Understanding 5-Element Acupuncture

5 Element Acupuncture’s philosophical underpinnings date back 2000 years to the first acupuncture book called The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine. By comparison, modern medicine is about 150 years old. So you can imagine there would be significant differences in the way 5 Element Acupuncture approaches heath care.

How 5 Element Acupuncture differs from modern medicine
To help understand the 5 Element style it’s helpful to compare it to the modern Western medicine you are familiar with. The table below was adapted from Peter Eckman’s wonderful history of 5 Element Acupuncture, In the Footsteps of the Yellow Emperor. (1) Let’s contrast the underlying views of the two systems of medicine.

Categories Western Medicine 5 Element Acupuncture
Foundation of understanding: Chemistry 5 Elements
Essential Functions: Cellular functions 12 Officials
Essential Structures: Anatomy Meridians and Points
Causes of Illness: Germs, Toxins Internal disharmony
Nature of Disharmony: Physical pathology Energy imbalance
Clinical Investigation: Medical tests Diagnostic conversation
Case Analysis: Disease process Causative Factor
Treatment: Drugs, surgery Acupuncture, diet

The original holistic model of medicine
Modern medicine is based on biochemistry. The body is understood in terms of chemical reaction that happen inside of organs and individual cells. This approach isolates and zooms in on specific reaction in the body and attempts to alter them with medication. By comparison, 5 Element acupuncture is based on zooming out and grouping together related body functions and the environmental factors that influence them.

The heart of 5 Element Acupuncture is the 5 Elements and their corresponding functions in the body. For example, 5 Element Theory states that there is a link between chewing and thinking because they are both associated with the Earth Element. Today’s studies confirm this ancient wisdom. (2) Below is a chart of the 5 Elements and some of the correspondences.

FIRE EARTH METAL WATER WOOD
Officials Heart
Small Intestine
Circulation/Sex
Triple Warmer
Lung
Colon
Spleen
Stomach
Kidney
Bladder
Liver
Gall Bladder
Sense Touch Taste Smell Hearing Sight
Sense Organ Tongue Mouth Nose Ears Eyes
Fortifies Pulse Muscles Skin Bones Ligaments
Flavor Bitter Sweet Pungent Salty Sour
Sound Laughing Singing Weeping Groaning Shouting
Color Red Yellow White Blue Green
Odor Scorched Fragrant Rotten Putrid Rancid
Emotion Joy Sympathy Grief Fear Anger
Climate Heat Damp Dry Cold Wind
Spirit Shen
Purpose
Yi
Thought
Po
Physical Urges
Chih
Will
Hun
Soul

The Chinese did not believe you were made of wood
The Elements are the foundational understanding of how the body works in 5 Element Acupuncture. Unlike the Greek system of four elements (water, earth, fire, air), the 5 Element system does not believe that a human being is literally a mixture of the 5 Elements.

A more accurate translation of the Chinese Wu Xing (5 Elements) would be “five phases” or “five aspects.” In fact, to fully understand 5 Element theory, you must always keep in mind that the concept of Yin/Yang is the foundation on which it rests. Yin/Yang is the simple and profound observation that dynamic systems cycle. Take, for example, the dynamic of rainfall. Water evaporates as vapor, gathers as clouds, falls to Earth as rain, pools in bodies of water only to evaporate and start the cycle again. The Yang phase is the vapor rising and the Yin Phase is the rain falling.

 The 5 elements are a more detailed version of yin and yang
The five elements are, at their simplest, an expansion of this idea of Yin/Yang. Instead of identifying only two phases in a dynamic cycle, five are identified. Like the expanding part of a cycle is understood as yang and the contraction phase yin, the 5 Element System identifies different phases of the contraction and expansion and calls these phases the five elements of a system. The five elements are Water, Wood, Fire Earth and Metal.

How my cows taught me about the 5 Elements
Watching how our cows graze has given me a new appreciation and deeper understanding of the 5 Elements. I believe the 5 Element system is an ancient manual for survival. Originally, the 5 Elements were represented much like the American Indian medicine wheel with Earth in the center. This reflected the life cycle of nomadic hunter gatherers like the plains Indians in America and the Mongols in China.

