Similar to the theory of yin-yang, the theory of five elements; wood, fire, earth, metal and water was an ancient philosophical concept used to explain the composition and phenomena of the physical universe. In traditional chinese medicine the theory of five elements is used to interpret the relationship between the physiology and pathology of the human body and the natural environment. According to the theory, the five elements are in constant move and change, and the interdependence and mutual restraint of the five elements explain the complex connection between material objects as well as the unity between the human body and the natural world.
In traditional Chinese medicine, the visceral organs, as well as other organs and tissues, have similar properties to the five elements; they interact physiologically and pathologically as the five elements do. Through similarity comparison, different phenomena are attributed to the categories of the five elements. Based on the characteristics, forms, and functions of different phenomena, the complex links between physiology and pathology as well as the interconnection between the human body and the natural world are explained.
The five elements emerged from an observation of the various groups of dynamic processes, functions and characteristics observed in the natural world. The aspects involved in each of the five elements are follows:
The following table shows the categorization of phenomena according to the five elements:
Between the five elements there exists close relationships that can be classified as mutual promoting and mutual restraining under physiological conditions, and mutual encroaching and mutual violating under pathological conditions. By mutually promoting and restraining, functions of the various systems are coordinated and homeostasis maintained. By encroaching and violating, pathological changes can be explained and complications predicted.
The order of mutual promoting among the five elements is that wood promotes fire, fire promotes earth, earth promotes metal, metal promotes water, and promotes generates wood. In this way each of the five elements has this type of mutual promoting relationship with the other, thus promoting is circular and endless.
According to the order of mutual restraining, however, wood restrains earth, metal restrains wood, etc. Each of the five elements also shares this restraining relationship with the other. Mutual promoting and mutual restraining are two aspects that cannot be separated. If there is no promoting, then there is no birth and growth. If there is no restraining, then there is no change and development for maintaining normal harmonious relations. Thus the movement and change of all things exists through their mutual promoting and restraining relationships. These relationships are the basis of the circulation of natural elements. Encroaching and violating are the pathological conditions of the normal mutual promoting and restraining relationships. Encroaching denotes that the restraining of one of the five elements to another surpasses the normal level, while violating means that one of the five elements restrains the other opposite to the normal mutual restraining order.
Five Solid Organs (Yin-Tsang)
Heart (Hsin) The heart is the leader of all the organs and its functions reflect a person's intellectual and spiritual activities. The dysfunction of the heart can endanger all the other organs. The circulation of the blood and the heart are very closely related. The "Nei Jing" (ancient Chinese Medical Classic) states that the blood belongs to the heart. The appearance of a persons face indicates the functions of the heart, and the tongue is the "window" which shows the function of the heart. The conical sac of membranes that encloses the heart is called the pericardium. Hence, the "evil" (vicious chi) reaches the pericardium before it reaches the heart. Pericardium dysfunction will cause dysfunction of the heart. When the yang energy of the heart is deficient, one will be weak, nervous and memory will decline. When the yin of the heart is deficient one will feel easily excited, have insomnia and have night sweating. Mucus in the heart will cause fainting, abnormal actions, and madness. When heat is in the pericardium it may also cause delirium (incoherent speech). When the blood in the heart is deficient (anemia) one will be nervous, weak, and pale.
If there is too much fire of the heart, one will feel restless, be unable to sleep soundly, and have infections of the mouth and tongue. When the chi of the heart is very weak, one will be very nervous, short of breath, and have pain in the chest as well as sore arms. Because of the relationship of yin and yang, the dysfunction of the small intestine can affect the function of the heart and vice versa.
Liver (Gan) The liver is the largest gland in the body and is located at the right part of the abdominal cavity. Its main functions are to store and adjust the blood of the body, to nourish the tendons, help joint movements, and to normalize emotional conditions. The chi of the liver is like the spring, spreading and growing. If the chi of the liver is weak, a person can be timid and indecisive. The dysfunction of the liver can make a person easily angered, fearful, and over aggressive. The heart circulates the blood and the liver adjusts the amount of blood in the circulation. When sleeping, a lot of blood will be stored in the liver. If the liver cannot perform this function one will not sleep well and nightmares and insomnia will result.
The reflection of the liver is in one's nails. The eyes are the windows of the liver. The liver nourishes the tendons. A strong liver produces strong fingernails. A weak liver produces weak, colorless, cracked nails.
