Updated: Jul 6
Welcome to this article series on Traditional 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. Here is a clickable table of contents to help you navigate the article:
Part 1: Characteristics
1.1 🌳 Characteristics
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.
1.2 🔥 Characteristics
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.
1.3 🌱 Characteristics
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.
1.4 🛠 Characteristics
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.
1.5 🌊 Characteristics
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.
Part 2: Organs
2.1 🌳 Organs
The Liver and the Gallbladder are the wood element organs. They both detox the body and nourish Blood, which then strengthens the hair and nails.
2.2 🔥 Organs
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. Similar to how the Small Intestines separates nutrients from waste, it also helps our mind to differentiate from right and wrong or good and bad.
2.3 🌱 Organs
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 transform food into nourishment for the body. In TCM, the Stomach holds the food, while the Spleen is responsible for digestion and nutrient absorption. In other words, the TCM Spleen includes some of the functions of the western idea of pancreas and small intestines.
2.4 🛠 Organs
The two organs associated with the metal element are the Lungs and Large Intestines. The Lungs bring in nourishment (oxygen), while the Large Intestines let go of waste. The Lungs are also related to the immune system according to TCM.
2.5 🌊 Organs
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, the Kidneys are also related to our reproductive organs.
Part 3: Emotions
Western medicine tends to view emotions as separate from the physical body, but TCM explains that emotions are connected to our organs. Therefore, if we have trouble with a certain emotion, then healing the organ associated with that emotion will help us with that emotion. Amazing!
Image Source: Yours Truly
When an element is in balance, we experience the positive emotions associated with it. When an element is out of balance, we experience the negative emotions associated with it. As the next section, personality, will explain, each of us has one or two elements that are strongest in our body constitution, meaning we are prone to different emotions based on our innate constitution.
3.1 🌳 Emotions
Positive emotions: love, compassion, and growth
Negative emotions: frustration, anger; procrastination, and indecision.
Anger and frustration relate to the an unbalanced Liver, while indecision and procrastination relate to an unbalanced Gallbladder
3.2 🔥 Emotions
Positive emotions: joy, happiness, and love.
Negative emotions: sadness, anxiety, overjoy
Notice that the fire emotions are all felt in the chest, near the Heart. Overjoy is also considered an unhealthy fire emotion because it leads to a big low afterwards.
3.3 🌱 Emotions
Positive emotions: trust and openness
Negative emotions: 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.
3.4 🛠 Emotions
Positive emotions: connection and courage
Negative emotions: sorrow and attachment
An example of attachment is losing someone or something you love and then being unable to let go of the past.
3.5 🌊 Emotions
Positive emotions: willpower and calm
Negative emotions: fear and shock; resentment, jealousy, suspicion
When water is in balance, you can do whatever must be done. When the Kidneys are out of balance, people feel fear or shock. When the Bladder is out of balance, people hold on to resentment and grudges over seemingly small things from a long time ago. They are also prone to jealousy and suspicion.
Part 4: Personality
We all have all five elements in our bodies, but most of us have one or two dominant ones. Depending on which one or two elements are 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(s) you are, or keep on reading and figure it out yourself. When thinking about your element, think about what’s been natural to you when you were healthy as opposed to only your current situation.
As with the emotions section, the strengths will appear if the element is in balance, and the weaknesses will appear if the element is out of balance.
4.1 🌳 Personality
A typical wood personality person is always climbing for the top, just like how a tree keeps trying to grow taller.
Strengths: goal-setter, high-achiever, planner, gets things done
Weaknesses: over-achiever; gets impatient, irritable, or frustrated easily; stubborn (my way or the highway)
4.2 🔥 Personality
A typical fire person is usually very passionate and warm, just like fire.
Strengths: passionate, fun, and charismatic
Weaknesses: easily gets distracted or bored, doesn't like being alone, might not keep their word.
