The Elements (Phases) of TCM

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It almost seems wrong to take millenniums of study of sages and physicians and sum any portion of it up into a short blog. But we live in a fast-paced society with a modern structure. Still, we want the best for our families! We need to operate at our highest, best, and healthiest level. So, here we go!


Elemental Organization in a Nutshell

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) uses a system of five elements: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. These five elements encompass the human experience… our health, our virtue, our pathology, all that makes us who we are.

As stated in previous posts, this summation will be an oversimplification, as we each possess characteristics of more than one element.  We are complex; this is where the art of TCM comes in. However, we each generally identify most predominantly with one or two elements. It is about finding patterns… those which affect our health in different ways.

Example: a person with a very hot temper may have heart issues. Our physical and emotional being affect each other in many ways. This person could consider eating foods which strengthen and nourish the heart, while implementing methods for calming his emotion.

It is beneficial to determine the element with which we most identify because we can use this knowledge to improve our health! Knowledge is power! There is no one-size-fits-all diet, and good healthy foods which nourish one person will not necessarily well nourish the next. A healthy food – even a superfood – may not be great for you. It is not about finding the best generic healthy foods. It is about finding the healthy foods which are best for you… For your child… Your spouse… Your friend. It is personal and individual. TCM is one option for a great place to start. After that it is not static. If a “water” person develops a “wood” health issue, he or she should probably look to the foods and methods which nourish the “wood” element. Also, in general, it is healthful to somewhat adjust our eating patterns per the season.  When tarragon is fresh and in season, it goes in my dishes! – More in future posts!

If you need to catch up, please read Chinese Medicine 101. Don’t worry. It’s brief.

That said… to follow are very brief descriptions of each element. See if you can find yourself!

Explanation of notes:
Virtue: qualities associated with the element that one might possess when healthy
Pathology: qualities that one might possess when NOT healthy, unbalanced
Primary Concern: just what it sounds like, what is most important to him/her
Primary Emotion: this tends to be the go-to emotion associated with this element
Sound: sound most associated with this element
Odor: this is what it sounds like… what this person may smell like
Organs: those which are likely to relate to physical health issues
Tissue: that which is likely to relate to physical health issues
Taste: generally the flavor this person prefers, or nourishes him/her
Color: may be present in skin tones, even hair; can relate to the most beneficial foods for this element
Nourishing Foods: just as it sounds, foods which are most nourishing for this element


Virtue: This person, when healthy, is a natural leader with great vision and perspective. He or she can make a plan and carry it out despite obstacles. Almost instinctively, we move out of this person’s way when they walk by and they have no qualms about forging through, as they have a vision, a mission, for the good of all. They are firmly rooted, yet adaptable. They are creative, discerning and love a challenge. These are the Army Generals, Corporate Leaders, Architects and Builders.
Pathology: (when unhealthy) a wood person may be belligerent, resentful, and aggressive.
Primary Concern: Justice, Vision, Creativity
Primary Emotion:
Sound: Shout
Odor: Rancid (sharp), Vinegar
Organs: Liver, Gallbladder
Sensory Organ: Eyes
Tissue: Tissue
Taste: Sour
Color: Green
Nourishing Foods: Sprouts, Tender Greens


Virtue: This is the passionate, often charismatic, person. We are drawn to this person like we are drawn to a warm fire on a cold night. He or she connects well with others, communicates clearly and loves fully. Their laughter impels others to laugh. They clearly express what is in their heart. They are the life of the party, tell jokes, and are sometimes absurd. These may be rock stars, performers, hosts, extroverts, great salespeople, and yes, maybe even fire-fighters. Example: Goldie Hawn
Pathology: (when unhealthy) bitter, untrustworthy, sarcastic, overly controlling
Primary Conerns: Relationships, Love, Trust, Intimacy
Primary Emotion: Joy
Sound: Laughter
Odor: Scorched, hot, like opening an oven or matches
Organs: Heart, Small Intestine
Sensory Organ: Tongue
Tissue: Blood Vessels
Taste: Bitter
Color: Red
Nourishing Foods: Asparagus, Lotus Root

For more information on the Fire element, please click here.



Virtue: The earth person is nurturing, generous, and caring toward others. He or she is able to give and take appropriately. They posses natural abilities for reciprocity, transformation, and integration. They have integrity. They are givers and volunteers. They are comforting and sympathetic. There is often a song in their voice. This person will give you the comfy chair, your favorite dish, and maybe even rub your feet! If you do this for the healthy earth person, they will love it! Examples: Nurses, Farmers, Bakers and Chefs, the quintessential “Mom”
Pathology: (when unhealthy) Worry, Ruminating, Complaining, Ingratiating
Primary Concern: Comfort
Primary Emotion: Sympathy
Sound: Singing
Odor: Fragrant (sticky), like pastry, flowers
Organs: Spleen (pancreas), Stomach
Sensory Organ: Mouth
Tissue: Muscles
Taste: Sweet
Color: Yellow
Nourishing Foods: Grains

For more information on the Earth element, please click here.


Virtue: The metal person has the ability to see value that others cannot see. They are detail-oriented. They possess intrinsic skills with aesthetics. They are inspirational, appreciative, see value in themselves and others. Their transparency allows for an honest representation and righteousness. They reach for the highest potential. They are upright, disciplined, hard-working, and refined. There standards are high. They generally appreciate art and music. This group is diverse; examples may include Marilyn Monroe, or Eeyore. Future postings will clarify.
Pathology: (when unhealthy) Perfectionism, Pride, Judgmental, Cynicism, Cold (emotionally), Snide, Disdain, Fatal Flaw Syndrome
Primary Concern: Fairness, Rightness, Loss
Primary Emotion: Grief
Sound: Weeping
Odor: Rotten (dry), or like coins, doorknobs
Organs: Lungs, Large Intestines
Sensory Organ: Nose
Tissue: Skin
Taste: Pungent
Color: White
Nourishing Foods: Pears, Almonds

For more information on the Metal element, please click here


Virtue: The water personality is characterized by wisdom, resourcefulness, stillness at the depths, cleverness, contemplation, and conservation. They are methodical, sensible, and possess a strong depth of awareness. They are articulate, intuitive, and adaptable, able to flow with each situation. They have a wealth of information to share. He or she uses will and resources for the utilization of the highest good. Examples: Einstein, Henry Kissinger, Keith Richards
Pathology: (when unhealthy) Paranoid, Secretive, Depletes resources, Fearful (or inappropriately fearless), Trembling
Primary Concern: Having enough resouces
Primary Emotion: Fear
Sound: Groaning
Odor: Putrid (wet), like a brick courtyard, boat
Organs: Kidney, Urinary bladder
Sensory Organ: Ears
Tissue: Bone
Taste: Salty
Color: Black (may be black or blue under the eyes)
Nourishing Foods: Bone broth, nuts

For more information on the Water element, please click here

Watch for more detail, dietary suggestions, and recipes in future postings! 



    1. Thank you for sharing, Deb. The right foods for your individual needs not only make you healthier, but can give you balance and a feeling of peace. You don’t have to like everything. 🙂 You are unique! And what works for you will be unique also. Keep sharing your warmth and joy!

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