Five Element Theory and TCM Diet

By Victoria Dragon

I have noticed all along that I would have a favorable response to a certain food or herb at one time and a not so favorable or even opposite response at another time. Consequently, I was very confused.

For those new to TCM it is a given that diet and herbal strategies need to change according to the seasons. For example, I am very Cold. I require more warming foods and herbs in the winter than in the summer. It’s so cold in the winter that I need extra to help me. But the same amount taken in the summer warms me too much.

I tend to have more trouble with certain foods in the spring than at other times of the year. I do have some food allergies. They’re a lot milder than they used to be. But sometimes I do run into problems with certain foods. This is more likely to happen in the spring because Wind is the predominate atmospheric condition at this time of year, and Wind can worsen existing allergies and possibly can play a role in the tendency to develop new allergies. Foods that can be eaten okay with no noticeable effects at other times once again start to cause problems in the spring if I am not careful.

Dampness is another factor that one has to watch out for. Some “allergies” actually are reactions due to the foods increasing Dampness in the body. External Dampness can invade to the Interior and damage the Spleen. The Spleen hates Dampness. The Spleen doesn’t work as well when it’s under attack by Dampness. The Spleen not working well can trigger even more Dampness arising internally in addition to the Dampness which is invading from the Exterior. Foods which engender Dampness – like milk, dairy products, wheat, oranges, etc. – that can be eaten ok when it’s fairly dry can cause problems in people whose Spleen already isn’t up to par when eaten during damp periods of the year. Especially when it’s cold and damp. (The Spleen also doesn’t like cold. Dampness bothers it the most, but Cold comes in a close second.

The predominate atmospheric energies are Wind in the spring (Wood – Liver & Gall Bladder are the most vulnerable), Heat in the early summer (Fire – Heart, Small Intestine, Pericardium, Triple Heater), Dampness in late summer (Earth, Stomach and Spleen), Dryness in the fall (Metal, Lungs and Large Intestine), and Cold in the winter (Water, kidneys & Bladder).

TCM, like Western medicine, recognizes that checks and balances exist in the body. One of the checks and balances recognized in TCM is the Victor-Vanquished relationship. What this says it that each Element controls another. These are:

 Wood (Liv, GB) controls Earth (Sp, St) Fire (Ht, SI) controls Metal (Lu, LI) Earth (Sp, St) controls Water (Kd, Bl) Metal (Lu, LI) controls Wood (Lv, GB) Water (Kd, Bl) controls Fire (Ht, SI)

If Wood is too “strong”, Earth will be over controlled. If Wood is too “weak”, Earth will be out of control.

Some people have imbalances in the Spleen because of problems in the Spleen. Simply supplementing with Spleen-strengthen foods and herbs will help these people. End of problem. BUT, sometimes the reason the Spleen is “weak” is not because of something in the Spleen but because the Liver is too “strong”. In these cases just giving Spleen-strengthening herbs and foods to the person is going to be like continuously bailing a leaky rowboat. You have to keep bailing until the leak is plugged. In this case the “leak” is that the Liver is too “strong”. It’s suppressing the Spleen, not allowing it to perform in tiptop shape. It’s not enough in these cases just to tonify the Spleen, you also have to sedate the Liver. Calm that Liver down some so it’s not a control freak overcontrolling and suppressing the Spleen.

Wood overacting on Earth (the terminology for it in the Elemental approach to assessment) is the same thing as Liver Invading the Spleen (the term for it in the Organ Analysis approach).

Each of the 5 main tastes have an affinity for different Elements and Organs. The sour taste has an affinity for Wood (Lv, GB), bitter for Fire (Ht, SI), sweet for Earth (Sp, St), acrid or pungent or spicy for Metal (Lu, LI), and salty for Water (Kd, Bl). If an Organ gets too much or too little of what it needs, it can run into problems. For example, cut too far back on salt, and a person can run into some major problems like the loss of too much fluid through the urinary system. But load up on too much salt, and it can be damaging to the heart. Water (Kd) controls Fire (Ht). When a person consumes too much salt, water literally is in excess and the heart can be stressed as a result.

In addition, each taste has certain properties. The sour taste tends to generate fluids and Yin, and it also “plugs leaks” (can be good for excessive sweating, diarrhea, etc.). Wood (Lv) controls Earth (Sp). The Spleen plays a major role in the transformation and transportation of food and drink. Translation: When the Spleen is weak, one possible symptom is Dampness accumulates. The last thing a person with Dampness problems needs is something that generates fluids.

