The Five Chinese Elements: Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is rooted in over 8,000-year-old wisdom in the East. One of the main underpinnings of TCM is the five elements that make up our human constitution. These elements (wood, metal, earth, fire, and water) are related to virtually all aspects of life inside and outside our bodies. They are each connected with specific emotions, internal organs, seasons, flavors, and more. Understanding the elements can help you tailor your habits, diet, and environment to promote health and vitality.
This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Charles Penick, MD
What is Traditional Chinese Medicine?
Traditional Chinese Medicine is a branch of medicine that originates in China and is over 8,000 years old.1 This ancient healing modality has various all-natural treatment forms, including herbal medicine, acupuncture, moxibustion, gua sha, massage, cupping therapy, qigong, tai chi, and dietary therapy. In China, this treatment modality is fully standardized and makes up for up to 20% of the healthcare system.2
When it comes to TCM, the body and mind are interconnected. Our internal ‘parts’ (like our organs) and their functioning are directly related to our mental and emotional well-being.3
When it comes to TCM, everything happening in your life is meaningful. This includes every life event, every challenge, every emotion, every fear, and every craving that you’ve ever experienced is connected—connected to your health, to your state of mental and physical well-being.
This concept differs wildly from the Western school of allopathic (traditional western) medicine, which treats organs more like machines that need ‘fixing’ independent of one another. For example, in the West, podiatrists specialize in feet and ankles, cardiologists for the heart, and neurologists specialize in the brain. When it comes to TCM, one practitioner treats the whole person, and this treatment is rooted in re-establishing balance in the body so that the body can heal itself.3
What Are the 5 Chinese Elements?
The five elements are wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Each element is related to an array of aspects in one’s life, including a season, an emotion, bodily organs/ tissues, a sense, and a flavor. When operating in balance, each element has an aspect in which it thrives, and there are also clear signs when the specific element is out of balance.4
By exploring each element, you will better understand how they are connected (each flowing into the next). We will also explore how this understanding of the elements can help you achieve a greater sense of health, well-being, and overall balance.
How Can I Integrate the 5 Chinese Elements in my Life?
First, we will explore each element’s central tenets, so you can see how it operates inside and outside the body. Straight away, you may be able to connect with one element, which would make up a more significant part of your ‘constitution.’
In Chinese Medicine, everyone is born with a constitution or an energetic expression. Although every person is a combination of all five elements, some are more dominant than others.
Knowing your constitution enables you to tend to your body like a garden, realizing that it makes you more susceptible to certain things than others. For example, someone with a dominant Wood constitution may experience anger more quickly when out of balance; they need to make a particular effort to implement flow and movement into their life. They would be more likely to develop illnesses related to the liver or gallbladder, problems with sight, or tendons and ligaments.4.5
This guide is not black and white; many nuances exist in the elements, constitution, and Traditional Chinese medicine. That being said, the following information can help you better grasp the concept and start to see where you may need to support your body and mind.6,7
At its core, that’s what TCM is all about: balance. Balance of the physical body and the mind.
Emotion: anger / calm
Organs: liver, gallbladder
Tissues: tendons, ligaments
Sense Organ: sight
Thrives through: flow, growth, movement
The wood element makes us move forward in life with clarity and ease. Someone with a dominant wood constitution is a born leader with a clear vision of where they are going. When wood is balanced, this constitution enjoys adventure, is calm, flexible, and has good judgment.
A Wood Element Out of Balance
When a wood-dominant constitution is out of balance, it will show up as stiff, painful movement in the body. A wood imbalance’s common emotional symptoms include anger, irritability, impatience, arrogance, frustration, rudeness, and wanderlust. Physical symptoms of a wood imbalance include movement issues, allergies, headaches, spasms, cramps, or tics.
How to Support Wood Element Balance
Wood-dominant individuals do not do very well while staying stagnant for long periods. Wood elements will likely find disharmony if sitting at a desk for a whole workday. Opting for regular movement throughout the day (or a job where this is built-in) is critical.
Avoiding toxins is extremely important, with the liver at the forefront of this element. Avoiding environmental and chemical toxins, mold, vegetable oils, drugs, and too much caffeine and alcohol are key.
Supplement-wise, the Wood Tonify helps support the liver and blood. The liver stores the blood, cleanses the blood, and regulates blood volume in the circulatory system. The element of numbness is also associated with the method that blood supports the nerves. This formula has overtones of pericardium support, so it has a “mother “ relationship with the Fire element that governs the heart.
