The seasons and the five elements

Five-element acupuncture developed from a Taoist understanding of how the body's rhythms are closely connected to the cycles of nature, so each element – Water, Wood, Fire, Earth and Metal – is associated with a season.

The cycle starts with winter, the element of Water. This is linked to the kidneys and bladder within the body, and to our core energy and ability to keep warm. The healthy function of the kidneys is hugely important. We think of the heart as keeping us alive, but it's actually the kidneys that give out last when we die. Their role is to maintain the balance of water in the body, and anchor the more fiery, unstable energy of the heart. The kidneys are linked to fear, anxieties and the adrenals, so we can become "frozen" in fear if we overuse our adrenals and continually allow ourselves to run on empty. Whereas if we "chew" our winter well, embracing the dark, staying warm and resting a lot, we replenish the kidneys, sowing the seeds of good health and robustness in preparation for spring.

Spring is linked to the element of Wood. Think of how the trees blossom and the leaves come out in spring. New energy is bursting out everywhere. We come out of hibernation, ready to start new projects and spring-clean, to start afresh. Creativity and fertility are bubbling up; the energy is irrepressible. The organs associated with Wood are the liver and gall bladder. These represent strong, assertive energy in the body, a sense of renewed drive and determination – just as new shoots and animal offspring are programmed to fight to survive against the odds.

Above: the five elements, Water, Wood, Fire, Earth and Metal, connect us with the different seasons in Chinese Medicine, and serve as reminders
to us to stay in tune with nature's cycles in order to remain healthy. Click on the images for more information on each element

Summer is represented by the element of Fire. The efforts and energy of spring have come to fruition and we can sit back and enjoy the long days and heady warmth (hopefully). Summer is about enjoying the fruits of our success. Linked to the heart energy, and the small intestine, it's a social time, but also an opportunity to filter out which friends aren't so good for us, to do what really makes us smile. It's a chance to open up and connect with people we like. Happiness and laughter are easier to invoke.

Late summer (Indian summer) is the Earth element. A symbolic time of harvesting and gathering oneself together again, re-centring in preparation for the harder, more fixed energy of Metal and autumn. This is the time to gather the ripened fruits of summer – actual and metaphoric – and start storing them up. If we do this, we strengthen our stomach and spleen, helping our digestion to become robust, and ensuring that we are well nourished and balanced in time for the harder winter days.

Autumn brings us to the Metal element, and the need to cut back on what's not needed, and start letting go of the previous cycle. Here, the lungs and large intestine are predominant. Both work to clear out toxins from the body, so this is the time to clear our clutter and restore order to our lives and homes, before winter sets in. New school and work routines, and long walks on clear, crisp days, do wonders for clearing the stagnation that may have accumulated from overindulgence in the summer. This is the time to create a disciplined, healthy new routine. And once we've done that, and set our affairs in order, we're ready to face winter again, and bring the cycle back round to Water.

For more detail on each element, and for recommended exercises, foods and meditations to help strengthen each element and organ, click on the highlighted words.

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Each of the five elements, Water, Wood, Fire, Earth and Metal, represent the seasons and the main emotions of fear, anger, joy, worry and grief

Five Elements Chart

Click to enlarge


"Five-element acupuncture and face reading come under the umbrella of ancient Taoist alchemical arts. The Taoists believed in living in tune with nature and the cycles of the seasons, in order to fulfil one's potential and follow 'effortless doing', or 'wu wei'"