Introducing the Five Elements

Water, Wood, Fire, Earth, and Metal

A blooming tree can be an inspiring sign of growth. Or it can seem like a potential loss; after all, blooms are soon to drop. Maybe we feel the tree blocks our view, or we notice the blossoms only in the company of a friend, or we question: how can this tree even exist?

These reactions reflect our variations of the Five Elements in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), a system of correspondences that includes our psychological and physiological functions. Everyone has all Five Elements, but the balance of elements changes in response to medical history, circumstance, and lifestyle changes, including ­everything from fitness regimens to external therapies. When our Elements are in relative balance, our emotional and physical symptoms can change, and we can experience an improved quality of life.

Like many components of TCM, the Five Elements cannot be identified or quantified using a medical test. Yet the Elements correlate with the five senses, an array of physical structures including the muscles and organs, physiological processes ranging from breathing to elimination, and our emotional and spiritual health. As with Yin and Yang (another component of TCM), the Elements can change in response to nutrition, mindfulness, balancing rest and activity, adapting to the weather, and many other lifestyle factors.

It may be easiest to unpack the Elements by thinking about our own habits. When we get good news, do we broadcast it on social media, look for a way to give back, ask for clarification, ponder the significance, or barely stop what we are doing? When we carry groceries or get out of bed, what part of our body feels sore or stiff? If we had to choose one pain symptom as the most frustrating, where is it located? Using the system of the Five Elements, our emotional and physical symptoms are no coincidence and all have meaning.

So, let’s unpack the Fab Five:


Philosophical and wise, Water helps us to “think big” – to see our connection to humankind or the world. Water asks questions and is unafraid of the unknown. Water helps us find meaning in our everyday actions and makes our overall life more profound. Like an ocean with limitless depth, Water always has the capacity to go “deeper.” Water pertains to our bones, memory, and longevity.


Powerful and directed, Wood gives the capacity to create and meet goals, to visualize, to seek new challenges, and to stay focused. Like a tree that bends in high wind rather than falling over completely, Wood is determined and strong. Wood gives us patience and the ability to identify signs of progress. Wood also pertains to the eyes, tendons, and the regularity of our bodily processes.


Social and interactive, Fire gives us creativity, hope, and awe at the wonders of the world. Fire provides us with a sense of humor and capacity for love. Whether we have a spark of inspiration or carry a torch for a new idea, Fire gives us passion for our interests. Fire also corresponds with the heart, our blood circulation, and our ability to speak.


Caring and compassionate, Earth enables us to give and receive help and to build a sense of community and “home,” wherever that may be. Even if we are in transition, we can still feel grounded and rooted, thanks to this Element. As a bonus, Earth is warm and thoughtful. The Element also relates to appetite and digestion, the muscles, and our sense of taste.


Clear and direct, Metal can downsize, organize, and define our values, beliefs, and roles. Metal stays cool under pressure and keeps us tough enough to withstand life’s hardships. Just as a well-manufactured tool can be practical and functional, Metal can keep us efficient and effective. Metal also pertains to the sinuses, the skin, and the immune system.

Honoring the Five

Does one Element sing out while another one seems absent? Everyone has all five Elements, and the balance of the Elements will shift throughout our lifetime. Building and maintaining a kind and sustainable lifestyle can help keep our Elements balanced. Moreover, developing mind-body connections will make our health less surprising and more reflective of our personal choices. We all can contribute to our health and healing.