Updated: Jul 17
Welcome to this article series on Tradition Chinese Medicine (TCM). The aim of this series is to provide you with foundational and practical knowledge of TCM that you can use to improve your own health at home in daily life. The recommendations in this series are simple, accessible, and mostly free. After all, good health should be something that is accessible to everyone!
Here is a clickable table of contents for this series:
This article is Part 2: The Five Elements Profiles
Last time, we talked about foundational knowledge of TCM: yin yang, qi, blood, and the five elements. Recall that the five elements is a framework that connects the natural world to our bodies in terms of organs, emotions, flavors, colors, and more.
Image Source: PowerPoint Wizardry by Yours Truly
This article will go in-depth into the five elements in terms of
Then it will go into detail for each element:
Organs and Emotions
Something else amazing about this framework is that it explains how our organs and emotions are linked. In the west, we tend to think that emotions are separate from the physical body. If someone has emotional problems such as anger, anxiety, or depression, we just think it’s all in their mind, and they need to fix their mind. But in TCM, anger issues are linked to a problem in the liver, depression would be linked to a problem in the lungs, and depression would be linked to a problem in the digestive organs. But nurturing those organs back to health, the emotions get better too! Part 4 of this series will go into more details about each organ.
Flavors and Colors
While medicine looks at food in terms of nutrients, TCM looks at food in terms of the elemental qualities. Part 3 of this series will go into depth about food and cooking, but for the purposes of this article, here are some examples of foods that fit under each element.
Image Source: Yours Truly
You'll notice that each element also has a corresponding color, as shown above in the color of each row. Eating foods of that element’s color also helps to balance that element. Here are common foods under each color category:
Green (wood): leafy greens, beans, avocado
Red (fire): tomatoes, carrots, strawberries, raspberries, apples
Yellow (earth): lemon, soy beans, barley, summer squash, potatoes
White (metal): daikon radish, turnip, cauliflower, potatoes, mushrooms, garlic, onion, and apples
Blue or Black (Water): seaweed/kelp, black beans, black rice, blackberries, blue berries, eggplant/aubergine
We have all five elements in our bodies, but most of are born with one primary element. Depending on which element is dominant in your body, you tend to have different personalities. Note that you could acquire characteristics of other elements if that element becomes unbalanced. For example, if I am an earth person, then I would naturally be very nurturing towards others. But if my liver gets hurt, then I might start to have anger issues.
You can take this quiz to find out which element you are, or keep on reading and figure it out yourself. When thinking about your element, think about what’s been nature to you when you were healthy as opposed only your current situation.
Now, let’s get into the profiles of each element.
The wood element season is spring; this is when all the new plants are growing. As expected, the wood element’s color is green, just like spring. The taste associated with wood is sour because fruits are still new and unripe in the spring, and so they have a sour taste.
The liver and the gallbladder are the wood element organs. They both detox the body and nourish the blood, which then strengthens the hair and nails.
The positive emotions of the wood element are love, compassion, and growth; the negative emotions are frustration, anger, resentment, procrastination, and indecision. Being able to make decisions is related to the gallbladder.
A typical wood personality person is always climbing for the top, just like how a tree keeps trying to grow taller. They are very ambitious, passionate, and decision. They are also prone to anger, frustration, and resentment, and sometimes have difficulty cooperating with others.
Wood people are usually and lean with broad shoulders and a straight back. They tend to have a long face and olive skin tone. They dislike windy weather in spring time.
🌳 Lifestyle Tips
When wood is out of balance, people usually experience symptoms such as getting stressed easily, tightness in the neck and shoulders, headaches, short temper, and often waking up between 1AM to 3AM.
To balance wood, it’s important to keep the qi moving to prevent qi stagnation. Doing more vigorous exercises is suitable, such as running, boxing, and many sports. Since wood people naturally work very hard, it’s important to have enough deep rest. That means getting enough sleep and doing restful activities such as meditation and yoga. For food, eat more sour flavors such as lemon/lime, oranges, tomatoes, and olives. Also eat more green foods such as leafy greens, beans, and avocadoes.
