It’s Elemental

Posted on in On Our Radar by Heather Lounsbury

Restoring Balance Through
Chinese Nutrition


The trees (Wood), the sun (Fire), the Earth, Metal, and Water—for the Chinese, these five elements are what make up all of existence. They play a role in nature and in our health. Without a sound balance of all five elements—each of them doing its part interacting and supporting the others—we cannot live a balanced life.

Just as the yin and yang theory is an integral part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the five-element theory is also important in helping you decide which foods are best for your health. Each of the elements is related to specific organs, illnesses, and emotions. As with most Chinese medical theories, the five-element theory is based on the natural cycles of nature and the body. Each of the five elements is closely related to pairs of organs, one organ being a yin organ, the other yang.

Each element is also connected to particular emotions—anger, heartbreak, worry, grief, and fear—as well as a specific season, tastes, colors, and even planets. The Earth element, for example, is paired with the spleen and the stomach, and it’s related to overthinking, late summer, sweet tastes, the color yellow, and (not surprisingly) planet Earth. Much of the time, it is a good idea to eat foods that bear the same color as the color associated with the organ/element. Thus, a naturally occurring color like the yellow of squash is great for the Earth element, and the spleen and stomach. Black is the key color for the Water element, so black beans nourish the kidneys and bladder and help fix Water imbalances, as well as address fear and anxiety.

What is meant by the taste of an element? If you have a weakness of a certain element/organ, you might crave certain tastes or flavors, and foods with this specific flavor will benefit or worsen your condition. The tastes associated with five-element theory are sour, sweet, bitter, spicy, and salty. But remember that the sweetness found in most sugary items and the saltiness in processed foods are not beneficial. Sorry! Only naturally occurring flavors and tastes support wellness.

Five element theory

For example, when your Water element is weak or imbalanced, you may crave salty foods. You might suffer from anxiety and have low back pain or ringing in the ears. Salty foods (as long as it’s not from excess or chemically processed salt, such as MSG or refined table salt) will benefit your kidneys. But remember, bacon, pizza, and potato chips will impair your kidneys and bladder. Naturally salty sea vegetables, such as seaweed—nori and kelp—would be good for someone with a Water imbalance.

Once again, please keep in mind that saying an organ is imbalanced doesn’t necessarily mean the actual organ. So don’t worry if you have symptoms of a liver, or Wood, imbalance. An actual problem with the organ in question should only be determined by consulting your physician.

When an organ or element is out of whack, it will present itself in ways we’re not used to connecting in our Western mindset. One example is that a heart imbalance can manifest on the tongue, which may cause speech issues like a lisp or an inability to get words out or even muteness. You may also recognize this by a lack of joy in your life. A Wood imbalance may be noticeable by a presence of anger and can cause blurry vision or dry eyes because the liver “opens to” the eyes in TCM.


Let’s start with the Wood element, which is related to the liver (yin) and gallbladder (yang). Wood is associated with spring; it is a time for rebirth. This is easy to remember: think about trees and their growth during this time. People who have a weak Wood element tend to have their symptoms aggravated or get sick more often at this time of year. The taste associated with Wood is sour, and the color is green. The main emotions associated with Wood are anger, frustration, and resentment. Dark, leafy greens such as kale, broccoli, and spinach support the Wood element and can help balance these emotions. This is another example of how ahead of its time Chinese nutrition has always been, especially when compared with Western nutrition, which now accepts that dark greens support the liver and help flush out toxins.


The heart and small intestines are the yin and yang organs, respectively, of Fire. Summer is the season of Fire, which is easy to remember since it’s the hottest time of year. It is a time for growth, and those with a weak Fire element will have their symptoms worsen during the summer months. The associated taste is bitter, and the color is red. Heartache and lack of joy affect the Fire element. Red fruits like strawberries and pomegranates nourish the heart and work to appease these emotions.


The organs associated with the Earth element are the spleen (yin) and stomach (yang). Earth’s season is late summer, notably the transition of summer to fall, the time of harvest. People with a weak Earth element will experience more symptoms during this time of year. Worry, overthinking, and obsessive thoughts can weaken the Earth element. The Earth element corresponds to yellow and sweetness. Mangoes, oranges, and peanuts all support and strengthen this element.


Metal pairs with the lungs holding the yin, and large intestines holding the yang. Metal is connected to fall, the time of transformation and of shedding old habits. The affiliated taste is pungent or spicy; the color is white. People with a weak Metal element are prone to being sick during the fall. Grief and sadness can also cause an imbalance in the lungs and large intestine. Pears are a healthy and delicious way of healing the Metal element.


In TCM terms, this element is related to the kidneys and the bladder, which are the yin and yang organs of Water. The color of the Water element is black, and its taste is salty. It correlates to winter—the time to go inside, rest, and get ready for rebirth in spring. Fear and anxiety are the main emotions related to the kidneys and bladder, which can be helped by eating black foods such as wild rice and black sesame seeds.

This basic information should help you understand the five-element theory and its relation to Chinese nutrition. As you can now also see, nature is a reflection of our bodies and vice versa. Finding the right things to eat for what ails you is as simple as counting to five.

Heather Lounsbury, L.Ac, a well-known acupuncturist, is the powerhouse behind the Live Natural Live Well brand, embracing a popular blog, YouTube videos, and weekly radio show.

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