Five Element Acupuncture

Each element is linked to a pair of organs which, when affected, can yield symptoms on the vastly different levels of mind, body, and spirit.

This, as practiced today, is a more modern approach to a traditionally recognized set of problems and the relationships from which they take origin. The roots of this approach come from Taoist philosophy and later from Confucianism – where the major thrust deals with man’s relation to both nature and his fellow man.

MountainThe laws, which govern the universe, are the same laws that govern the workings of each individual, for man is but a microcosm of the larger universe – the macrocosm.

The perfect functioning and balance of the universe is, exactly, reflected in the perfect balance of the individual. That state of equilibrium or health can be upset by a variety of factors culminating in dis-health or disease.

We each have an individual make-up and, thus, an individual way in which our systems may be affected by an external “stress” or break down. This, however, is just a tendency or predilection – not fate. It may help to explain why one person reacts to a problem, symptomatically, with stomach upset, whereas the next person develops backache; or on a more dramatic level, why one person gets cancer and another has a “stroke”. Obviously, there are a multitude of factors involved in this equation. The Five Element approach to acupuncture is, simply, one elegant way of sorting these out and making some sense of an impossibly, sometimes, confusing situation.

Of critical importance is the fact that this whole system merely talks to potential ways of “breaking down”, not inevitable events! Its usefulness lies in providing a way to understand disease, and promote health if, in any given individual, the need should arise.

Five Element AcupunctureRemembering that ancient Chinese society was agrarian and, thus, intimately involved with nature, one can appreciate how the expanded metaphors (used often in this paradigm, and so much of acupuncture) have evolved and yet retain their simple power and relevance. In Five Element theory, one speaks of these five parts interacting to allow for a wholly functional being. Each one is indispensable and derangement of, or disease in each, has recognizable patterns of expression.

The Five elements are wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Each element has predictable traits in a person. As I describe some common characteristics of each element, it is critically important to remember that each element is simultaneously active on the three different levels of body, mind, and spirit – or, put another way, bodily functions from an organ level to personality characteristics. One element’s expression does not preclude another. There is no rank – order of importance.

Each element is linked to a pair of organs which, when affected, can yield symptoms on the vastly different levels of mind, body, and spirit.

More specifically, in a physical and psychological sense, the following qualities and pathologic expressions can be seen (as a brief example):


(As represented by a tree, in it’s various stages of life):

It is a living, growing entity which simultaneously is rooted in the earth while growing upwards. As a sapling or during “high winds”, it demands flexibility, yet is firm – to withstand outside pressures and support its own upward growth. Bending to forces greater than itself, from blossom to fruit to dropping leaves to apparent winter quiet, the entire life cycle plays out.

The wood element is linked to the organs of liver and gall bladder, which, in turn, metaphorically are intimately involved with muscles, tendons, movement, balance, and (on the spirit level) issues of justice! One might see an imbalance in the element playing out in a patient as problems directly on the muscle (body level). Likewise, personality characteristics like anxiety, irritability, and frustration may dominate their world (spirit level). They seem to know what the “right” way to proceed is; they seem to “shout” out the answer; and if their advice is not heeded, this only further points to the “injustice” of the world.


Think of the sun in mid-summer with blazing heat, light, and warmth. Now extend the metaphor on the individual level to mental brilliance, vitality, social interaction, passion, and the “heat” necessary for proper “circulation” which will allow for cellular biochemical activity.

The organs to which this element is linked are the heart, small intestine, “master of the heart” (in acupuncture metaphoric language, is most closely aligned with the pericardium, hence the idea of “heart protector”), and “triple heater” (this is another rather obscure acupuncture term that likely finds its closest ally in modern biomedicine with the autonomic nervous system).

One can, intuitively, see how pivotal a role the heart or “heart protector” must play in the function of the individual; but it is less immediately clear how the “small intestine” can be placed on such a high level and in such company! The answer to this might lie in an appreciation of the role of assimilating the “pure” and necessary from the environment into our bodies for sustenance. At the same time, it is beginning the “sorting out” process which will ultimately rid our bodies of harmful or unnecessary “toxins”.

