Tales from the Practice of Medicine: The Five Elements and the Five Organs

Yu Rongzhi

PureInsight | March 31, 2003

[Note: The following passages assume a general understanding of traditional Chinese medicine and its terminologies.]

[PureInsight.org] According to the theory of the Five Elements, everything in the world happens because of the interaction between and different combinations of the Five Elements. According to the chapter on the Zhen Dynasty in Guo Yu (or The Eight Countries, A History by Zuo Qiu that describes the history of the Zhou, Lu, Qi, Jin, Zhen, Chu, Wu and Yue Dynasties), "different combinations of earth, metal, wood, water and fire form everything in the world." According to the chapter "Hong Fang" in Shang Shu, "the Five Elements refer to metal, wood, water, fire, and earth. Water corresponds to moisture and the downward direction. Fire corresponds to blazes and the upward direction. Wood is curvy or straight. Metal is unstable under fire. Earth is indispensable to agriculture. Water becomes salty when traveling downwards. Fire becomes bitter when blazing upward. Wood may turn acid when it changes shape. Metal may turn spicy when it becomes unstable. Earth may turn sweet when used in agriculture." These historical records describe the relationship between the Five Elements and the five tastes (salty, bitter, acid, spicy, and sweet).

Traditional Chinese medicine associates the characteristics of the Five Elements with those of man's five organs: Wood is flexible and smooth. Liver corresponds to wood. Liver detests foul substances, and discharges them from the human body. Fire travels upward and is hot. The heart corresponds to fire. The heart is the sun of a human body and warms the entire body. The blaze of heart also travels upward. Earth is general in nature. The earth produces all lives. The spleen corresponds to the earth. The spleen helps digestion, transports nourishment and nourishes all internal organs, limbs, and bones. The spleen is also the source of qi and blood in a human body. Metal is cool. The lungs are similar in function to a metal. Lungs help a human body stay cool. Water nourishes and travels downward. The kidneys correspond to water. The kidneys discharge wastes downward and store the essence of a human body.

According to the theory of the Five Elements, the Five Elements breed, restrain, multiply and disregard each other. In other words, the Five Elements mutually support and restrain each other. The sequences of mutual support among the Five Elements are: Wood upholds fire. Fire supports earth. Earth supports metal. Metal supports water. Water supports wood. The sequences of mutual restraint among the Five Elements are: Wood restrains earth. Earth restrains water. Water restrains fire. Fire restrains metal. Metal restrains wood. The overload or the lack of mutual support and restraint will ruin the balance among the Five Elements, which results in mutual development, or mutual destruction, respectively. For instance, if wood is overly active and metal fails to restrain wood, then earth becomes weaker. This would be called wood proliferates and earth disregards. Take another example, Water restrains fire under normal conditions; however, if there is a lack of water, fire is extremely strong, and water will fail to restrain fire. Instead, fire will dry out the water. This would be called fire counteracts water, or fire disregards water. There cannot be mutual support without mutual restraint to balance the Five Elements. Without mutual support, nothing in the world will procreate or grow. Without mutual restraint, everything will grow out of proportion, thus, ruining the normal balance of the world. The healthy dynamics of the mutual support and restraint between the Five Elements are the key to normal development of the world.

The principles of mutual support and restraint are widely used in traditional Chinese medicine to explain the correlation between the five internal organs, their pathological effects on each other, as well as corresponding diagnoses and medical treatments.

The nurturing correlations among the five internal organs embody the mutual support principle of the theory of Five Elements. For example, kidneys (water) store essence. Liver (wood) stores blood. The essence in kidney may nurture the blood in the liver. In other words, the essence of the kidney nourishes the liver of the wood. This is the example where water produces wood in a human body. Liver (wood) stores blood. Heart (fire) controls blood circulation. The stored blood in the liver and the liver's normal adjustment of the quantity of blood circulation helps the heart's aorta to function normally. In other words, the liver of wood nourishes the heart of fire. This is an example where wood breeds fire in a human body. Heart (fire) controls blood circulation, and thus a man's consciousness. The spleen (earth) controls the absorption of nutrients, which is the origin of energy and blood. The spleen also controls the blood. The heat of the heart warms the spleen. If the heart successfully controls the blood circulation, the blood may nourish the spleen, helping the spleen to successfully generate and control blood. In other words, fire in the heart warms the earth in the spleen. This is an example where fire breeds earth in a human body. The spleen (earth) transports the essence to boost the qi to nourish the lungs, and helps sustain the lung's control of qi. In other words, the qi of the spleen nourishes the qi of the lung. This is the example where earth breeds metal in a human body. The lungs (metal) control qi and discharge wastes from a human body. Kidneys (water) store the essence and attracts qi. The purified qi of lungs helps attract qi and stores the essence in the kidneys. When the qi of the lungs is purified and clear, it helps the kidneys control water. In other words, metal in the lung breeds water in the kidneys. This is an example where metal breeds water in a human body.

