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Acupuncture 101: The 5 Elements

Chinese philosophy is a sophisticated method of understanding relationships, change, and cause and effect.  One of the primary ways to understand those relationships is with the 5 Element Theory.  This theory ties together the relationship of all energy and substance.  In Traditional Chinese Medicine it is one of the tools an acupuncturist has to understand disease and support the body’s healing.

All elements and energy are governed by the 5 elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water.  There are many associations with each element—colors, sounds, tastes, planets, even shapes.  But it is easiest to think of them in terms of the seasons.  Wood is like spring, when plants begin to grow.  Fire is summer-like, when plants flower.  Earth is a season of fruition.  It is called “late summer,” but in the West we don’t recognize late summer as a separate season.  This is the time that the growth of plants plateaus and they set fruit.  Metal is like fall and harvest time. And water is the time of winter, still and restful. The cycle of early growth, flowering, fruition, harvest and rest is repeated in everything.

The 5 Element Theory is elegant and complicated.  Each element is understandable if you think of it as part of a cycle of relationships.  “Wood” is not as much wood as “wood-like.” When a weak wood-like substance interacts with a strong fire-like substance, the result is predictable—the fire burns the wood up.  However when both forces are equal there is balance.


Interacting Elements

Since the 5 Element Theory is about relationships the 5 elements are always interacting with each other. There are 2 main ways they interact.  The sheng cycle (or mother-child cycle) is a generating cycle.   Wood creates fire.  Fire creates earth (ash).  Earth creates metal, which creates water, which creates wood.  The hardest relationship to understand is how metal creates water, but if you imagine condensation on metal you can see that it does.

The other important cycle is a controlling cycle.  The ke cycle (or master-servant cycle) is series of checks and balances.  Each element controls and is controlled by an element and both must be balanced, neither too strong nor too weak, to keep order.  In the ke cycle wood controls earth because trees grow on it and put their roots deep into it.  Earth controls water by damming water and changing its flow.  Water controls fire by extinguishing it.  Fire controls metal by melting it.  And metal controls wood by becoming an axe.

The Five Elements and Your Health

In Traditional Chinese Medicine your body has 12 meridians, or energy pathways.  The meridians nourish your organ systems and these are the pathways that I balance when you come in for a treatment.

Your meridians are divided among the 5 elements.  During a treatment I diagnose which meridians are out of balance.  By understanding the sheng and ke cycles, I determine which elements are overactive or underactive and treat the source of your imbalance.

I view all your body systems as working like a team.  Each team member must be healthy and balanced, neither too strong nor too weak, or the entire team doesn’t perform at its peak.  In the same way, no organ system functions independent of the others.  For optimal health you must balance all 5 elements.

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