Chinese medicine is a based on the natural rhythms and compositions of nature. Each season is observed and recognized as possessing it’s own energy and characteristics, which in turn influence all aspects of life and health. These characteristics are described by the 5 Phases of Chinese medicine, also known as Elements, which reflect the nature of each season: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water.
Just as we travel through each season to complete the year, each Phase is present to various degrees in every individual. Moreover, how each Phase is functioning within a person influences how all the other Phase functions are executed.
If you think about a seed, it must be planted at the right time in order to push through the ground and grow properly. It must continue to flourish in order to blossom, bear fruit, and drop its fruit to distribute its seeds. Then it must retreat its energy into its roots to hibernate and store up in order to push up and out again so the cycle can start over. If any part of this process is impeded, everything that follows will be affected.
The same is true for humans. Whether or not we realize it, humans go through this process, right along with nature. Just as with plants, if one Phase of the cycle is stuck, deficient, or excess within a person, it will affect every other process within them as well.
Chinese medicine strives to balance the individual within the internal and external influencing factors of Phase and season. When an individual is in harmony with nature there is no room for disease to manifest.
The following is an introduction to the Phases and their associations within the body and nature as a whole.
Wood: Wood is the Element of the Spring season and the direction East. It encompasses the upward, expansive pushing power that is needed to create new life, as in the dawn of a new day when the sun begins to climb up in the sky.
It is associated with the Liver and Gallbladder organ systems, which can be seen in the innate regenerative and creative power of the Liver.
The color associated with Wood is blue/green, and sometimes if there is an issue with the Wood within a person, parts of their complexion might appear greenish.
The emotions associated with Wood at its optimal function are benevolence and enthusiasm. When wood is inhibited it leads to anger and frustration. We can see these emotions most clearly in young children, who are in the Wood Phase of their lives.
People who have a Woody constitution tend to have a loud, booming voice and audible gait. They are similar to the Greek Choleric types, who are good at planning and directing, pushing their vision into the physical world. Donald Trump is a good example.
Fire is associated primarily with the Heart and Pericardium organ systems, as well as the Small Intestine and Triple Burner.
The colors associated with Fire are red, orange, and yellow. If someone has too much heat blazing up, the affected area will appear red. The word “inflammation” itself reflects a recognition of Fire flames within the body from a Western-medical perspective.
The emotions associated with Fire are joy, gratitude, and love, when unimpeded. Problems with the Fire Phase can be recognized when hatred is expressed.
People who have a Fire constitution sound as though they are always laughing. They are similar to the Greek Sanguine constitution in that they excel at connecting with others, forming friendships, networking, and are often the life of the party. Santa Clause is a good example.
Earth: The Earth Phase is unique in terms of classification, in that it is placed differently in various Chinese medicine traditions. Some place Earth at the center of the compass, while others place it in the South-West. A third theory states that Earth is in the transition time as one Phase turns into the next. Today, all three theories are applied and recognized as true.
Earth reflects the nourishment of harvest time and mother’s love. The organs associated with Earth are the Spleen and Stomach, which are responsible for welcoming and storing food within the body, as well as transforming and transferring it out so it may be utilized to feed the rest of the body. This idea can be taken beyond food to include all forms of nourishment, physical or otherwise.
The colors associated with Earth are yellow, brown, beige, light orange and the like, which is why yellow increases appetite from a psychological perspective.
The Chinese medicine Earth constitution is most closely correlated with the Ayurvedic Kapha type. They tend to have thicker bodies, a sing-song voice, and a nurturing and agreeable disposition.
Earth out of balance will manifest in bloating, indigestion, worry, and clinginess. The archetype of mother is the best example of an Earth constitution, as can be seen in the stereotypical Mammy or Jewish mother.
Metal: The Metal Phase is found in the West and is associated with Autumn. It reflects the crispness and dryness of the leaves and the air, the setting of the sun, and the glimmer that can be seen in the mountain rock as the trees become bare. It is the Phase of life when reproduction and activity wind down and things begin to turn toward stillness. It is also the time for re-evaluation, for letting go of what is no longer needed.
Metal is the Element of the Lungs and Large Intestine organ networks, and is represented by the color white. Because of its association with Autumn, Metal is also related to loss and the grief that can come with the dying process. Very often, people who have a weakness in Metal will find themselves holding on to grief longer than is necessary and end up with a lung condition like a chronic cough or emphysema.
A person with strong Metal will appreciate structure, justice, integrity, refinement, and clarity when in balance. When unbalanced, Metal can present with jealousy, hypocrisy, rigidity, unwillingness to change, materialism, and grief.
The more extroverted Metal types make good judges, lawyers, professors, and police officers, while the more introverted manifestation will be melancholic and artistic, making excellent poets, painters, and musicians.
Water: Water is the Element of Winter and the North. It is the Phase of hibernation, retreat, and darkness. It is a time of stillness and storage, where energy is saved and collected to prepare for the power needed in the Spring. It is also the time of death, an idea that is reflected in Western culture when we say that the elderly are in the “winter of their lives.”
The organs associated with Water are the Kidneys and the Bladder. This is clear in that they are both involved in the urinary function.
The color of Water in Chinese medicine is deep purple or black. If someone has an unbalanced Water Phase, their face may appear as though it is always in a shadow.
Water constitution types are steadfast and loyal. They poses an inherent wisdom and do not tend to speak more than is necessary. People with strong Water are excellent at “going with the flow” and have fervent willpower.
If an individual is deficient in the Water Phase, they may become easily discouraged and do things only half-heartedly. On the other end of the spectrum, if Water is in excess, they may be overly ambitious, assuming superiority over others and overwork themselves, often leading to great stress. Unbalanced Water may also manifest as fearfulness, causing an individual to endure phobias, anxiety, panic attacks, and adrenal exhaustion.
The Water archetype can best be recognized in the sage or the crone, the grandparent who posses great wisdom and skill and is easily able to adapt to life’s challenges.
To Sum Up: Just as each year presents all seasons, there are many seasons to each individual as well. In some individuals is it crystal clear which phase dominates their constitution, while many others are not so easy to pin down.
In a therapeutic context, trying to classify an individual into a category is not nearly as beneficial as looking at the momentary symptom presentation, which can be quite complex. Still, understanding the individual Phases in Chinese medicine is a vital starting point to understanding the composition and interactions that create the living matrix.
*In addition to the Chinese medical theory, this article references the four-constitution model of Greek tradition, as well as the tri-doshic model of Ayurveda. While no two natural medicine traditions are identical, all do divide people and symptoms into different categories to help with diagnosis and treatment. It is not only fascinating and culturally revealing to study the similarities and contrasts between these traditions, but I also find it very useful to have multiple lenses to look through when confronted with the complexities that patients present in clinic.