The fire element season is summer; this is when we have the most amount of heat and sun. As expected, the color associated with fire is red. Intuitively, you might think fire has the spicy taste, but the fire element is actually associated with the bitter taste. Here’s a good way to remember this: During spring, plants are still small and often get eaten by bugs, but as they grow bigger in the summer, they produce bitter chemicals that make them less appealing to bugs.
The fire element has two organs: the heart and small intestines, both of which play a big role in our emotions. The heart is the emotion center. The small intestines produce serotonin, which regulates mood and happiness in the body.
The fire element is linked to the positive emotions of joy, happiness, and love. The negative emotions of the fire element are sadness and anxiety, which are both emotions felt in the chest.
A typical fire person is usually very passionate, optimistic, communicative, and charismatic. They enjoy connecting with people and dislike feeling isolated, and they might have difficulties with boundaries in relationships.
A fire person tends to have broad shoulders, wide teeth, and a slightly pointed head. Their hair may be curly or thinning, and their skin complexion tends to be reddish. They dislike the hot weather in summer.
🔥 Lifestyle Tips
When fire is out of balance, people usually experience symptoms such as mild anxiety, lacking joy, difficulty sleeping, vivid dreams, poor blood circulation, and spontaneous sweating.
To balance fire, it’s important to manage stress with relaxation activities such as meditation, breathing exercises, and yoga. Make sure to set aside time to wind-down and relax before bed time to help you sleep. It’s also important to stay cool in hot weather.
For food, eat more bitter flavors. Many leafy greens have bitterness, such as kale, arugula, lettuce, and broccoli. Other foods with bitterness include asparagus, celery, parsley, bitter melon, and tea. Eating red foods also help, such as tomatoes, carrots, strawberries, raspberries, and red-skinned apples.
(I couldn’t find an emoji showing just soil, so the next best thing was soil with a sapling.)
The earth element is linked to the late summer season. This is the time when fruits ripen and become sweet, hence the taste associated with earth is sweet. The color associated with earth is yellow because yellow grass comes out late summer.
The stomach and spleen are the earth element organs. Just as we can throw waste onto the soil, and then the earth turns it into nourishment for plants, our digestive organs transforms food into nourishment for the body.
The positive emotions associated with earth are trust and openness to all things. The negative emotions of earth are worry and overthinking. The area where you feel the earth element in your body is the solar plexus (under the chest, above the belly button). When people start to worry, their solar plexus tighten, so breathing fully to the abdomen helps to relax worry.
A typical earth person is a dependable and loyal friend who excels at forming deep-connections and long-term relationships. Just as the earth nurtures all, an earth person nurtures other, making sure they feel safe and comfortable. They are social people and peacemakers, so they often end up resolving conflict between other people. Earth people are also prone to worrying and overthinking things.
An earth person tends to have a strong body frame with well-built muscles, especially in the back and legs. Their face is typically round with a wide jaw, their skin has a yellowish tone. They dislike the humid and damp weather in late summer.
🌱 Lifestyle Tips
When earth is out of balance, people usually experience symptoms such as digestive problems, excessive burping or gas, poor appetite, cravings for sweet foods, weight gain, fatigue especially around 3PM, mental fog especially after waking up, and poor muscle strength.
To balance earth, you need to strengthen your digestive organs. You can do that by eating well cooked and warm foods. Naturally sweet flavored foods, not processed sugary foods, are good for the digestive system. Examples include whole grains, potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, peas, and many fruits. But don’t eat too many raw fruits because that raw and cold energy hurts the stomach. Cooking your fruits would be better. Yellow foods are also helpful, such as lemon, soy beans, barley, summer squash, and potatoes.
Walking is a suitable exercise for earth because it is energizing and also helps you clear your mind. Do activities to calm your mind and worries, such as meditation, journaling, yoga, and the like.
The metal element is associated to the season of autumn, which is all about the falling leaves. Falling leaves represent letting go of things we don’t need and only holding onto the necessary things. The color of the metal element is white, which symbolizes death. The taste associated with metal is pungent and aromatic, which you’ll notice in fragrant spices like garlic, ginger, and basil. The sound of the metal element is crying since the trees are sad to let go of their trees in autumn.
