The five elements in Chinese medicine are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. They are reflected in nature; as we rotate through the seasons and cycles of life; and in the human body. As with Yin and Yang, the five elements are separate but interconnected. They represent physically the matter from which the universe is constructed, as well as a series of controlling and creative energies governing growth, development and expression. Chinese medicine attributes each organ system and meridian pathway to an element. Thus, all five elements exist within us and must be in balance if we are to enjoy a healthy and fulfilling life. Five Element acupuncture takes this a step further, designating one element or ‘causative factor’ that predominates in each person. This is the element predisposed to being out of balance, and becomes the focus of Five Element acupuncture treatment. It is determined by asking detailed questions and assessing complexion, odour, sound and emotion. Whether we are born with our causative factor or it’s established in early childhood is still debated by Five Element academics. Either way, it is the element that is constitutionally weakest or suffered most in infancy and childhood.

Let’s take a closer look at each of the five elements.

Wood represents birth, growth, new beginnings. It corresponds to Springtime and the colour green. Wood people are doers, with strong opinions. Their energy comes ‘at you.’ The emotion is anger and the odour sour. Wood meridians are Liver and Gallbladder, which open to the eyes. When balanced, Wood is full of life, movement, hope and optimism. It provides the ability to ‘see’ – ideas and planning for the future; inner and outer perspective. When out of balance, Wood people can become rigid and stubborn, stuck and frustrated, procrastinating on tasks instead of moving forward.

Fire corresponds to Summer, passion, heat. The colour is red, the emotion joy, the flavour bitter, the odour burnt. Fire allows us to love and be loved. The meridians are Heart and Pericardium (the ‘heart protector’). Fire facilitates our ability to connect and maintain relationships. It manages boundaries and intimacy; vulnerability and guardedness. Fire people are all about communication. They’re often jovial and make great comedians. By the same token, this element facilitates the capacity to be exquisitely sensitive. Fire people can sometimes harbour a deep sadness.

Earth is about satisfaction. Late Summer, the time of harvest and abundance. This element allows us to receive sustenance and care for others. The colour is yellow, the odour sweet. Earth meridians are the Spleen and Stomach, corresponding to digestion and nourishment. Earth people want and need to be understood. When speaking, Earth people sound as if they are singing, or telling a nursery rhyme. They can be great storytellers. An out of balance Earth person may sense an emptiness inside of them, a void that needs to be filled. Sometimes this manifests in over-eating or craving certain flavours, especially sweets.

Metal brings us to Autumn. Simplicity, stillness, self-awareness. The colour is white, the emotion grief. Metal gives rise to our sense of self and the ability to contemplate what exists beyond us. It represents quality and value. Metal people often expect the ‘best’ of themselves and others. The meridians are Lung and Large Intestine, which open to the skin. These organ systems are physically and energetically responsible for the removal of waste. When out of balance, Metal can manifest as egoism, striving for perfection, and the inability to ‘let go’ of emotions and experiences which no longer serve us.

Water is our origin. It represents stillness and movement; is both reassuring and terrifying. The colour is blue-black, the flavour salty, the emotion fear. It gives rise to inner power and the deepest understanding of who we are. Corresponding to Winter, energetically the water element moves inward and down, in conservation mode. In Water we gather strength, its depth is infinite. Water people are often thrill-seekers, adrenaline lovers, determined and adaptable. There is no stopping Water; a stream will run around a rock to continue its flow. When out of balance, Water can be masked by crippling fear, to the point of paranoia.

Understanding the five elements helps us appreciate the interconnectedness of the human body. Recognising our causative factor with the help of a Five Element acupuncturist can help us understand our true nature. Therapeutically, it provides a framework for care at the deepest level. Addressing imbalances in our causative factor has roll-on effects physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.