5 Element theory is the foundation of Chinese disciplines such as feng shui, martial arts & the I Ching (The Book of Changes, a text also Universal in its understanding & representation of the dynamic balance of opposites & the processes of unfolding events & change).
TCM’s Five Element framework is ancient and Universal in what it embodies and are deeply woven into the fabric of Chinese culture. A useful dietary theory in TCM relates to Five Elements Theory or Wu Xing.
The Creation Cycle / Sheng Cycle
Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal & Water form a sequence called the creation cycle or Sheng cycle. The clockwise sequence on the circle represents the Sheng cycle. The Sheng cycle is also called the mother-child relationship. As in the cycle of the seasons, each element generates another, i.e., one element is said to be the "mother" of the next
To help remember;
- Wood feeds Fire
- Fire creates Earth (ash)
- Earth bears Metal
- Metal carries Water (as in a bucket or tap)
- Water nourishes Wood
If the child is weak/deficient, nourish the mother. If there is not enough Fire corresponding to the Heart, strengthen the Liver or the Wood element with food or herbs as the Liver is said to be the mother of the Heart.
There is a useful relationship between the colours of food, the Five Elements & corresponding body systems.
- Green foods nourish the Liver.
- Yellow & orange foods nourish the Spleen and Stomach.
- Red foods nourish the Heart.
- White foods nourish the Lungs.
- Black/dark blue foods nourish the Kidneys.
A person with weak digestion which, according to TCM, affects the Spleen, should include abundant yellow & orange foods such as sweet potatoes & winter squashes, as these are the colours that correspond to the Earth element. For a weak heart, eat more red foods such as tomatoes, beetroot and hawthorn berries tea or tincture, as red corresponds to the Fire element and the Heart organ.
The Control Cycle / Ko Cycle
Another relationship that within the Five Elements is the Control Cycle or Ko Cycle. The clockwise sequence depicted by the pentagon represents the Ko Cycle. This cycle might also be called "controls", "restrains" or "fathers". The Ko cycle is also often referred to as the grandmother-son cycle.
To help remember:
- Wood parts Earth
- Earth absorbs Water
- Water quenches Fire
- Fire melts Metal
- Metal chops Wood
If Wood (Liver) becomes excessive, manifesting as hypertension, red eyes, headache, etc, strengthen the Metal element (Lungs) to control the Wood element.
Wu Xing and Taste
- The pungent taste is absorbed by the Lungs & Large Intestines
- The salty taste is absorbed by the Kidney & Bladder
Therefore, foods and herbs with different energies & tastes are assimilated into the body to nourish different organs. Take for example someone with digestive difficulties as in a weakness of Spleen & Stomach. They are likely to crave excessive sweets. TCM utilises foods that are sweet to strengthen the Spleen and Stomach, such as yams or winter squash.
The general guidelines are that moderate consumption of food with a given taste will benefit the corresponding organs. It is also important to note that excess consumption of individual flavours can damage the corresponding organs also. This is particularly common in relation to the flavour sweet. It is much more unlikely to consume excess bitter food for example.
Pungent taste tonifies the dispersing and descending function of the Lungs. Pungent is also said to invigorate and promote circulation. Its' function of dispersing is mainly used to disperse pathogens from the exterior of the body, such as we see in common colds and flu. Its' function of invigorating is to promote the circulation of Qi, blood, and body fluid/Jin Ye. In Chinese Medicine, a disease is the result of stagnation of Qi and Blood. Pathological conditions of stagnation can be seen as local pain, irregular menstruation, painful menstruation, oedema, tumours, fibroids cysts etc. Pungent foods can invigorate circulation and help relieve such problems.
Examples of pungent tasting food are ginger, garlic, radish and mint. Excess pungent food can aggravate wind pathologies and damage the Blood and or Yin and result in dizziness or itching.
The sour taste is said to absorb, consolidating and astringe functions. It aids in stopping the abnormal discharge of body fluids and substances such as excessive perspiration, diarrhoea, seminal emission, spermatorrhoea and enuresis.
Examples of sour foods are Chinese sour plum, lemon and vinegar. Excess sour, however, can cause sour grapes or cause retention of toxic heat and aggravate skin conditions.
The bitter flavour is said to drying damp and disperse obstruction. Bitter also clears heat. Bitter foods can be used to treat oedema (swelling due to water retention) and obesity or excess heat conditions including red eyes, headaches, hypertension etc. Its function of dispersing obstruction can be utilised in a cough due to Qi stagnation etc.
Examples of bitter tasting foods are rhubarb, apricot kernels, radicchio, endive, cos lettuce, dandelion leaves, mustard greens, burdock root and kale. Excess bitter foods are too cooling and can damage a weak spleen and cause diarrhoea and fatigue.
Salty taste has the function of softening and dissolving hard masses. Salty also moistens and lubricates the intestines. Body symptoms such as lumps, nodules, masses, cysts and tumours can be softened and dissolved by salty substances. For example, goiter treated by seaweed. To treat constipation, one can drink salt water to lubricate the intestines.
Examples of salty foods are celery and seaweed. Mang Xiao is said to be pungent, bitter, salty and cold. Also known as Glauber's salt, Mang xiao is a mineral called hydrated sodium sulphate that is found in salt lakes worldwide and used to treat constipation among other things. Excess salty foods can contribute to hypertension and heart disease.
Sweet taste has the action of tonifying, harmonising and decelerating. Sweet substances have a reinforcing and strengthening action in cases of fatigue or deficiency. Deficiencies may occur in different aspects of the body, such as insufficiency of Qi, Blood, Yin or Yang. Excess sweet is said to weaken the spleen, however. This is why sweet cravings occur during bouts of fatigue and lethargy. Sweet taste is used to relax. Sweet can be used in conditions of acute pain to help relax and ease the pain. Sweet foods or herbs can harmonise as an antidote or counterbalance undesirable effects from some herbs.
Examples of sweet tasting foods are yams, corn, liquorice and rice.
Bland taste falls under the sweet taste category. It tends to be diuretic, promotes urination and relieves oedema (swelling).
An example of a bland tasting food is pearl barley.