The TCM Five Elements (A Very Brief Overview)

Estimated read time... 4 minutes



Ah, the TCM Five Elements.

Where would I be without them?  When I first started learning TCM and the Five Elements, a light bulb went off in my head.  It is time I give you a very brief review of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Five Elements and their paired Organs. This is by no means an exhaustive introduction or list, but it should help you pick up on some patterns within each of these Elements to see what might be going on with yourself, to give you some extra tools to dig deeper.  This is part of a series of posts where I’m exploring the interplay between what we take in from the outside world, and how we choose to assimilate these experiences.

Traditional Chinese Medicine details Five Elements as observed in nature (the macrocosm) and in our selves (the microcosm): Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water, and now these Elements interact with each other.  Wood feeds Fire, Fire turns into Earth, Earth creates Metal, Metal melts into Water, and Water feeds Wood, this is known as the creation (or Shen) cycle.  The Ko cycle tells us which Element is controlled or regulated by another Element: Wood controls Earth, Fire controls Metal, Earth controls Water, Metal controls Wood, Water controls Fire.  These cycles are important in understanding how the Elements interact with each other.

Each Element has a Yin (or solid) Organ and a Yang (or hollow) Organ. The Yin Organs store, transform or produce substances (such as Qi or Blood).  The Yang Organs receive and transport substances, such as food, stool or urine, through the digestive and elimination tracks.

The Wood Element entails the smooth movement of the Blood and Qi within the body, and storage of the Blood, are ruled by the Liver and Gall-Bladder systems. Wood ensures the emotions, digestion, sleep, menstruation all run smoothly.  If the Liver is unable to keep the cycles running smoothly, anger, frustration, irritability, PMS, headaches, depression, digestive upset (i.e. having diarrhea one day, then being constipated the next), and even having the inability to make and keep plans all can occur.

The Fire Element has four Organs, encompassing the Heart, Pericardium (the oft-neglected and unsung hero of the Organs of TCM in my beginner’s mind), Small Intestine and Triple Burner Organ systems which are in charge of moving our Blood throughout our body, and of which houses what is known as our Shen or spirit, our life-spark.  When our Heart has been impacted, we can suffer from palpitations, mental restlessness, dream-disturbed sleep, too much talking, memory issues, repressed emotions, manic behavior, and pains in the chest area.  The Pericardium is the sac that surrounds the Heart.  It is the protector of the Heart, much like a moat that surrounds and protects a castle, the Pericardium bears the brunt of trauma and shock protecting the Heart from as much damage as possible. The Pericardium is also known as the circulation sex – hence it helps us relate to others. If the shock to the Pericardium is severe enough, both the Pericardium and Heart are impacted and impeded by various symptoms and patterns of imbalance. (I hope to explore more of this with you at a later date, as I’ve become quite fascinated with the Pericardium.)

The Earth Element holds the Spleen and Stomach systems, which are in charge of digesting and transforming our food and experiences, helping to create the Qi and Blood we need to live our lives to the fullest. When out of balance we can worry or chew on the same issues again and again and again, like an ill-digested meal; have feelings of heaviness, undigested food in the stools, loose stools, lack of sense of taste, appetite/hunger issues (either constant or lack thereof), the inability to fulfill goals, and being needy or having trust issues. Earth Element seems to have the most problem maintaining boundaries, as it nurtures and provides for the rest of the body, mind and soul.

The Metal Element’s Organ systems are the Lungs and Large Intestine. The Metal Element, and Lungs in particular, are that which circulate and distribute Qi (our energy), they are the filter by which we are cleansed of dirty air and help us to grieve and let go of what we no longer need.  If the Spleen helps us digest our experiences, the Lungs help us let them go. If we are unable to expel what we no longer need, we could have difficulty breathing, cough, asthma, sore throat, mucus, spontaneous sweating, elimination problems (constipation, dysentery), frequent colds/flus and/or immune issues, unresolved grief and the inability to give or grieve.

Lastly, at the root of us all for where would we be without it, our Water Element which are the Kidney and Urinary Bladder Organs. The Kidneys store our Essence (Ojas, Jing), they govern birth, growth, development and reproduction. Water circulation and fluid balance in the body are regulated by this Organ, and the Kidneys hold the Qi that is sent down from the Lungs in place. The Kidneys are not just our urination/water regulation system, but also our endocrine system and they house our Ming Men (or Life Gate Fire, where water and fire co-mingle between the two kidneys, much like one of my favorite childhood movies: Sea Prince and Fire Child). The emotion of the Water element is fear, and sudden frights or terror can harm this system (ever be scared and have to pee?)  Some signs that the Water Element is impacted encompass the following: fertility and sexual issues (lack of libido, impotence), urinary issues, low back pain, weak knees, edema/swelling in the lower parts of the body, fear/paranoia, thinning of head hair, premature graying or aging, ear and hearing problems, low pitched tinnitus, and some blood pressure and thyroid issues.


Do any of the Elements resonate with you and your typical reactions to things, or continued health problems?  Do you have constellations of symptoms spread between one, two or more of the TCM Five Elements?


Note:  To make things a bit clearer, I’ve capitalized the word Organ here to reflect the TCM view of the system of the Organ vs the Western view of an organ.  For example, the Liver in TCM is not just the liver the organ, but a whole system that interacts together that does not only entail what the liver (the organ in our body) does on a functional level.  As such, the Liver Organ is in charge of a greater number of functions and processes than the Western medical view of the liver.

Recommended Reading and References: The Web that Has No Weaver by Kaptchuk; Between Heaven and Earth by Beinfield and Korngold;  Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine Volume 1 by the Tierras