In Classical Chinese Medicine, the Five Elements theory is a fundamental concept that helps explain the relationships between various aspects of the natural world, including the human body, organs, emotions, seasons, colours, and more. Each element is associated with specific organs and emotions, providing a comprehensive understanding of the interactions and influences within the body and mind.
As a fundamental concept, it is perceived that a physical disorder (linked to a specific organ system) can originally stem from an imbalance in the emotion associated with that organ. The reverse of this can also be true, that an imbalance in an organ may heighten or exacerbate the associated emotion. This can sometimes lead to a rather viscous cycle of one exacerbating the other when in a state of disharmony.
Let’s explore these 5 organs and the tonic herbs that can help to support and nourish each system and its associated element and emotion.
Heart Fire & Joy
The Fire Element embodies passion, love, joy and laughter. Yang in nature, this energy reaches outward through the expression of enthusiasm and expansiveness, the desire to connect its driving force.
When expressed harmoniously, the Fire Element allows us to give and receive love freely, to be open-hearted, loving, joyful and expressive. The mind is calm, we sleep soundly and there is an enthusiasm for life that courses through us with ease.
Through the lens of Chinese medicine, an element can become out of balance, creating a pattern of excess or deficiency. A deficiency of Fire can manifest itself as depression, apathy and overall lack of joy, whilst an excess can manifest as hyper-excitability, agitation and restlessness. Any imbalance of this element can create feelings of isolation and vulnerability.
The emotion of the Heart is joy. Experiencing this emotion in its purest form nourishes the Heart. When there is a lack of joy in our lives this directly affects the Heart, whilst inversely any depletion of Heart Fire can impact one’s ability to think clearly, leaving them to feel listless and apathetic. This depletion can affect sleep, dreams, memory, concentration and the ability to connect with others. When there is an excess of Heart Fire, that joy can expand beyond its capacity and feel manic, agitated and restless. The Heart is at the centre of perception itself, unattached to the emotions of worry or fear, its purpose governed by the desire to find harmony, love, connection and joy.
Liver Wood & Anger
The Wood element represents everything that grows and expands, it is flexible, yielding, strong and durable. Just as we would imagine a tree, the Wood element covers and penetrates the earth, expanding from its centre and expressing itself in an outward and upward direction.
We embody the Water element to conceive new ideas, and then utilising the Wood element, are able to develop and actualise them, creating plans and strategies that help us to bring these ideas into reality with a motivated and decisive force. When in balance, the Wood element allows us to be focused, driven, brave and decisive. However, when in a state of disharmony, we can begin to feel angry, frustrated and controlling, feeling a lack of direction and purpose in life.
Anger is the natural response to any interruption in the Liver’s mission to move and expand, and on the other hand, an excess of anger that is current or repressed can impact the functioning of the Liver. As with all emotions, they provide a window into our inner landscape, bringing attention to what is out of balance. Driving us forward, anger can help us to change and grow, assert our needs and stand up for ourselves. When faced with conflict, a harmonious Liver allows us to process and integrate, set healthy boundaries and stand firm in our convictions.
Kidney Water & Fear
The energy of the Water element directs us to that dark, quiet space within, where our essential self-identity resides. As the most nourishing and essential substance for life, there is depth and mystery to the Water element. The Wisdom of Water is to flow with ease and grace, moving effortlessly around obstacles, as it evolves into the exact form of whatever contains it. When in balance, the Water element embodies courage and willpower, trusting in the flow of life.
Overthinking things, feeling restless and having a general lack of trust in yourself and your external environment can be an indication of Kidney Water imbalance. The lesson of the Water element is to tune into your inner knowing, learning to trust your innate instincts, rather than reacting with the feeling of fear that stems from the mind. Becoming aware and present with your emotions, and of course not fearing them is a simple practice that can help manage or release them.
A totally normal and adaptive emotion that enables us to navigate situations with care and caution, fear can become chronic when ignored. When felt excessive, a fear of life and an overall feeling of insecurity can damage Kidney Qi.
Lung Metal & Grief
Corresponding with the Lungs, the Metal element is associated with the process of letting go of what no longer serves us, whilst learning and integrating the lessons contained within our experiences. Many of us can become stuck in the emotions we have experienced, and instead of learning the lessons and moving on, we energetically hold on and remain locked into the past. The Lungs are said to be the ‘Seat of Wisdom’ in Chinese Medicine, thus the act of breathing deeply, releasing stagnant attachments and emotions, extracting the lessons from those experiences that embody the element of Metal, and cultivating wisdom from within.
Think about how our breathing changes depending on the different emotions we may be experiencing. Whether our breath becomes shallow, rough, or short when feeling angry, worried or frustrated, or when we are surprised or scared we may gasp. The emotions express themselves through the breath.
Prolonged, unprocessed grief impairs the Lungs and consumes the Qi which affects their function and capacity. The contracting energy of grief forces us to turn inward, whilst the Lungs allow us to feel, process and express that grief.
Spleen Earth & Worry
The Earth element is stable, grounding and nurturing and is often associated with the concept of the "mother-child" relationship, where the Earth element (mother) nourishes and supports other elements (children).
The Spleen is primarily associated with the Earth element and is considered one of the key organs responsible for the transformation and transportation of food and fluids. Its main function is to extract essential nutrients and energy from food, which are then transported to other organs and tissues to nourish the body. The Spleen's role in digestion involves transforming food into a substance called "Gu Qi," or "Grain Qi," which provides the basis for the body's vitality and strength.
The Spleen is responsible for digesting our thoughts, experiences and emotions just as much as it is responsible for digesting our food. When in a state of imbalance, the Spleen is associated with the emotion of worry and overthinking, a person might experience digestive issues, fatigue, lack of focus, and excessive mental rumination that leaves them feeling ungrounded and disconnected.
If you are wanting to dive deeper into a particular element, organ or season, head to the SuperFeast E-Book page here to download our free PDF series 'In Harmony with' that explores each season and how to better understand you own connection with nature.
If you are more a listening type, check out some of the following podcast episodes from the SuperFeast podcast to expand your understanding a little further: