The Chinese theory of the Five Elements, called “Wu Xing” in Chinese, is an ancient and complex system representing the processes fundamental to the cycles of nature, and therefore, Chinese medicine believes, corresponds to the human body. Each element in the system—wood, fire, earth, metal and water—is associated with the seasons, parts of the body, certain emotions, tastes, and one of the life cycles. In addition, each of the elements is in constant movement and change. For nature and the body to flourish, all the elements must be balanced.
Part of this cycle is explained this way:
- wood feeds fire
- fire creates ashes which form earth
- inside the earth, metal, which is heated, liquefies and produces water vapor
- water generates then nourishes the trees, or wood
Western practitioners of complementary medicine use the Five Elements not only in acupuncture and herbal medicine, but also to advise on nutrition and forms of exercise.
Autumn is Metal
In the Five Elements system, autumn/metal is 72 days of harvesting and collecting. The time is associated with the planet Venus, intuition, grief, bravery, the lungs, large intestine, nose, skin, pungent tastes, and old age.
Practically speaking, it’s time to ensure things are used wisely and unnecessary things are eliminated. Western complementary medicine experts also advise that the inability to be open to new ideas or holding on to rigid thoughts can point to an imbalance of metal.
The lungs and the large intestine also deal with purification. So, it’s suggested that an ideal autumn diet include hearty, warm foods, whole grains, root vegetables (such as potatoes, carrots, garlic and onions) and spices that encourage healthy digestion, such as ginger, cayenne pepper and curry.
Lung health might include practicing breathing meditation, and also weight training, which, done properly, encourages deep breathing and also helps make best use of the protein needed to prepare for winter.
Autumn/metal also means making sure you take care of yourself with proper sleep.
Winter is Water
Winter/water is 72 days of retreat, “where stillness and storage pervade.” This time is associated with Mercury, erudition, resourcefulness, fear, gentleness, the kidneys, the bladder, the ears, salty tastes and death/conception.
It’s a particularly good season to pay attention to your dreams, experts say, including journaling about them or using them to inspire creativity.
Complementary medicine experts point out that in Chinese medicine, the kidney is revered as essential to health. To keep them functioning at their best, they need water and warmth. Keep your lower back during frosty weather covered to ensure the kidneys do not get chilled.
Recommended foods range from rich soups, to fish and shellfish, to beans and steamed greens to ginger and cinnamon teas. Experts suggest switching to sea salt (if you haven’t already) because of its connection to the water element—but moderate all salt consumption out of respect for the kidneys.
Winter/water exercise might include fluid tai chi, qi gong, yoga and dance.
Spring is Wood
Spring/wood is 72 days of growth, which generates abundant wood and vitality. It’s associated with Jupiter, idealism, spontaneity, anger, the liver, the gall bladder, the eyes, sour tastes and birth.
This is the time, experts tell us, to make a new life plan for the future, and reach outward while nurturing deeper roots.
To spring clean (aka detoxify) your liver, drink lots of fluids, complementary medicine recommends, perhaps adding some lemon to your water intake. Eat light, raw foods and avoid anything heavy or fried, as well as alcohol.
Exercise-wise, yoga, Pilates, and other deep-stretching practices help pay attention to your spine, limbs and joints, as well as muscles, ligaments and tendons.
Early Summer is Fire
Early summer/fire is 72 days associated with Mars, passion, hate, love, the heart, the small intestine, the tongue, bitter tastes and youth.
Experts suggest using this time, complementary to connectivity, for lunches and gathering with friends. Though this is a peak power time, beware of a fire imbalance of over-commitment and too much excitement. Too little fire, on the other hand, manifests in feeling cold or not wanting to be active.
Balancing fire and its corresponding heart/small intestine with foods means two things, then. To balance too much fire, make sure you’re eating bitter foods, such as romaine lettuce, almonds and scallions, and “cooling” foods, such as cucumber, sprouts, watermelon and apples. Try to stay away from too much meat, eggs and oils. To balance too little fire, experts recommend “heating” foods, such as peppers, ginger, butter, meats, cherries and basmati rice.
The body will benefit most during this most-active season from cardiovascular exercise, experts say, stimulating the heart and circulatory system. Run, power walk, bike, rock climb—get the heart pumping.
Late Summer is Earth
Late summer/earth is 72 days associated with Saturn, agreeableness, anxiety, joy, the spleen, pancreas and stomach, the mouth, sweet tastes and adulthood.
During this time, a time of change, the earth element acts as a stabilizing force, allowing us to prepare for the autumn to come. Host a dinner for family and friends, share a relaxing hike with them, use your mindfulness to watch and absorb the changing seasons.
“Choose sugars wisely,” experts urge, to help regulate the pancreas, which is in charge of blood sugar levels. Eating foods considered “sweet” by Chinese medicine is also recommended, including apples, cabbage, carrots, dates, figs, grapes, kidney beans, lettuce, milk, olives, peaches, pears, squash, string beans, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and walnuts. Also suggested is deliberately slowing down the pace at which you eat, allowing the stomach to fully digest the nutrients in your foods.
Imbalance can cause disruption; balance creates harmony
When the five elements are out of balance, whether in nature or in the body, Wu Xing teaches, this can cause a destructive cycle. In this cycle, water extinguishes fire, wood separates earth, metal chops wood, fire melts metal, and earth absorbs water.
So, paying attention to seasonal eating and exercise, and using this ancient system as a guide to balance, can result in a healthier body—and a more harmonious life.