Yin, Yang, and the 5 Elements

Yin, Yang, and the 5 Elements

What Are Yin and Yang?

No matter where you live, you have undoubtedly seen the black and white swirling pattern with the alternating color dots that the malaise is the concept of Yin and Yang. It has been used as everything from a meditative tool to a fashion accessory over the years. You may understand it to mean balance or dark and light, which its name can be loosely translated as. While these meanings are basically true, they do not give the full picture of what the concept means to philosophy and Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Opposite Yet Integrated Forces

Its true meaning involves paradoxical energies that speak to the nature of all being. Every phenomenon, thing, being, and more apprised of two forces that both balance each other out and oppose each other. The concept is easy to understand if you think of night and day. They seem opposite, but neither one is good or bad, and they are both important for the overall function of our Earth and the universe at large.

Yin stands for:

  • The feminine aspect
  • Internal 
  • Lower parts of the body
  • North
  • Darkness
  • Cold temperatures
  • Softness 
  • Sleep and rest

Yang stands for:

  • The masculine aspect
  • External 
  • Upper parts of the body
  • South
  • Light
  • Hot temperatures
  • Hardness
  • Action

How Yin and Yang Function in TCM

The I Ching, or Book of Changes, written in 700 BCE first introduces the concept of Yin and Yang. While this was primarily philosophical, the bulk of TCM follows the same path. The concepts of opposite elements in balance became directly involved with the diagnosis and treatment of all types of health complaints and illnesses.

The primary reason for all health problems was considered an imbalance. In modern science, this is called homeostasis, or the balance between energy and matter. You could have an excess or deficiency in either part. Diagnosing the specific problem a person was dealing with mostly came down to identifying symptoms and placing them in a column under other Yin or Yang.

Some examples of imbalanced health problems include:

Excess Yin – Stagnation of fluids, excess mucus production, feminine complaints, and illnesses associated with the lower part of the body and back like Kidney malfunction, or all associated with excess Yin.

Excess Yang – Frequently acute, health problems associated with excess Yang or deficient Yin include fever, blockages, toxicity, or overactive body systems. Inflammation, pain, and things like gallstones and tumors are associated with excess Yang.

The quest for equilibrium or homeostasis is the primary function of medicine both traditional and current. If a person has a fever, the goal is to reduce it back to a normal temperature by various cooling methods like drinking fluids, applying cold compresses, or taking medication. If a person has inflammation in their joints from arthritis or an injury, the goal is to reduce the inflammation and bring that body part back into balance again. While Western medicine looks at these things from a physiological point of view, Traditional Chinese Medicine assigned these philosophical concepts to the same thing.

Yin and Yang as Nutritional Tools

Outside of some very misinformed modern health practitioners, everyone understands that nutrition plays a large role in how you feel, how your body systems function, and your overall health and longevity. In TCM, what you eat mattered to the balance in proper functioning of your body. Yin and Yang and what they stand for get involved in the choices of food you eat, too.

Today, you are likely to find an eating plan based on the modern food groups of proteins, grains, vegetables and fruits, and fats and oils. An incredible number of individualized diets are on the market promising everything from easy weight loss to an end to heart disease and other serious health problems. You have undoubtedly followed a few and found them to be less effective the new expected. Perhaps you are happy with your current food plan but want to understand more about how nutrition relates to inner balance and other concepts associated with traditional medicine.

The Balance of Foods

Besides the qualities that Yin and Yang stand for that are listed above, other interpretations filter in when you talk about food. Some consider that Yin also means cool and hydrating while Yang also means heat and drying. The concept of heating and cooling foods are also associated with the concept of dark and light, so they do make logical sense. 

What does this mean for the foods you eat?

Yin foods are ideal for summer weather. They increase hydration, have high levels of potassium to counteract the enzymes lost through sweating, and have general cooling properties for your body. Some include fruits and vegetables, soy-based foods like tofu, light meats like crab, and even just cold water.

Yang foods are better for winter. They actually create a thermodynamic effect in your body and can rev up your metabolism. Some include heavier meats like beef and pork, eggs, rice, and oil, spices like ginger and cinnamon, and anything high in sodium or fat. Hot beverages like tea and those with alcohol are also included in this list.

Despite their association with hot and cold weather, the practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine do not say you can only eat a crab salad with star fruit when the temperature goes up and a salty ginger stir fry with pork in cooler weather. Remember that Yin and Yang focus on balance. Choose foods from both lists to maintain that all year round.

What Do Yin and Yang Balance?

Although terms like “well-balanced diet” and the concept of maintaining balance in your lifestyle and overall health are not unknown to the world of western medicine, the ancient Chinese practitioners used the concept of balance in a more specific way. Yes, dark and light, cold and heat, and feminine and masculine balance each other to maintain equilibrium in every aspect of your life. However, what is really being balanced when TCM speaks of Yin and Yang?

The easiest answer to that question is “everything.” The more specific answer deals with other concepts in Traditional Chinese Medicine: energy known as Qi.

A Basic Understanding of Qi

Another part of the medical/philosophical history of TCM comes from qi, which is loosely defined as the life force everything contains. It is not a spirit or soul as western religion or philosophy would consider it. Instead, it is both the non-physical aspect of all elements that make up the universe and the essential energy and fluids that flow through the human body and make it function. Qi goes beyond blood or lymph fluid. It is an ethereal force that is basically what goes out of balance when speaking of Yin and Yang as abstract concepts.

Just like Yin and Yang, Qi can become imbalanced and cause health problems. Instead of being associated with things like heat and cold, light and dark, this energy focuses on functions within the body like transformation, protection, and containment. Anyone who has ever had acupuncture understands that Qi can flow, vibrate, and get stuck.

