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Chinese Medicine Five Elements
Sun, March 1, 2015
Balancing the Wood Element
Bringing balance to the Wood element is one of the most common reasons why people seek out acupuncturists and Chinese medicine practitioners. The five elements in Chinese medicine are Water, Wood, Fire, Earth, and Metal. Together they comprise a system of categorizing the functions and relationships between organ systems in the human body. They also serve to relate the human experience to the world around us, since our health depends not only on the correct functioning of internal cellular and organ systems, but also on our interactions with our environment.
The Wood element is the birthplace of Yang energy, the functional energy which at its best allows us to discover, innovate, create, and accomplish. The function of the Wood element is to reach its roots down into the well of Water and draw up our life energy, circulating it through every cell in our body, enabling us to grow and develop physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Think of all the physiological systems that have to be functioning optimally in order to accomplish this. The Wood element is incredibly powerful, yet it easily goes out of balance in our modern world. The organ systems associated with the Wood element are the Liver and Gall Bladder. Even in Western understanding, the liver is responsible for our functional body energy as one of the over 500 different functions that it performs every day. A healthy liver:
  • Regulates the supply of body energy by producing and storing glycogen for quick energy and fat for long-term energy.
  • Cleanses the blood, breaking down harmful substances and excreting them to the gall bladder in the bile.
  • Creates many different proteins that transport substances in the blood, provide resistance to infection, and are involved in blood clotting.
  • Regulates the balance of sex hormones, thyroid hormones, cortisol, and adrenal hormones.
  • Regulates cholesterol and converts it to other essential substances.
  • Regulates the supply of essential vitamins and minerals.
The Wood element is associated with the east, springtime, and sunrise. If you aren’t getting out of bed refreshed, rejuvenated, and ready to live life to the fullest, you may be experiencing problems with the Wood element.
The time of day associated with the Wood element is from 11 pm to 3 am. It is during this time that modern research shows we are supposed to be enjoying the most deep delta NREM sleep, and during this time that the body repairs and regrows tissues, builds bone and muscle, and strengthens the immune system. Needless to say, staying up late and watching the late-night comedy shows, studying, or just plain sleeplessness can throw the Wood element out of balance.
Remember that the Wood element is the Yang within Yin. Important Yang functions that keep you healthy and youthful occur during nighttime Yin. Ancient physicians who practiced Chinese medicine kept careful record of their observations for literally thousands of years and handed them down so that we could benefit from their wisdom today. So try to sleep as though your health depended on it, because it does.
In addition to problems with fatigue, people whose Wood element is out of balance may have eye problems, headaches (including migraines), problems on the sides of the body such as flank or rib pain, tendon problems, and menstrual difficulties. Acupuncture and Chinese medicine can offer effective relief for these symptoms as they gently bring the Wood element back into balance. Indeed, as a Cochrane Review (a gold standard in scientific research) stated, “available studies suggest that acupuncture [treatment of migraines] is at least as effective as, or possibly more effective than, prophylactic drug treatment and has fewer adverse effects.”1. 
Moving beyond the physical, the Wood element also influences the emotions. The mind is not just who we are, it’s also influenced by the state of our body. You’ve probably noticed that when your body feels healthy and full of energy, it’s easier to feel great emotionally as well. Notice I said easier. The mind is stronger than the body and I’ve treated many patients with severe illnesses whose spirits are amazing and who are a blessing to others, even as they struggle with illness. But they’re focusing their energy to achieve the life they want to live.
For most of us, most of the time, we go with the flow. So when the energy is flowing well, a healthy Wood element is associated with the emotions of forgiveness and benevolence. Like a tree that sways in the wind, but doesn’t break, a person with a healthy Wood element is able to handle the obstacles and challenges that come with grace.
The emotional pathologies associated with the Wood element are frustration and anger. Frustration is stuck energy that isn’t moving, it just sits there, building, until you either let it pass, or you snap into the flame of anger. In this case, the Wood element acts like a dry branch waiting to catch fire. To bring it back into balance, nourish the Wood with elements of Water and Earth. In other words, make sure you are hydrating, getting enough sleep, and eating right. It’s much easier to get angry when you feel depleted. Then use your mind to focus your stuck Qi on problem solving and decision making, combined with a little forgiveness and benevolence (even if you aren’t really feeling it) and some acupuncture to help keep things moving until you get yourself out of whatever situation is damaging your Wood element. 
To nourish the Wood element, Chinese medicine recommends that you focus on foods with particular tastes. This is a simple system that is easy to remember and implement. Apply it in your life and over time you can make significant changes in the way you feel. The taste associated with the Wood element is sour. Sour foods have an astringent effect that gathers and preserves fluids and supplements your Yin energy. The sour flavor moves your energies inward and is particularly beneficial for unfocused minds and hectic lifestyles. Sour-cooling foods refresh the body, reduce excessive perspiration, and soothe heated tempers by cooling the emotional heat in the Wood element.

To keep your Wood element in balance, you need a few sour foods in your diet. These include: lemons, oranges, pineapple, mango, grapes, plums, apricots, kiwi, adzuki beans, tomatoes, milk, and cheese. Remember though, it’s all about balance. Eating too many sour foods can damage muscle tone and lead to sore muscles and tendons, so I’m not advocating pizza and lasagna on a regular basis. Since a healthy Wood element is about planning and decision making, you should keep a food diary, whether it’s on paper or a cell phone app, and track what you eat and then how you felt a few hours later. Do this for a month and you will learn to recognize the foods that bring you into balance and the foods that throw your body off.
The Wood element is a metaphor that comprises a host of physiological, mental, and emotional functions. It is at once highly complex, yet easy to understand and it has been used successfully to maintain health for thousands of years. It is a system that takes into account observations of discrete physical functions and the relationships between them that keep us healthy. The creators and innovators of ancient China then created this simple, yet powerful method of health that anyone can follow, but which can take a lifetime to master as you learn the deeper levels of complex interrelationships. For more information or help in balancing your Wood element, please seek out a qualified, licensed acupuncturist or Chinese medicine practitioner.


1. Klaus, L., Gianni, A. et al, Acupuncture for Migraine Prophylaxis, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2009, DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD001218.pub2

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