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Understanding Chinese Medicine: The 5 Elements + 5 Vital Organs.


Welcome to Chinese medicine, a rich medical system that has existed for over 2200 years! Some of the earliest writings were pieces of tortoiseshell and bone dating back to the Shang dynasty ( 15th to 11th centuries BCE). These ancient writings focused on the circular movement of Qi (energy) and Xue (blood).

In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), Qi is everything and everything is Qi. It is considered the miracle of life. The study of physics has now confirmed to us that indeed everything is energy. Moving or stagnant, it is all Qi. Ill health is therefore understood as stagnation, deficiency or improper movement of Qi or Xue ( energy or blood).

“Everything that appears in the physical realm is always connected with energy flow at the invisible level.” - Nan Lu

The beauty of Chinese medicine is that it always aims to restore balance and energy flow. While western medicine tends to divide health from disease and to make linear deductions, the chinese medicine approach considers health as a holistic state of equilibrium between yin (passive) and yang (active).

The 5 elements in TCM outline the relationship between different elements in nature and the qi that flows through them. As such, the 5 elements are constantly changing and moving between yin and yang, each becoming dominant at different stages of the life cycle. Each element is associated with different body organs, colors, flavors, senses, emotions, and weather.

There are 5 zang organs whose role is to store Qi and 6 Fu organs whose role is to transport and transform food. The zang organs are the more solid organs of the viscera: liver, heart, spleen, lung and kidney. They are regarded as yin because they are more internal and exist at a deeper level. The Fu organs are hollow organs that transform and transport food i.e stomach, small intestine, large intestine, gall bladder and urinary bladder. These organs are considered to be yang and work in intricate balance with the Zang organs to create the balance between Zang-Fu organs.


The wood element represents a season of flourishing and growth, it is the element of spring and new life. We come from ultimate stillness in the womb ( yin within yin) and once born we begin the process of growth where our yang energies increase. This is the wood phase where there is upward movement of growth and development: childhood through adolescence.

The liver is the corresponding vital organ of the wood phase. The liver supplies energy originating from glucose, fatty acids, and amino acids to the whole body, and even converting extra energy to glycogen storage, hormones, and proteins. The liver stores yin-blood but has a function as yang because yang-qi in the liver is very active and resolute, tending to disperse throughout the rest of the body. The liver is associated with the emotions of anger, frustration and depression.

Like wood, the liver represents yin being transformed into yang.


After wood comes fire, a time of yang in yang. Fire is the element of summer, a season of warmth with energy continuing to move upwards. This is a period of maximum activity and super high productivity, a time when careers, families and social networks are being established. It is the period of young adulthood.

The heart is the fire organ,the seat of flaming passions. The heart regulates circulation, circulating blood, oxygen, nutrients, and waste. It influences vitality and spirit. True heart health is more than just physical fitness, it’s about deep contentment with one’s life and destiny. Happiness and love are often associated with the Heart representing a state of peacefulness. Lack of enthusiasm and vitality, mental restlessness, depression, insomnia, and despair are emotions associated with the heart.

Just like the fire element, the heart represents yang in yang; consistent flow and activity.


The word earth automatically conjures images of stability, groundedness and peace. Earth is the period of late summer; the period of harvest. A time when what you put in during your fire phase begins to give back. It is a time of balance between yin and yang, a season of being centered. Typically in this season, our careers advance, our families grow and we settle into our homes.

The earth's vital organ is the spleen ( & pancreas ) - The spleen plays an important part in the body's immune system and acts as a blood filter, removing old blood cells, bacteria, and impurities from the body. The pancreas is part of the digestive system and it produces insulin, which induces target cells to absorb glucose as an energy source that supplies the body. Chronic stress, worry, and anxiety can damage spleen function very quickly. Without the proper functioning of the spleen & pancreas, you can easily begin to suffer from poor digestive health and low metabolism function.

Like the earth element, the spleen reflects a perfect balance between yin and yang.


Metal is solid, refined by fire and solidified by the earth. Here our yang energies remain, but we move into yin, a time of calming our spirits, reflecting over our lives and turning our energies inwards. We are becoming elders.

Metal is the cleansing period of autumn. The remains of summer are dwindling down and stillness is slowly approaching.

The corresponding organ for metal is the lungs - As the lid of the body, the lung is a respiratory organ for breathing, or the exchange of gas. Respiration brings energy from the air and helps to distribute it throughout the body. The lungs also work closely with the kidneys to regulate water metabolism, lungs are also important in the immune system and for resistance to viruses and bacteria. Lungs are associated with sadness and grief. Too much sadness can get to your lungs.


Water is the final phase of the cycle, a time of winter when energy is moving downwards towards stillness. Yin is moving back into yin. Typically activities slow down and we enter a period of rest preparing to move onwards and close the chapter on life. Ultimately we return back to the earth below.

The kidney plays a role in filtering the body's waste for removal as urine. Water, excreted from the kidney is reminiscent of the flow of a river; therefore, the kidney has a water-type attribute. The Kidney is also the “reserve generator” of energy in the body, supplying extra Qi to all the organs when necessary. In TCM, the kidney is related to fear, which can manifest as chronic fear or anxiety when qi out of balance

TCM comes with an alluring concept of the body as a garden, which when properly nourished and looked after flourishes through the different phases of life. It encourages us to look at our bodies holistically, each part of the body needing the other to function in perfect yin-yang balance.

True health is therefore not the absence of disease but the presence of balance and energy.


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