of the symptoms are related to the energetic system of the Water element and to the kidneys and bladder. Therefore a weakness in the Water element can be diagnosed.
In nutritional therapy we can choose food that resonates the Water element, in order to strengthen the energy of the kidneys and the lower part of the body. We may choose to also use foods from the Metal family to reinforce the Water element based on the nutrition circle (Metal feeds Water).