Emotionally this product may assist with building inner confidence. The person needing this formula may (when insecure) move from a state of arrogance to one of pretension and may also become erratic or tyrannical.
Emotion: joy/ sadness
Organs: heart, pericardium, small intestine, circulation
Tissues: blood, sexual fluids
Sense Organ: taste
Thrives through: sharing love, warmth, and intimacy
The fire element is dominated by our relationship with ourselves and others. This element thrives on sharing intimacy, warmth, and love when in balance. In equilibrium, this element is naturally joyful, feels a sense of oneness with all beings on the planet, and enjoys laughter and immense creative flow.
A Fire Element Out of Balance
When out of balance, a fire-dominant element person can experience an extreme sense of loneliness and anxiety. They may experience physical symptoms, including excessive or complete lack of laughter and excessively rapid speech or stuttering. Emotionally, they may feel dullness, anxiety, mental illness, and nightmares.
How to Support Fire Element Balance
To balance the heart, all other aspects of one’s system must be in balance. Therefore fire-dominant elements will thrive by addressing lifestyle factors like diet, exercise, and a genuine overhaul of things that induce stress (physical, emotional, and chemical).
Supplement-wise, Fire Tonify supports and strengthens the health of the heart and blood circulation. This formula is called “Support the Heart” because the Fire element in Chinese medicine is associated with the heart. In addition to the heart, Fire Tonify supports the small intestine.
This formula can be beneficial when a person experiences backup energy and a lack of joy in the heart. Emotionally, this formula helps people who are shy about communicating their needs.
Season: late summer
Emotion: worry/clarity and calm
Organs: spleen, stomach, pancreas
Tissues: muscles, fat
Sense Organ: touch
Thrives through: nurture
The earth element is all about nurturing oneself and other people. In balance, an earth-dominant part will be a deep carer for others and enjoy things like cooking for, helping, and listening to others. In equilibrium, an earth element will feel incredibly supported and nurtured by life, and in turn, overflow with nurturing for others. They have family and friends at the center of their lives.
An Earth Element Out of Balance
Out of balance, an earth-dominant element will likely engage in compulsive behaviors and experience fatigue, weight problems, and digestive issues. They will worry, even obsess over situations.
How to Support Earth Element Balance
For an earth-dominant element person, supporting digestion and a proper diet is very important. They should opt for unprocessed foods, consuming mostly cooked foods, and consuming balanced meals (with enough protein) and vegetables. Avoid highly refined foods, vegetable oils, or foods with preservatives. Fresh is best for earth elements.
Engaging in nurturing activities is also essential, ranging from long baths to gentle walks, gardening, or dancing. Having a comfortable, relaxing, and harmonious household will also promote balance. Reduce stress through mindfulness-based activities like Qi Gong, yoga, Tai Chi, or meditation.
Supplement-wise, Earth Tonify strengthens the health of the spleen, kidneys, and digestive system. It also helps with sugar cravings. The earth element is involved with the transformation of foods into the body. This also applies to taking thoughts and transforming them into something tangible.
Metal Element 6, 7
Emotion: grief/ courage
Organs: lungs, large intestine
Sense Organ: smell
Thrives through: consolidation
The metal element is all about self-discipline, consolidation, and boundaries. Someone with a metal-dominant element will be organized, systematic, and generally successful when in balance. They are great problem solvers, have excellent attention to detail, and are bold and courageous.
A Metal Element Out of Balance
When out of balance, a metal element experiences grief and tends to carry past grief or trauma experiences into their present life and relationships. They will feel a sense of clutteredness in their life and can feel overwhelmed and overburdened with responsibility. Physical ailments will appear as lung and skin issues like eczema or breathing issues like asthma and allergies. When out of balance, a metal-dominant person tends to slip into a victim mentality and a sense of unrelenting sadness and stress.
How to Support Metal Element Balance
Metal-dominant people need structure and organization but tend to over-schedule and overwork due to their intense drive. Supporting a metal-dominant personality requires balancing scheduling with productivity over long-restless work. “Work smarter, not harder” is a concept that can help these people find balance.
Metal-dominant individuals need to schedule a time for absolute relaxation. Not the kind of multi-tasking “breaks, but rather a deep, restorative kind of relaxation. Mindfulness practices like yoga and meditation are great for metal types.
