A Glimpse Into the Chinese Theory of 5 Elements and Health

The theory of five elements says that climate, the two energies of yin and yang, emotion, diet, and sleep are the sources of illness. (Image: via pixabay / CC0 1.0)
The theory of five elements says that climate, the two energies of yin and yang, emotion, diet, and sleep are the sources of illness. (Image: via pixabay / CC0 1.0)

There is a passage in The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine (Huángdì Nèijīng) that says that there are “100 types of illnesses that are caused by climate conditions — damp, cold, heat, wind and rain, an imbalance of the two basic forces — yin and yang, emotion, diet, and the environment.”

This one sentence summarizes the development of nearly all illness within the traditional Chinese theory of the “five elements” — fire, earth, metal, water, and wood.

Climate

With the heat of summer, the skin’s pores open to discharge heat, and the hot yang force eliminates any coldness in the body.

However, if air conditioning is turned on, both the heat and the cold remain in stagnant circulation within the body, thereby causing disease, according to Chinese thought.

Similarly, if the heating is turned on high in the winter, the body’s yang force is thought to become depleted, as the skin’s pores can neither close properly nor open to sweat.

Come spring, the body has often become depleted of energy, causing the limbs to easily feel weak and cold.

Moreover, a big difference in indoor and outdoor temperatures can cause blood vessels to cool or warm too rapidly, which may lead to cardiovascular disease.

The two energies: yin and yang

The yang energy is said to be masculine, and the yin energy feminine. In a family environment, for example, a harmonious relationship between a couple is said to correlate to these two energies being in harmony. The whole family, including children, are more likely to be happier and healthier.

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It is thought that when the feminine energy of yin is balanced by the masculine energy of yang there will be harmony. (Image: Travis Simon via flickr CC BY 2.0 )

Emotion

Science has proven that the mind and one’s emotions can directly affect physical health. At least 50 percent of illnesses are thought to be caused by psychological imbalances.

In the five element theory, each emotion is linked to one’s internal organs.

Anger correlates to the wood element, and to the liver and gallbladder. Letting anger build up inside is said to damage the liver.

Worrying is linked to the earth element, and to the stomach and spleen. People who tend to overthink or over-worry are more prone to developing problems related to these organs.

Sadness is associated with the metal element, and to the lungs and the skin. If sadness and depression become lodged in the body long-term, one’s breathing may become shallow, the hair turn grey, and the skin become wrinkly.

Health supplements have their place. However, in improving one’s health, it may prove more effective to work on stabilizing one’s emotions and state of mind.

Diet

Whatever the weather, chilled foods and beverages that are below the body’s temperature are thought to be damaging to the stomach and the spleen.

Also, meat is considered best consumed in small quantities, with priority being placed on fruits and vegetables. Some scientists consider the human teeth, saliva, and stomach to be better adapted for such a diet.

Moreover, it is recommended to only eat until about 70 percent full. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are all important, as well as regular meal times.

Of course, smoking and drinking are considered harmful to the body.

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Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are all important, as well as having regular meal times. (Image: via pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Sleep

Adequate and good quality sleep is considered vital for health. In the five element theory, sleep is linked to the water element, and to the kidneys and the bones.

Recharging the body through rest is said to preserve the kidneys, which are thought to control one’s vitality and bone health. The bone marrow, in turn, is linked to the formation of new blood cells. Depleting the kidneys through staying up late at night, for example, may lead to the quality of blood in the body not being in an optimal state.

Adequate ventilation is considered important for good quality sleep, and it is thought best when the bedroom is not over-sized and faces the direction of the sunrise.

Translated by Chua BC and edited by Emiko Kingswell

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