Qi seems to be a fundamental ingredient of life, humanity, and the universe at large. However, it too can be broken down into the five essential elements or substances everything is made from. These are also important things in Traditional Chinese Medicine when it comes to maintaining balance and thus optimum health.


What Are the Five Elements?

These five integral elements of Qi include: earth, water, fire, wood, and metal. To some, the idea of these things having some control over your body systems or how the entire universe works towns like a fantasy story that speaks of magic or some type of pagan religion. While many things in TCM are grounded in philosophy, all of the ideas and elements are also linked to physiology in rather fundamental ways.

These five elements form the foundation of the ancient medicinal practices that push for balance and optimum health. They are all a part of Qi, which reaches far beyond simple malfunction of body systems and focuses on a grander Yin and Yang equilibrium.

How Are the Five Elements Used in TCM?

Just as the concepts of Yin and Yang are associated with things like temperature, quantity of light, gender, and cardinal directions, earth, water, fire, wood, and metal are associated with various other concepts.

  • Season
  • Organs and body systems
  • Senses
  • Colors
  • Tastes

Earth – Transitions from one season to the next such as late-summer, the Stomach and Spleen, overthinking and worry, yellow, and sweet tastes.

Health complaints associated with this element include digestive issues like heartburn, fatigue, and allergies.

Water – Winter, the Kidneys and urinary tract, fear, black and blue, and salty tastes.

Health complaints associated with this element include problems with the Bladder and Kidneys.

Fire – Summer, the Heart and Small Intestines, joy and laughter, red, and bitter foods.

Health complaints associated with this element include heart conditions, insomnia, and anxiety.

Wood – The early days of spring, the Liver and Gallbladder, anger, green, and sour tastes.

Health complaints associated with this element include digestive issues, eye problems, migraines, addiction, and menstrual issues.

Metal – Autumn, Lungs and Large Ontestines, grief, white, and spicy food.

Health complaints associated with this element include allergies, asthma, and chronic skin conditions.

The elements also include concepts like time of day, directions on a compass, and other things like characteristics of an environment. Rather than understanding every single association, it makes more sense to grasp the concept of how these elements influence Qi and therefore the concept of maintaining balance in order to improve or optimize your health.

What does this all mean for the practice of taking care of your body and mind?

TCM does not deal with the elements as individual things. For example, if you have a urinary tract infection, it does not mean you are eating too much salty foods and it must be wintertime. Instead, the overall concept of these five elements act together as part of the life force that must come into balance using the Yin and Yang system. 

As with those larger concepts, ill health has to do with the five elements coming out of balance. If you have not enough wood energy, for example, you may feel indecisive and experience stagnation in your body systems that leads to bloating, digestive issues, and chronic problems like sinus inflammation.

In Western medicine, the general method of dealing with health complaints is to identify the symptoms, attempt to diagnose why they manifest, and then treat both the underlying problem and the symptoms themselves. A person with a sinus infection may get antibiotics to kill the bacteria causing it and be instructed to take anti-inflammatory over-the-counter medication so they do not have a headache anymore. While these things can work, the concept of Traditional Chinese Medicine does not include so-called Band-Aids that deal with problems individually.

Why did the sinus infection occur in the first place? What made you susceptible to the type of bacteria that caused the problem? Why was your immune system unable to fight it off?

When everything is in balance, your body works perfectly according to TCM and its associated philosophies. This directly speaks to a highly holistic form of healthcare that looks at the whole body instead of individual systems or issues.

The Integration of TCM in Modern Medicine

Individuals who are just hearing about Traditional Chinese Medicine, Yin and Yang, and the Five Elements that make up Qi for the first time, you may get the impression that these philosophies could never integrate appropriately with modern medicine. They can sound a bit too “new age” for many people. However, once you understand that these concepts form the foundation of highly successful healthcare practices that have been used for thousands of years, you can dismiss doubts more effectively.

It is true that if you go to your regular family doctor and suggest that you have an excess of the metal element that is disrupting your Qi flow, and that is why the rate of your asthma attacks is going up, they may look at you funny, laugh, or suggest psychotherapy. However, an ever-increasing number of modern practitioners are looking into the concepts behind the symbolism of TCM.

They may not call the things that affect your health elements, and they may not believe in the concept of a flowing life force that infiltrates every person and phenomenon in the universe, but the concepts of natural healthcare and maintaining appropriate balance within the body are gaining traction in the Western world. Quite a few of the recommendations for healing health issues that have been used for thousands of years are now being studied using modern scientific methods to test their efficacy.

As with anything that has the potential to seriously affect your health and well-being, it makes sense to look more closely at every option before you take a step forward in your treatment plan. Understanding things like acupuncture, herbal supplementation, and tai chi from a Traditional Chinese Medicine standpoint gives you some idea of the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

In the end, having a firm understanding of the philosophies way back at the beginning of TCM and how they integrate with the symptoms and syndromes people suffer from today gives you a clearer idea of the options available to you. Is your allergy, digestive complaint, or heart condition linked to an imbalance in Yin and Yang? Does it have some foundation in an overabundance of a particular element or a blockage in the flow of Qi? 

While it is impossible and would be foolhardy to suggest that all health conditions could be healed with ancient techniques and that modern medicine should be ignored, you would have a difficult time arguing against the concept of maintaining homeostasis and equilibrium within your body is a way to improve overall health. Of course, if you eat certain foods or avoid others, you can benefit your body systems quite effectively. Getting appropriate exercise and practicing meditative habits like tai chi provides additional benefits. Accepting these as a way to balance your Yin and Yang forces gives credence to Traditional Chinese Medicine even more.

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