Similarly, the mutual restraining relations between the Five Elements also apply to those among the five internal organs. For example, if the lungs (metal) purify qi, then the mechanism of qi will run smoothly in a human body, restraining liver (wood) from being overactive. This is an example where metal restrains wood in a human body. When the liver (wood) functions well, it unclogs the spleen (earth). This is an example where wood restrains earth. Smooth functioning of the spleen (earth) restrains the kidneys (water) from hyper-activity. This is an example where earth restrains water. The nourishment of the kidney (water) prevents fire in the heart (fire) from being too strong. This is an example where water restrains fire. The heat of heart (fire) restrains lungs (metal) from being too active during purification. This is an example where fire restrains metal.

The mutual support and restraint between the Five Elements may also be applied to explain pathological effects among the five organs. For example, a liver disease may infect the spleen. This is an example where the earth supports the wood. A spleen disease may affect liver. This is an example where wood restrains the earth. A liver disease affects the spleen and vice versa. This is an example where either the ailing wood weakens the earth or acts in the reverse, where an ailing earth would weaken the wood. A liver disease may also infect the heart. This is an example where the sickness in a mother infects the child. An example where wood restrains metal is when a liver disease affects the lungs. If liver disease affects the kidney, it is an example of when the disease of the child infects the mother. Other illnesses of the internal organs also follow the principles from the theory of the Five Elements. We may use the principles of mutual support and restraint among the Five Elements to explain an organ's pathological effect on other organs.

The theory of Five Elements with respect to clinical diagnoses and treatments guides traditional Chinese medicine. For example, we know that wood restrains the earth, liver corresponds to wood, and spleen corresponds to earth. It follows that liver restrains the spleen. When we treat the spleen, it has a healing effect on both the liver and the spleen. Therefore, the treatment of the spleen illustrates the principle of "promoting earth to restrain wood." Moreover, the liver corresponds to green, and sour. If a patient has a greenish complexion and is partial to sour food, one can almost be sure that the patient suffers from a liver problem. There are countless examples to illustrate the theory of the Five Elements. One can successfully apply them to traditional Chinese medicine. Generally speaking, traditional Chinese medicine is closely related to the theory of the Five Elements when diagnosing medical conditions and prescribing treatments and medicines.

The mutual supporting and restraining relationships between the Five Elements can also be applied to the pathological influence on emotions on the five internal organs. According to Su Wen, a traditional Chinese medical reference book, "Anger hurts the liver; sadness restrains anger." "Happiness will hurt the heart, while fears prevail over happiness." "Excessive thinking hurts the spleen, while anger suppresses thinking." "Sadness will hurt the lungs, while happiness prevails over worry." "Fear hurts the kidney; while thinking prevails over fears." In other words, the principle of mutual restraints between the Five Elements can be used to treat mental disorders.

A human body is a small universe. Like everything in the universe, the five internal organs mutually support and restrain each other, keeping the internal environment balanced and stable. The theory of the Five Elements fully describes the dynamics and coordination among the five internal organs to maintain a balanced relationship. The imbalance of the mechanism is always followed by pathological symptoms. The principles of mutual development and disregard between the Five Elements can also be used for clinical purposes. These principles explain the spreading of an organ's disease, and predict its development. They have also been used to arbitrate between the internal organs in discussion, and allow making corresponding diagnoses and treatments.

Traditional Chinese medicine not only believes that a human body is a complete unit, as well as a small universe, but also believes that the five internal organs, the vital organs, and the five senses correspond to the five directions, the four seasons, and the five flavors of the natural environment. This theory unifies the human body and nature, and reflects the dynamics between the human body and the universe. The theory of the Five Elements manifests in traditional Chinese belief where "man is an integral part of the universe." For example, spring corresponds to the east where qi and breeze prevail. Therefore, in the springtime the climate is moderate, the temperate yang qi promotes mild growth, and everything on earth grows. The qi of the liver in a human body corresponds to spring. Therefore the qi of the liver prospers in spring.

Man is compatible with other natural elements, such as the four seasons, the five qi, as well as the five flavors in the diet; all of these also originate from the principles of the Five Elements but we will not give any more examples for now.

Translated from: http://www.zhengjian.org/zj/articles/2003/3/13/20794.html

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