The functions of this element are absolutely necessary to nourish and sustain life. The range of that expression is vast. The presentation ranges from the expression of joy, creativity, and the embracing or fearing of life (spirit level qualities), to back pain (obviously, body level)! In its purest form, this element, on the spirit level, embodies the joy of laughter!


Think of the image of “mother earth” – the ultimate nurturer on whom all else relies. She is sweet, “singing”, thoughtful or introspective.

When this element is out of balance, the above tendencies may be taken to extremes, creating a harmful situation for that individual (e.g.: the person who does for everyone else at his or her own expense) or, conversely, is not seen at all.

The earth element is linked (concretely and metaphorically) to the spleen and stomach. Nutrition, sustenance, and some immune function are implicitly and explicitly linked with this element’s healthy function. Intuitively, it is obvious that so many gastro-intestinal (GI) symptoms, on a physical level, can be expressed when this element is out of balance, but less obvious on a spirit level. Remember that “nurturing” not only pertains to how one performs that function, but how you received or didn’t receive adequate nurturing attention yourself.

As one expands this metaphoric spectrum, it is clear that nurturing not only applies to one’s children or pets, but equally and prominently to “growing the seed” in the first place. By this, I am referring to reproduction — the obvious link here. Symptomatic problems, on the physical level, commonly include a vast array of gynecologic problems.


This is often times a more difficult metaphor to readily see. In one sense, it embodies the Father role (the giver of pure essence in body, mind, and spirit from the heavens above or, literally, from the “dad”). The element attaches naturally, but not exclusively, with issues of respect. Value, self-worth and self-esteem will be strong when this element is healthy. Contrary traits or tendencies can be seen in an unhealthy metal element. As previously alluded to, the element concerns itself with different issues also. The healthy element allows for “letting go of the unnecessary” – things which may be needlessly “clogging the wheels” in our hypothetical machine. In this latter analogy, the wheels refer to the individual’s ability the function – on all levels – optimally.

One talks about the brilliance and luster of precious gems in the ground (e.g.: gold), the physical strength of steel bridges and autumn, when the leaves begin to fall. This latter event makes way for winter and the completion of the seasonal cycle. It also allows for the process of “letting go” to run to healthy completion including letting go of the sadness or grief that might be implicit in that process. The organs to which this element is linked are the lungs and colon – we breathe in fresh, pure air and expel what, in the end, we don’t need. Thus, physical derangements might be seen in symptoms ranging from asthma to ulcerative colitis!


The last of the 5 elements can be started to be understood and appreciated when one realizes that the vast majority of the globe is ocean; while, at the same time our bodies are over 90% water!

Water can exist as huge glaciers, seemingly inert but having immense energy, or as a beautiful babbling brook! The calm and serenity of a mountain lake pales to the overwhelming force of the ocean during a grade 5 hurricane!

Like a frozen lake, the person exhibiting this element might appear as moaning and groaning. They may be “frozen” in fear or depression. The person may or may not have the “will” or ambition to persevere; or like a rampaging river, may take down all in its path!Waterfall

This element is linked to the kidney and bladder. In a similar vein as with other elements, resist making only the obvious jumps, in biomedical terms, to commonly recognized diseases of the bladder or kidney. The element extends over an enormous range of issues-on the multiple levels of mind, body, and spirit. In this more expansive view of how this element expresses itself, symptoms commonly seen run from energy issues to procreation, from kidney stones to bladder infections, from back pain to sinus problems, from one’s own survival to that of the entire race!

After that long digression, we now return to a sketch of the general topic. We all have each of the five elements interacting within us; but in any one of us, the expression of the qualities of only one element will dominate. This, through complex interrelationships of the 5 elements, then allows for the huge diversity of the human race.

We call the one main element at play the causative factor for that person. By re-gaining the health of that element (thereby allowing the other four to cease having to compensate for the sick one), one re-establishes the natural state or inherent harmony of that individual. The symptoms of disease which caused the patient such distress are relieved.

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