The idea of metal being an element might seem confusing, but the reason metal is used is because this element can shape other elements, just as how a knife can shape food. You can also think of metal as similar to the element of air. The metal element is associated with dryness and the skin because there is cold and dry wind in autumn.
The two organs associated with the metal element are the lungs and large intestines. The lungs bring in nourishment, while the large intestines let go of waste, just like how in fall, trees bring in nutrients and let go of their leaves to prepare for winter. The metal element is also associated with the skin; A person with the metal element constitution typically has a white a silver glow around them.
The positive emotions associated with metal are connection and courage. The negative emotions are sorrow and attachment; An example is losing someone or something you love and then being unable to live in the present moment anymore.
A metal person has a high level of integrity and discipline. They are like a well-sharpened sword: very meticulous and efficient. They have a very rational approach to life, and they appreciate beauty. They are not spontaneous, and they dislike disorder. If they see others breaking the rules or doing things the “wrong” way, they might become overly critical. They can also be prone to sadness and melancholy since they struggle with letting go of the past.
A metal person tends to have a smaller body with a flat stomach, but they have a strong voice. Their face has a squarish shape, and their skin is usually pale. They dislike the dry weather in autumn.
🛠 Lifestyle Tips
When metal is out of balance, people usually experience symptoms such as easily catching colds and flus, shortness of breath, congested nose, constipation, dry skin, tiredness, and grief.
To balance metal, it’s important to strengthen the lungs, which circulate air and qi around the body. You can do breathing exercises or Qi Gong. Since metal people are prone to sadness, it’s extra important to maintain an active social life. Participating in community activities is a great way to do that.
For food, you can eat more pungent flavors such as onions, chives, garlic, fresh ginger, chili peppers, cinnamon, and wasabi. Naturally white foods also help, such as daikon radish, turnip, cauliflower, potatoes, and mushrooms. This does not include processed foods like white bread and white sugar. It’s also important to avoid mucus-inducing foods such as dairy, sweets, and fried foods.
The water element season is winter, which is a time of survival, isolation, and reflection. The colors associated with water are blue and black. The taste is salty just like ocean water and sea vegetables.
The two organs associated with the water element are the kidneys and the bladder. The kidneys filtrate water, while the bladder eliminates water. In TCM, a lot of our energy comes from the kidneys, so the sound of the water element is the groaning that goes with physical exertion, as if you’re lifting a heavy weight and throw it.
The positive emotions associated with water are willpower and calm. You can do whatever must be done. The negative emotions are fear, so you won’t be able to act when you need to act.
A water person is independent, sensible, objective, introspective, and wise. They are also
easygoing people that go with the flow, just like water. They have strong willpower and determination, and they are a seeker of knowledge and wisdom. Since they are so introspective, they will become withdrawn from others or speak without thinking about other people’s feelings beforehand. They are also prone to fear.
A water person tends to have narrow shoulders and a long spine. They tend to have a larger belly. Their face is round with broad cheeks, and their skin complexion has dark tones. They dislike the cold weather in winter.
🌊 Lifestyle Tips
When water is out of balance, people usually experience symptoms such as aches in joints, especially in the lower back, knees, or ankles; a feeling of heaviness or swelling due to fluid retention; memory problems; hearing difficulties, and cravings for salty foods.
To balance water, it’s important to support the kidneys by drinking enough water and avoiding stimulants like coffee, cola, and energy drinks. Water people feel good near water, so swimming in the ocean or even a bath is great for them. Do exercises that are calming and have low impact on the joints, such as yoga and Pilates.
For food, eat more naturally salty foods such as seaweed/kelp, miso, millet, barley, fermented products, pickles, parsley, and celery. Black or blue foods also help, such as seaweed/kelp, black beans, black rice, blackberries, blue berries, and eggplant/aubergine.
Our bodies are connected to nature via the five elements framework. That means our organs, emotions, and food are all inter-connected. When we live in accordance with nature, then health occurs. When lose our natural balance, then illness starts. This article explained the five elements in terms of characteristics, organs, emotions, personality, body, and lifestyle tips. After reading this article, I hope you can identify your dominant element and take simple actions to support your health. The next article will go into depth about food and cooking.