The bitter taste tends to clear Heat, to sedate, and to harden. It also tends to clear Damp Heat and to subdue rebellious Qi. Fire (Ht, SI) controls Metal (Lu, LI). Too many bitter herbs can trigger problems in the Lungs. The bitter taste tends to be drying. Even though the Lungs don’t like to be Damp, they also don’t like to be too dry.

The sweet taste “tonifies, balances, and moderates. It is used to tonify deficiency and to stop pain.” (Maciocia, Foundations, p. 33) Earth (Sp, St) controls Water (Kd, Bl). Think of the urinary problems diabetics have when you think of this relationship.

“The pungent taste scatters, and is used to expel pathogenic factors.” (Maciocia, p. 33). Think of the spices in the spice section of the supermarket. They’re warming in nature and can be great for people who are too Cold but hard on people who are too Hot. Ginger, cinnamon, cloves, etc. Metal is the Mother of Water, and these spices can be godsends to people who are too Cold because of Kidney Yang Deficiency. But heat has a tendency to rise. Eat too many foods and herbs with the spicy taste, and the Lungs can accumulate too much Heat. Metal (Lu, LI) controls Wood (Lv, GB).

“The salty taste flows downward, softens hardness and is used to treat constipation and swelling.”) (Maciocia, p. 33). This action may be described biomedically as the osmotic gradient that is created when salt passes through the large intestine. This draws fluids back into the LI ( or prevents them from leaving) and that assists patients with constipation in which the stools come out hard and dry. The salty flavor will moisten those dry stools.

One of the TCM concepts of diet is that one should eat food which has the energy of that season in order to be in tune with that season. Thus, one should eat some cold foods and salty foods in the winter in order to partake of the energy of that season (and head off problems that can arise later). Yang energy is increasing in the spring so eat Yang foods. But, it’s also important to correct personal deficiencies. A person who is too Cold needs warming energy; a person who is too Hot needs cooling energy, regardless of what the season is.

The Chinese concept of a balanced diet is one that includes all 5 tastes at each meal. The ratio of these tastes will depend on the individual’s needs. For example, even though I include all 5 tastes, I need to go heavily on spicy (warms me up) and salty. Many years ago I cut back on salt because of all the bad PR salt got. This is a definite no-no for someone like me who has CFIDS. Many CFIDS patients report that increasing salt in their diet helps them to feel better. Most PWCs have Kidney imbalance and need to tonify the Kidneys.

One TCM diet concept I personally disagree with is the prohibition against raw foods. One can go overboard with raw food, but even though I have a weak Spleen, there is something that a salad provides for me that helps me to feel better the next day even though I’m so Yang Deficient and raw foods tend to be Yin. I just don’t go overboard. I also sprinkle cayenne pepper on my salad dressing. This works real well for me. Some people can NOT handle raw foods, and there is nothing healthy about raw foods for them. Other people do benefit from raw fruits and veggies in moderation. I have known people who could handle raw food some of the time, but not at other time. Some of them could tell ahead of time if raw food was going to bother them.

Beginners will benefit from starting to memorize these correspondences like Wood – Liver – Gall Bladder – Spring – anger – sour taste, etc. Directions also are associated with Elements: The East is Wood and the Green Dragon, South is Fire and the Red Phoenix, Middle (or center) is Earth, West is Metal and the White Tiger, and North is Water and the Black Tortoise. These color correspondences also will be helpful in assessment. Very often people with greenish skin tones will be suffering from Liver imbalance. Black or dark tones in the complexion very often will be a sign of Kidney imbalance. And so on.

The really weird thing is that directions can be diagnostic too. I can’t explain this, there is no logical Western explanation for it, but it happens sometimes. Some people – not all – will feel uncomfortable when they sit in a certain quarter. For example, people with Liver imbalances sometimes will feel uncomfortable when they sit “in the East” (back to the East and facing West). If they have a choice of seats, they will not choose the one on the West side of the table or room. Sometimes when a person meditates in the 4 quarters, testing sitting in the East, South, West, and North, they discover that some quarters feel uncomfortable to them and some feel more comfortable than the others. Sometimes this discomfort can indicate imbalance in an Element. There’s no rational explanation for it, but it happens.