Do you ever wonder why a Chinese medicine(CM) doctor can know so much about you after you have described just one symptom and displayed your tongue?

“Oh I see you have been working too hard, worry too much, have bloating with indigestion and you aren’t sleeping” says the CM doctor. How did she know that? Is she psychic or something? No, it is magic,  but not of the illusionary type. It’s the magic of the 5 Element theory.

After the yin and yang theory the 5 Element theory is probably the most well know and widely used in Eastern culture. It appears in Chinese medicine, feng shui, Chinese astrology, martial arts, qi gong,  and even in popular culture like cooking, classical story telling, and cartoons. The 5 Elements are fire, earth, air, water and wood. Each element has  properties relating to the body. These  include colour, flavour, emotion, sound, sense organ, tissue, fluid, growth, and organ.  External to the body and affecting the body are seasons, climatic conditions and time which are also classifed into the 5 Elements. A list of the 5 Element correspondences can be found (here).

In CM the 5 Elements relate to the activities of the 5 organs of the body. Hence we have liver belonging to wood, heart to fire, spleen to earth, lungs to air, and kidneys to water.  The understanding of the organs and their functions are quite different from western medicine. Here are some of the main functions of the 5 organs in CM:

• The Spleen (Earth) deals with digestion, transformation and transporting of food.

• The Liver (Wood) stores and cleanses the blood, circulates Qi, and enables smooth movement of tendons.

• The Heart (Fire) houses the spirit (consciousness, mind, spirit) and circulates the blood.

• The Lung (Metal) controls breath, circulates qi and body fluids, and defends the body against pathogens.

• The Kidney (Water) stores and produces the Essence that controls reproduction, growth, and maturation.

The 5 Elements are held in balance by two types of cycles; the generating cycle and the controlling cycle. It is the breakdown of relationships in these cycles that lead to imbalance and illness.

Some  common examples of  breakdowns are:

  • wood overacting on earth – the stomach is beset with bloating, pain and indigestion.
  • water not controlling fire – insomnia, restlessness
  • metal insulting fire – asthma

From the tongue inspection and the symptoms you describe, the CM doctor knows which organs are affected. She can deduce from the 5 element theory what other symptoms are most likely be present and the sequence of events leading up to the illness. The doctor can plan her treatment and prognosis according to this theory. She can also suggest some changes in your lifestyle, including diet and exercise.