TCM and the Five Elements

How to sum up thousands of years of Chinese medicine and the integral five elements model in a blog post? Probably not worth attempting, but that is the point of the first phase of this year’s MOFO.


Chinese medicine looks at relationships. Western science is in contrast reductionist in nature. It always looks for smaller pices of the machine to analyze. TCM looks for relationships, functions and patterns. What happens in external nature is also what happens within our bodies, and possibly our minds as well. It is also metaphorical, so when TCM talks about Blood, it means more than the liquid coursing through the vessels, but all the functions of blood, which is to distribute nourishment. Same with Fluids. Same with the primary organs, the Kidneys, Liver, Spleen, Heart , and Lungs.


So the metaphor of the Five Elements is used to illustrate these functions and relationships. Those elements are:


Each element is then realted to a specific organ system, season, emotion, etc. People also tend to fall into one or two elements as their dominant constitution.

So, if you had a health issue and went to see a doctor of Oriental Medicine (OMD) instead of specific symptoms being addressed, one would look for patterns. So two patients with similar symptoms might get different diagnoses, and therefore different treatments. One patient might being presenting dysfunction in the Water element, someone else, Fire, even though they seem the same.

But this is Vegan MOFO, what does this have to with food?

In TCM, these elements are affected by many things, such as the environment, the climate, the season, and the food we eat. A condition can be worsened by eating the wrong foods, and consequently, foods can hep nudge the body back into balance. Tastes are assigned to each element, and the general goal is to balance those those five flavors. By tilting the balance a little, overall health can be affected.

The Five Flavors:

Earth: Sweet
Metal: Pungent (spicy)
Water: Salty
Wood: Sour
Fire: Bitter

In general, one tries to balance the flavors, favoring the sweet flavor a bit, and tilting it as needed.

For November, the season is fall, and the associated element is Metal. The flavor is pungent, and the organ system is the Lung. So one might tilt the flavors a little toward pungent and spicy, using a little more garlic, onion, and ginger. Certain foods such as radishes, turnips, and pears are said to help balance Metal, so they can be emphasized.

The balance of the Five Elements is used for other types of TCM diagnoses and therapies, such as acupuncture and herbs.

In addition, TCM looks at the thermal nature, or temperature of foods. Like everything else, it takes a little imagination, but a little reflection can show that some foods warm you up, and others cool you down. This does not refer to actual physical temperature of the food itself, but its effect when digested. It’s like how lemons taste acidic, but actually have an alkalyzing effect. Foods are classified as cold, cool, neutral, warm or hot. Again, one’s individual constitution and environment is considered when choosing foods. A person who suffers from Cold should avoid cooling salads and favor well cooked foods that include some warmer spices, such as ginger, garlic, and onion. Someone who runs warm, like myself, does better with neutral and cooling foods. While I like hot, spicy food, I’ve found cutting down on the amount of spice and frequency feels a bit better, especially in summer.

Some examples:

Cold: tomatoes, watermelon, tofu, sea vegetables
Cool: mung beans, cucumber, spinach, most fruit
Neutral: rice, carrots, cabbage
Warm: most meats, black beans, garlic, onion
Hot: ground ginger, cloves, chili

Generally, fruits are cool, veggies are cool to neutral, meats are warm, and spices are warm to hot.

Preparation also influences temperature. Raw is the coolest, while roasting is the warmest, and steaming, sautéing, and simmering in the middle. So foods can be altered a bit, warm or hot foods can be brought down a little, and cold foods can be warmed up a bit. This is useful for seasonal extremes like summer and winter. Most people can relate to how cooling composed salads feel good on a hot day, not so much in winter. And the converse for a garlicky soup.

Like Western medicine, diagnosing in TCM is probably best left to the professionals. But if you can avoid internet generated hypochondria, it is possible to see the basic patterns in yourself, and use food to help rather than exacerbate issues. When in doubt, aim for the center, as that will always help balance.

And the topic of the next post

About vegpedlr

Plant powered off-road triathlete
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