Spleen (Pi) The functions of the spleen are transforming and transferring the essence of food and to eliminate waste. The spleen and stomach are the foundations of life. The energy supplies of life are generated from the functions of the spleen and stomach. The spleen also helps transfer fluid, to dissolve mucus, to enable the chi to control blood flow and to feed and nourish the flesh and the four limbs. The dysfunction of the spleen will cause a shortage of energy for the body, insufficient fluid control and blood flow, loss of muscle tone, discoloring of the complexion, and sluggishness of the limbs. The window of the spleen is the mouth (lips); they reflect the condition of a healthy spleen.
Lungs (Fei) The lungs main function is breathing. "Chi" begins in the lungs. We breath all the time to live, and the lungs continuously intake oxygen and output carbon dioxide. (The Tai Chi breath is an example of how this function helps us to replenish, nourish, and strengthen our lungs). If the heart and lung functions are well coordinated then all the functions of the body are normal, otherwise one is sick. The function of the lungs is to eliminate the excess fluids of the body. The color of the skin and body hair reflects the condition of the lungs. The dysfunction of the lungs is reflected by dry, lifeless skin. The nose is the window of the lungs. The large intestine and lungs form a yin yang relationship.
Kidneys (Sen) The main function of the kidneys is to store the ching (dynamic energy, force, or origin of life) to produce bone marrow, fulfill the function of hearing, and balance the body fluid metabolism. The chi of the kidneys reflects the growth of a human being from childhood to old age. When one's kidney chi is maturing one will have sexual drive. The functions of the kidneys produce bone marrow to help feed and fill the bones. These functions are strong when one is young, ones hair is beautiful and one will have physical strength, flexibility, and an alert mind and strong spirit. When the hair turns white and falls, it indicates that the functions of the kidneys are declining. The dysfunction of the kidneys can cause deafness, impotence, inability to bear children and the inability to balance the metabolism of body fluids and blood poisoning.
The kidneys and urinary bladder form a yin-yang relationship. The ears are the windows of the kidneys.
Six Hollow Organs (Yang-Fu)
The six hollow organs are yang and they are paired with the solid organs to the following: liver and gall bladder, heart and small intestine, spleen and stomach, lungs and large intestine and kidneys and urinary bladder. The triple heat(er) is a series of functions and itself is not an organ. (The three burning spaces, or three tan tians) see five phases or elements chart. Small Intestine (Shao Chang)
Small Intestine (Shao Chang)
The functions of the small intestine are to refine the food coming into the stomach, to absorb the essence of the food, and to transfer food molecules to be used as energy for the functions of the body. The dysfunction of the small intestine may cause a shortage of energy for the body that will result in the weakening of all normal functions. Internal disorder and disease can follow.
Gall Bladder (Tan) The gall bladder stores the clear liquid bile. The other five hollow organs store liquid that is not clear. The gall bladder is always full like the five solid organs; therefore it is classified as a hollow organ and also an extra organ.
The functions of the gall bladder are to protect the nervous system from over reaction from outside external stimulation, to help normalize a person emotionally, and help the person to make decisions. If the gall bladder is weak, it will be unable to effectively adjust the nervous system and ones energy and blood circulation will be in disorder. One can then easily become sick.
Stomach (Wei) The main function of the stomach is to intake food, cook, mash and digest food. The dysfunction of the stomach may cause vomiting and gastralgia. The inability to intake enough food to provide adequate energy for the body can result in weakness which in turn will cause problems for all the organs and the entire body.
Large Intestine (Ta Chang) The main function of the large intestine is to eliminate body wastes. The dysfunction of the large intestine can result in the body's inability to differentiate water and waste, causing diarrhea or too much heat acting on the waste, causing constipation and other problems.
Urinary Bladder (Pang Guang) The main functions of the bladder are to eliminate the urine and to help balance the amount of liquid in the body. The dysfunction of the bladder will first affect the function of the kidneys.
Triple Heater(s) (San Jiao) The functions of the triple heaters are to administer the circulation of the chi and help fluid metabolism of the body. The upper heat is like a fog, the middle is like waves, and the lower is like running water. As far back as the 3rd century the triple heat was regarded an organ "that has a name but no form".
Pericardium (Xin Bao Luo)
The triple heat is a puzzle even to the Chinese, but as we will see later, the triple heat meaning is different as a meridian. The channel or meridian is associated with the triple heat (or burner) and is connected with the pericardium. (To the ancient Taoist's, however, this channel was not a mystery). Symptoms of dysfunction of the triple heat are abdominal distension, hardness and fullness in the lower abdomen and enuresis, as well as frequent urination and edema.