For these ancient tribes, Mother Earth was the central figure and needed special care so she would give up her bounty. In Spring, the new green grass would attract wild herd of buffalo. This signaled the end of Winter and the arrival of a new food supply. As spring progressed and the animals grazed their preferred grasses, they would leave behind “weeds.” In our pasture the cows eat around a wed called  napweed. Over a few weeks, these weeds would crowd out the preferred grasses and then the animals would move to more distant pastures, making hunting more difficult.

How ancient cultures used the 5 elements
The plains nomads solved this problem with Fire. After the herds moved on, the nomads would burn the prairie killing the mature weeds and giving grass a chance to grow. The new fresh grass would then lure the buffalo back to the nomads. In this ancient system, the Fire season yields to “The Return,” or the Metal season. This was a time of celebration and giving thanks to Mother Earth for her bounty and preparing for the coming cold and barrenness of Winter.

Everyone should see a cow kick up her heels when the gate to new pasture of young grass is opened. It’s also interesting to note that the flesh and eggs of animals fed young grass have more nutrients.

The Shift to Farming
As centuries passed and agriculture began to be the main force shaping civilization, pastoral life called for a different understanding of the seasons. This new understanding gave rise to the current depiction of the 5 Elements as equal phases instead of Mother Earth as the center.

Agrarian societies needed a different framework to understand nature. Farmers learned to work the soil and Mother Earth faded from consciousness as the mysterious source of food and became another aspect of the natural world to be worked and managed in order to produce a crop and keep a village supplied with food.

And the Shift to Medicine
Somewhere along the line, a brilliant person had the insight, “As it is without, so it is within.” This means that just as the 5 Elements had become essential for understanding and managing the natural environment, the same wisdom and insight could be used to understand the dynamic landscape of a human being to keep her healthy and vital. This moment of inspiration was the beginning of 5 Element acupuncture.

5 Element Acupuncture: A 2000-Year Track Record
A needle usually doesn’t conjure up a feeling of comfort, but a growing body of medical evidence suggests that acupuncture – the use of carefully placed needles to promote health and improved function – does help many people. It’s been used by the Chinese for more than 2000 years and has been growing in popularity in the United States. A national health survey found that more than eight million adults have used acupuncture as part of their health care.

How 5 Element acupuncture works
According to Chinese Medicine, energy called qi (“chi”) flows through the body in 12 major pathways called meridians. The meridians correspond to specific organs and body functions. If the flow of qi is blocked, you get sick. Inserting very fine needles at specific acupuncture points along these meridians helps restore the flow of qi. Most doctors believe that the needle stick causes the central nervous system to release morphine-like pain killers called endorphins. Acupuncture sends a signal to the body to turn on it’s own healing system.

Another theory is that acupuncture regulates the part of the brain that is made active by mental and physical stress. Acupuncture helps calm the brain down. It re-balances the connection between mind and body. Chinese Medicine places a much greater emphasis than Western medicine on the close relationship of body, mind and spirit.

What acupuncture works for
Acupuncture has been used to treat everything from pain and stiffness associated with osteoarthritis to asthma. The World Health Organization recommends acupuncture for many respiratory diseases, eye and mouth problems, orthopedic problems, neurological disorders and gastrointestinal ailments.

Acupuncture has been used to help patients regain movement after strokes, and to treat anxiety, depression, headaches, low back pain, tennis elbows – even substance abuse. A study in Neuroscience Letters suggests it may even be useful for treating Parkinson’s Disease.

What to expect
The needles used for acupuncture are only as thick as a single human hair. You will feel a pinch and a “releasing” sensation as the blocked qi is freed. The needles usually only stay in for one or two seconds. Occasionally, needles will stay in longer depending on the type of treatment.

Treatments take place once a week for two months and then are spaced out to  once a month. Most patients find that once they reach the once a month schedule their health is greatly restored and the monthly treatments help them stay happy and healthy.

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That’s an old Chinese saying “The wise person is sick of being sick.” Don’t let another day slip by without starting your path back to health.

End Notes:

1) Peter Eckman, MD, 09 November 2007In the Footsteps of the Yellow Emperor
2) New Scientist, 13 March 2002, “Chewing Gum Improves Memory”

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