4.3 🌱 Personality
A typical earth person is a nurturing and compassionate person, just like how the earth nourishes all living beings.
Strengths: loyal, empathetic, great at resolving conflicts, and great at forming deep and long-term relationships.
Weaknesses: prone to worry and overthinking, sensitive to criticism, and might get taken advantage of by others.
4.4 🛠 Personality
A metal person is like a well-sharpened sword: very meticulous and efficient. They are not spontaneous, and they dislike disorder
Strengths: dependable, hardworking, and disciplined.
Weaknesses: difficulties opening up and sharing their feelings in close relationships; prone to feeling sad, misunderstood, or lonely.
4.5 🌊 Personality
A water person is able to go with the flow, just like water.
Strengths: easygoing, creative, self-reflective, and artistic; When in balance, they have strong willpower and determination, and they are seekers of wisdom.
Weaknesses: when unbalanced, they are prone to self-doubt and fear of failure, which might make them have low motivation.
Part 5: Body Types
5.1 🌳 Body Type
Wood people are usually lean and slim with broad shoulders and a straight back. They tend to have a long face and olive skin tone.
5.2 🔥 Body Type
A fire person tends to have a heart shaped face, smaller hands and feet, broad shoulders, wide teeth, and a slightly pointed head. Their hair may be curly or thinning, and their skin complexion tends to be reddish.
5.3 🌱 Body Type
An earth person tends to have a pear-shaped body with rounded buttocks and a strong body frame. Their face is typically round with a wide jaw, their skin has a yellowish tone.
5.4 🛠 Body Type
A metal person tends to have broad shoulders, a squarish face with defined facial features, pale skin, a flat Stomach, and maybe a smaller body. They usually have a strong voice.
5.5 🌊 Body Type
A water person tends to have a round baby face, soft skin, narrow shoulders, and a long spine. They tend to have a larger belly.
Part 6: Balancing Each Element
When an element gets out of balance in our body, we will experience some negative symptoms. We can re-balance the elements using lifestyle factors such as food, exercise, and rest. For further details, check out Part 3 of this TCM series on food and Part 4 on organs.
6.1 🌳 Balancing Wood
Out-of-Balance Symptoms: Getting stressed easily, tightness in the neck and shoulders, headaches, short temper, and often waking up between 1AM to 3AM.
Lifestyle Tips: Keep the Qi moving through vigorous exercises and sports; have enough deep sleep to prevent burnout; do restful activities such as meditation and yoga.
Food: Eat more sour flavors such as lemon/lime, oranges, tomatoes, and olives. Also eat more green foods such as leafy greens, beans, and avocados.
6.2 🔥 Balancing Fire
Out-of-Balance Symptoms: mild anxiety, lacking joy, difficulty sleeping, vivid dreams, poor Blood circulation, and spontaneous sweating.
Lifestyle Tips: Do relaxation activities such as meditation, breathing exercises, and yoga; Set aside time to wind-down and relax before sleep; Stay cool in hot weather.
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 helps, such as tomatoes, carrots, strawberries, raspberries, and red-skinned apples.
6.3 🌱 Balancing Earth
Out-of-Balance Symptoms: 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.
Lifestyle Tips: 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, or tai chi.
Food: To balance earth, you need to strengthen your digestive organs. You can do that by eating well-cooked and warm-temperature 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.
6.4 🛠 Balancing Metal
Out-of-Balance Symptoms: Easily catching colds and flus, shortness of breath, congested nose, constipation, dry skin, tiredness, and grief.
Lifestyle Tips: 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.
Food: Eat more pungent flavored foods 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.
6.5 🌊 Balancing Water
Out-of-Balance Symptoms: 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.
Lifestyle Tips: 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.
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. You can also add some natural sea salt (which is much better than processed table salt according to TCM) to your cooking, but don't overdo it.
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 we lose our natural balance, then illness starts. This article explained the five elements in terms of characteristics, organs, emotions, personality, body type, and balancing 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.