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What Are the Five Elements?

 November 19, 2021

By  Juli Kramer

What are the five elements? Five elements theory uses metal, water, wood, fire, and earth to understand physical and emotional health.

Reading time: 4 minutes

Five elements personality quiz results

Five Elements Theory

Five elements theory developed over thousands of years through observation and trial and error.

For example, imagine what the people experienced long ago. 

The night sky overflowed with clouds of stars. Meteorites blazed brightly as they streaked to the earth. The sound of rivers echoed across open expanses of land. Fires could burn uncontrolled to rejuvenate the land. Trees and plants grew wild and unhindered. The earth itself provided food for the animals people hunted and the food they foraged.

Around the world, people observed nature and developed theories rooted in what they saw.

In China, the ancients in China watched the heavens and the earth. 

To illustrate, they watched the universe and the movement of objects in space, and in particular five stars that they associated with the seasons and the different directions. 

When you ask, "What are the five elements?" your reply comes from these early observations.

The answer lies in how the ancients related their observations of the sky to what was happening on Earth. They believed that people live in the universe and should follow the order of the universe.

Mapping the stars resulted in this rendering that eventually developed into the concept of yin and yang and Five Elements Theory.

Notice the light and dark sections. How each is separate but also within each other. Both are essential

Fire Element Personality

Five Elements Theory and the Five Seasons

The ancient Chinese noticed five seasons: spring, summer, late summer, autumn, and winter.

Furthermore, they associated each season with the position of the five stars they observed.

When they saw each star in a different position in the sky, they knew it was a different season. They also noticed that different elements increased in importance during the different seasons.

What are the five elements?

As a result of their observations of the heavenly and earthly planes, they made deductions about five substances that could explain the material world: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water.

More importantly, they held that these elements influence each other.

To illustrate:

  • Water helps Wood grow.
  • Wood fuels Fire.
  • Fire nourishes Earth with its ash.
  • Earth compresses and shapes the ash and other substances in to Metal.
  • Metal supports Water by filling it with minerals and nutrients to carry for life.

Additionally, five elements theory describes the controlling and supporting nature of their relationships.

  • Water can put out Fire.
  • Fire can shape and influence Metal. (Think jewelry and swords.)
  • Earth absorbs and directs Water.
  • Wood prevents Earth from eroded and washing away. (Wood includes trees and all plants).
  • Metal limits where Wood can grow and can shape Wood. (Think about an axe.)

Understanding this dynamic creates the foundation for understanding states of emotional and physical health and sub-health.

Let's explore the basic characteristics associated with each element. You will understand the connection between the five elements and your health better with this foundation of Chinese medicine.

Water

The Water Star rises during the Winter. Water connects to the North, cold, the color black (or the blue of a candle flame), the Kidney system, salty flavor, and the emotions of anxiety and fear.

Water element personality

Wood

The Wood Star rises in spring. The Wood element connects to the East, wind, the color green, the Liver system, sour flavor, and the emotions of anger or depression.

Wood element personality

Fire Element

Summer sees the rise of the Fire star. The Fire element also associates with the South, heat, the color red, the Heart system, spicy flavor,and the emotions of happiness, love, over excitement, or anxiety.

Fire element personality

Earth Element

The Earth star rises in late or long summer. Its direction is the Middle. Earth also connects to damp conditions, the color yellow, the Spleen (digestive) system, sweet flavor, and worry and overthinking.

Earth element personality

Metal

The Metal Star rose in autumn and thus the ancients paired Metal and autumn. Metal is associated with the West, the color white, the Lung system, pungent flavor, and the emotions of sadness, sorrow and grief. 

Metal element personality

What are the five elements in the human body?

The five elements don't change in the human body. The ancients applied their observations to the microcosm of your mind, body, and spirit.

Learning the language of Five Elements Theory gives you a new way to think and talk about your health. The elements serve as metaphors to describe positive and negative states.

As a result of using this metaphor of your connection to the universe, you have great power to heal. The use of the Five Elements in your daily life have three primary aspects:

  • Understanding how your body systems cooperate with nature
  • Giving you clarity on the critical interdependence of your internal organs
  • Guiding you to choose foods with different colors and flavors to nourish all of your organs and balance the elements

A quick example

To illustrate, imagine you drive down the highway and someone cuts you off. Using five elements theory, your reaction tells you if you suffer from a sub-health state.

Reaction One

You slow down, take a breath to calm down from being startled, and keep driving. In this situation, you're healthy. Your Wood element, connected to the Liver system, shows flexibility. You control your response and doesn't flair up, fueling the Fire element.

Reaction Two

You get angry, shout, and make rude hand gestures. You feel the cut-off as an affront to you personally. How dare they? In this situation, your Wood element and Liver system evidence a state of sub-health. They are rigid and too hot.

Imagine the possibilities for your health.

When you ask, "What are the five elements?" and expand that to understand how they connect to your health, you can catch problems much earlier.

Early awareness means you can heal the sub-health state.

Healing recommendations for Reaction Two

Because the Wood element has fallen out of balance, you need to calm the Liver. You would do the following until your angry actions subside:

  • Eat less processed food
  • Eat more green vegetables and leafy green
  • Add small amounts of sour fruits and vegetables to your diet (e.g., lemons)
  • Abstain from alcohol
  • Take calming walks outside in nature to absorb healing Wood energy
  • Do qigong, taiji, yoga, or other calming exercises

Body Type and Five Elements Theory

The month and year of your birth affect your body type and health. 

If born under the Wood Star, you are more likely to struggle with emotional issues, including depression and anger because your have a more sensitive Liver system.

You can use lifestyle strategies and eat specific foods to overcome these Wood Star constitution issues.

Discover your Zodiac and element.

Furthermore, you can more deeply understand your health strengths and weaknesses to off-set element weaknesses.

When you know your current body type, you can follow specific recommendations that prevent or cure illness and disease.

My Body Type Quiz

What's your type?

Understanding your body constitution Chinese medicine TCM

Juli Kramer


Dr. Juli Kramer is a certified qigong instructor. She also holds a diploma in Chinese Medicine Nutritional Therapy and multiple certificates in Chinese medicine. As a qigong and meditation teacher, Dr. Kramer understands the important role movement and meditation have on developing a healthy body and mind. Juli also has a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Counseling Psychology.

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