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Acupuncture - The Five Element Theory
David W Bates www.therapiesguide.co.uk


The Five Element Theory is a theory developed by Ancient Chinese philosophers that is still widely used today in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

It was through observation of nature that they came to believe it was possible to predict how natural changes, within our bodies, and outside environment can affect our health. Practitioners used the relationship of five elements and the meridians or channels of energy within the human body to bring conflicting body forces back into balance.

The five elements were described as:-
• Wood
• Fire
• Earth
• Metal
• Water

These were identified as the five elemental forces embodied in the natural world. Each of these elemental forces are also associated with major organs of the body. By use of the properties these elements possess together with how the Yin/Yang balance of the body was structured it was possible to correct any imbalance of the body, and hence potential illness, can be averted or arrested.

Most body elements/functions are divided into Yin/Yang tendencies, these are then subdivided into elements or qualities. The Yin and Yang concept is a basic principle of Traditional Chinese Medicine they are terms used to describe the balance of any item in nature. These two forces are said to be in confliction and must always be in balance for the item to be in its natural state. So if the Yang is described as "hot", the Yin will be described as "cold"; similarly if Yang is "outside", then Yin is "inside"; thus any imbalance of these forces will be seen as a major contributor to ill health.

The Five Element Cyles, Relationships and Interactions Table.
Elements Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Yin Organs Gall Bladder Small Intestine Stomach Large
Yang Organs

Liver Heart Spleen Lungs Kidney
Body Part

Tendon Pulse Muscles Skin Bone
Emotions Anger Joy Worry/
Wind Heat Dampness Dryness Cold
Sense Organs

Eyes Tongue Mouth Nose Ears

Sour Bitter Sweet Pungent Salty

Green Red Yellow White Black

The table gives an idea of how the Five Elements , the Yin and Yang and the Body/Mind functions are all connected it shows each of the elements, the body/mind relationships associated with each organ and how they react to a variety of phenomena. Acupuncturists will use these relationships to help form a diagnosis when there are conflicting signs and symptoms.

The Five Element Theory states that each elemental force generates or creates the next element in a creative sequenceor cycle e.g.

Water generates wood.   Rain will nourish a tree  

Kidney (water element) supports the Liver (wood element).

Wood generates fire.  

Burning wood will generates fire


  Liver (wood element) supports the Heart (fire element).
Fire generates earth  

Ash/earth is created from the fire


  Heart (fire element) supports the Spleen (earth element).
Earth generates metal.  

Metal is mined from the earth

  Spleen (earth element). supports the Lung (metal element)
Metal generates water  

Water will condense on metal


  Lung (metal element) supports the Kidney (water element).

A simple example illustrating how both these concepts are used is :-
If a diagnosis of a patient shows an excessive Yang condition in an energy related to a "fire" element, you could assume this is being caused by the Yin condition being in the "water" element (i.e. not enough water to control the fire), or they may find an Yang condition in the in the "wood" element (i.e. too much wood feeding the fire). If you now consider the "fire" as the heart, the "water" as the kidneys, and the "wood" as the liver, you can begin to see the concept of interaction/balance and how a typical treatment may be constructed.

This also explains the reason why the Acupuncturist may ask a lot more questions than a typical Western physician as they inquire about seemingly unrelated topics. A Western physician would seldom ask if you have trouble urinating or other kidney-related questions like a craving for salt when you go for a heart checkup, yet surprisingly, Western science has led to many similar conclusions (excessive salt can be bad for your heart).
The theory itself is simple but the relationships and diagnosis can become quite complex with creation cycles and destruction or controlling cycles, etc. Most body functions are divided into Yin/Yang tendencies, then subdivided into elements or qualities.
Another important difference in Eastern and Western medicine is that every traditional Oriental diagnosis is individual and unique. Two persons with the same symptoms may receive completely different treatments because the cause of their "imbalances" may be different. Oriental medicine looks for the "causes" of the disease, not necessarily treating the symptoms directly.

Traditional Chinese Medicine still uses this ancient, diagnostic method to analyse how the various parts of a person's body and mind can interact to affect their health and wellbeing. Modern acupuncturists also use the five element theory but in varying degrees depending on the individual practitioner and what style of acupuncture they practice.


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