Supplement-wise, Metal Tonify is helpful for lung, throat, spleen, and large intestine health. It helps support the susceptible, sensitive person, even those that appear strong and thick but may have a weak and thin characteristic or organ function. Lack of lung health causes the entire body to become deficient and weak. Common signs are upper respiratory issues and some common allergies. This formula is also helpful for the person who is petty, complaining, resigned, hypocritical, and numb.
Water Element 6, 7
Emotion: fear/ flow and calm
Organs: kidneys, bladder, adrenal glands
Sense organ: hearing
Color – Blue, dark blue, black, purple
The water element is foundational in TCM, which underlies all vitality from birth to death. Like a river that carves through the rock bed in a valley, water goes with the flow and has a strong will and strength. Water types are quiet, introverted, and thrive on solitude and tranquility when in balance. They generally appear wise beyond their years. They are self-sufficient and can be alone without feeling lonely.
A Water Element Out of Balance
A water-dominant person will experience fear, paranoia, timidness, insecurity, and indecisiveness when out of balance. They will begin to feel lonely, which they generally don’t experience when in balance and alone. Physically, they will develop dark circles under their eyes, and be prone to urinary tract infections and water-based imbalances like edema (swelling).
How to Support Water Element Balance
Water types need to consume lots of water, avoiding chemically treated water and favoring pure spring water or properly filtered water. They need to make an effort to find a balance of socializing instead of completely isolating themselves (although they do naturally feel happy alone).
Fear is a red flag that a water-dominant element person is out of balance, so they can make an effort to overcome shyness to help re-instate balance. Water types do better with a warm diet (avoid frozen or cold foods) and benefit greatly from consuming seafood, like kelp, and enough salt, meat, and bone broths.
Supplement-wise, the Water Tonify supports the health of bones, kidneys, spleen, digestive system, and connective tissues. The bone matrix is an aspect of the Water element. Thus, this product can help promote healthy bones. This formula helps the body to use its resources to stay healthy, promote healthy and thick hair and smooth skin, and maintain normal sex functions for men and women.
Emotionally, this formula supports the deep well of conserved energy reserves required to carry a person through life.
Understanding the five Chinese elements of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water can provide immense benefits in helping you achieve balance and health in your life. You can help achieve higher health states by integrating basic concepts like supporting the associated organs and emotions and considering an element-supporting supplement for your dominant constitution.
You may look to certain herbs to help with acute symptoms…
Things like turmeric to lower inflammation or vitex to help balance hormones. But Traditional Chinese Medicine takes a different approach entirely. TCM practitioners don’t treat symptoms or diseases —they treat the entire person, helping to target a pattern of symptoms and bring the body back into balance.
And that’s exactly what the 5 Chinese Elements blends from Systemic Formulas do. From allergies to fertility to natural signs of aging —there’s a blend for everyone and every condition…
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Medical Disclaimer: This article is based on the opinions of The Cell Health team. The information on this website is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified healthcare professional and is not intended as medical advice. It is intended to share knowledge and information from the research and experience of the Cell Health team. This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Charles Penick, MD, for the accuracy of the information provided. Still, we encourage you to make your own healthcare decisions based on your research and in partnership with a qualified healthcare professional.
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- Tang, Jin-Ling, et al. “Traditional Chinese Medicine.” The Lancet, vol. 372, no. 9654, 2008, pp. 1938–1940., doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(08)61354-9.
- Men, Jiuzhang, and Lei Guo. A General Introduction to Traditional Chinese Medicine. CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group, 2010.
- Pachuta, Donald M. “Chinese Medicine: The Law of Five Elements.” India International Centre Quarterly, vol. 18, no. 2/3, 1991, pp. 41–68. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23002364. Accessed 28 Feb. 2021.
- Liao, Weilong, et al. “The Brief Theory of Viscus and Its Manifestations in Traditional Chinese Medicine.” Integrative Medicine International, vol. 4, no. 1-2, 2017, pp. 13–18., doi:10.1159/000455853.
- Kirkwood, John. The Way of the Five Elements: 52 Weeks of Powerful Acupoints for Physical, Emotional, and Spiritual Health. Singing Dragon, 2018.
- Maciocia, Giovanni. The Foundations of Chinese Medicine. Elsevier Churchill Livingstone, 2005.