Here at #periodpainfree we talk a lot about treating a person holistically with traditional Chinese medicine. It has also been mentioned that the diagnosis in Chinese medicine looks very different from what you might get in a modern day doctor’s office. I’d like to give you some insight to the core of of this philosophy.
The ancient Chinese often looked to nature to define their internal environment. The world was seen as a large functioning system around them, while a human being a reflection of that. The body body was seen as a smaller system, functioning in the same manner. Using this theory, practitioners could diagnose and treat patients on the basis of what they saw in nature. For example: what puts out fire? Water. This philosophy defines five elements.
This is not your mama’s Earth, Wind, and Fire… This is an ancient worldview that once you get the hang of, you will see playing out in every aspect of your daily life. This system is vast and overarching, but simple and to the point. Each element has a job, and it must perform that job in a meticulous and well defined manner in order for the system to remain balanced. If something slightly shifts in the system, it can all be knocked off kilter. This applies to the physical world around you, but also your internal world. Interested? Let’s get down to it…
The elements: fire, earth, metal, water, wood. To understand how they factor into our inner lives, we examine their role in the nature around us, then apply it to our sense of self and how we participate in our human experience with others. The following is meant to whet your intellectual appetite and is by no means an exhaustive dive into the subject.
Plants, trees, flowers. The sprouting seed in the ground that will eventually be a sky-scraping redwood. The wood element is associated with springtime. With this comes the idea of birth and growth, the implication of a future. Also the immense energy and activity of what that birth and growth implies. In order for these things to work in a cohesive manner, there needs to be a goal or vision, as well as the exuberance and hope required to see it out. The essence here is activity based and implies movements with structure and purpose, showing the upward and forward nature vital to the wood element. The birth and regeneration of springtime is shown in wood's association with the reproductive organs. The wood element also controls the tendons and sinews, which can be related to the boundless amount of potential energy related to wood, but also the flexibility and ability to adapt to different situations. This dynamic bursting forth is only associated with wood. It may be interesting to note our lives in comparison to a tree's: as a sapling, the branches grow rapidly and flexibly, but as it reaches maturity, and especially beyond, the branches begin to become more rigid and fixed. This applies to our bodies, but is also a strong metaphor for our minds.
Flickering, raging, warm… It is the ultimate destroyer, as we are vulnerable to it’s flames. Yet much like Shiva, through fire’s destruction, it is the creator. According to NASA: “Fire initiates critical natural processes by breaking down organic matter into soil nutrients or breaking open some types of seeds so they can begin the germination process.” The fire element is associated with the season of summer. During the summer plants expand and mature, fueled by long days of basking in the sun’s rays. Summer in the human experience takes those long days and warm nights, allowing for the same expansion and maturation, but this time of spirit rather than physical being. Our spirit expands and grows based on our relations with others. We learn about the spirit of humanity on a general level by interactions between individuals, be them acquaintances or intimate relationships. These interactions and communications are driven by warmth towards our fellow humans, creating a sense of love and belonging. The fire element is also associated with the blood and blood vessels, connecting and communicating between different parts of the body.
Both the dirt and the essence that allow plants to grow, the bearer of harvests and our source of nutrients, the stable ground we stand on. When we harvest the land, we create a community. There is no room for isolation when every hand is necessary to build the stores that will carry us through the winter. This is nourishment of the mind, body, and spirit. All nourishment, be it food, information, or experiences, must be taken in, digested, or assimilated. Digesting an experience allows us to glean greater meaning. Imbalance here shows information sitting and rotting. The mind gets stuck or clogged with raw materials, constantly churning thoughts turning over and over in obsession. Earth provides both the source and the capacity to use it. When the earth spirit is balanced, sympathy and compassion come easily. You can give to others when you yourself are full.
Formed deep within the earth, it eventually surfaces by natural processes or mining. Metals can be malleable to take the shapes we please or permanently pressed into a shape without bending or cracking to be used as tools. Some are rare, precious, valuable. This includes the minerals that come from the earth, ones that our bodies cannot produce on their own and are necessary for survival. The metal element calls on the energy of autumn, a time in which the earth's energy turns full circle. After the seasons of growth, maturity, and harvest, the leaves on the trees and plants fall and die, making way for new growth in the spring and pouring essential nutrients back into the soil serving as a rich basis for new life in the next year. The value in this cycle of decomposition lies in the essential trace elements and minerals that are now returned to the soil after use in last year's growth cycle. This highlights the need within us to let go, to recycle essences so that new growth will be possible. Ideas, emotions, food, stages of growth, all have their time and then have no more to offer. We need to be able to let go and move on, so we can use the time and energy for other things. When the metal element is weak, we may not be able to let go at the appropriate time: we may begin to cast aside things of value before their time or hang onto things for too long where become blocked by poisons we cannot release.
We can collect water from rain in buckets or see it pooling as morning dew on the tools left out from a previous day's work. Water can also disperse and spread, taking whatever shape fits its need. In many ways it is the source of life. Trees, animals, humans, cities… all congregate around water. If there is no water source, there is a rational fear of death. Water is associated with winter. Winter is meant to be a time of rest, forced by nature to slow down, rely only on the reserves gathered in the past year’s harvest, and to draw on those reserves to prepare for the growth of the following spring. This concept may be one of the hardest concepts to grapple with in our modern lives of skiing, snow angels, and holiday parties every night of December. However, the idea that we must build up our cache in order to get through times of uncertainty remains. Maybe it’s your rainy day fund (water pun intended) or carbo-loading before a marathon (running or netflix, your choice), but these are winter hibernation-esque activities that fall under the command of the water element. The rainy months of winter are also a time of cleansing. Water washes away the debris of the past in order to prepare for what is to come. If there is no cleansing flow within us, we become stagnant and sluggish with toxins, which could be of the body or mind. Water allows us to live, grow, move, and transform.
Working together, these elements provide balance, stability, and forward momentum. Should any piece miss its mark, the system wobbles, parts sway and collide, the water floods, the earth crumbles, the fire rages out of control... Any element not in balance can create a domino effect in the system, causing signs and symptoms anywhere. Everything is intricately woven together, connected in ways the eye may or may not see without taking a deeper look.
This is why, in Classical Five Elements Acupuncture, practitioners treat only the primary deficiency of a person, using the idea that the domino effect created can manifest both negatively, creating symptoms, and positively, by reversing them. There are too many forces to name that make achieving ultimate balance difficult in modern life, but with the support of acupuncture it becomes much closer to the realm of possibility. Seek out your local Five Elements practitioner today for a holistic treatment of a whole new level.
Nicole Glathe is a Doctor of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, California board certified licensed acupuncturist and herbalist, Diplomate of Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM), Certified Classical Five Elements Practitioner and Instructor, and co-founder of #periodpainfree. Her passion is women's health and her mission is to empower women to live their healthiest and happiest life. She is always delighted to talk to women on their health journey - shoot her a note: email@example.com.