Springtime and Five Phase Theory in Traditional Chinese Medicine

Spring is the long-awaited change of winter to spring. Seeds sprout, flowers bloom, and the sun warms the Earth, resulting in revitalization, growth, and renewal.

In Five Phase theory (Wu Xing), the elements wood, fire, earth, metal, and water relate to the liver, heart, spleen, lung, and kidney functions, respectively. Five Phase theory describes the various relationships and the energy and nourishment flows between and among the functional body activities represented in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) by these organ terms. Similarly, the ancient Chinese saw the human body as part of a universal ecosystem in which ever renewing cyclical change occurred in five distinct phases. Each stage was associated with a particular time of year, a specific element in nature, and a yin-yang organ pair in the body.

The ancient Chinese viewed the natural world and the human body and its processes as inter-related and inter-operative. According to Five Phase theory, optimal health exists when there is balance between the natural world and your body, as well as within your body (homeostasis). As we all have experienced, the energy and nourishment flows within the body occasionally go out of whack. Five Phase theory would suggest that such adverse health events occur at least partially due to changes in our external environment. This makes some logical sense when you think about the spread of infectious diseases, as well as epidemics, pandemics, or the phenomenon of herd immunity. That is, common or widespread health practices (good or bad) influence the larger environment in which we all live.
Along with other diagnostic methodologies, a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine sometimes incorporates Five Phase theory to diagnose and treat health problems according to the principles of TCM. He/she then develops a treatment plan that includes specific foods, herbal medicinals, and acupuncture points in order to restore the balance (homeostasis) of qi, blood, and body fluids for the purpose of restoring health.

Spring Season and Liver Health Problems

Spring is the ideal time for cleansing and rejuvenation of your overall health and well-being. In Five Phase theory, spring is represented by the wood element and corresponds to the liver and its complementary organ, the gallbladder. These two organs are usually the primary targets for springtime cleansing and health regimens. In particular, accumulated emotions such as anger or resentment (or even irritability) stress the liver and gallbladder. The Five Phase theory wood association pertains to sapling wood, which should be flexible and bend easily without breaking. Emotions such as anger, resentment, irritation, or frustration cause the liver to weaken and liver qi to stagnate. The liver then fails in its TCM functions of qi coursing and blood storage and nourishment and instead becomes dry and brittle. We refer to this pattern as liver qi depression (or qi stagnation). It is a very common TCM disease pattern. When it occurs, the body’s physical and emotional activities become bound and stuck. This in turn adversely affects a number of other organ systems.

Springtime Health Maintenance for Your Liver
  • Stretch. TCM holds that the liver controls the tendons and sinews (ligaments). The liver stores blood during periods of rest then releases it to the tendons and ligaments during periods activity, thereby maintaining soft-tissue health and flexibility. Incorporate a morning stretch into your routine and/or do yoga, t’ai q, dance or similar activity that stretches the whole body.

  • Eye Exercises. The liver opens into the eyes. TCM believes that the liver is connected to proper eye function. Take regular, frequent breaks from electronic screens, wear ultra-violet eye protection, and try eye exercises.

  • Eat Green. Green is the Five Phase color associated with the liver and with springtime. Eating young plants - fresh, leafy greens, sprouts, and immature cereal grasses - can improve overall function of the liver, cleanse the blood, and help maintain the free flow of qi and blood.

  • Eat Sour. Foods and drinks with sour tastes are thought to stimulate liver qi. Add lemon slices to your drinking water, use vinegar and olive oil for your salad dressing, or garnish sandwiches with a slice of dill pickle.

  • Get Outdoors - Outside air helps liver qi move. When you feel irritable and out-of-sorts, get active outside (bike, golf, walk, etc.) to activate and thereby resolve stagnant liver qi.

  • Try Milk Thistle (silybum marianum). Some research has suggest that milk thistle helps protect liver cells from incoming toxins and encourages the liver to cleanse itself of damaging substances, such as alcohol, medications, pesticides, environmental toxins, and even heavy metals such as mercury. The Mayo Clinic notes that milk thistle has a Natural Standards rating of “B,” for liver scarring, type 2 diabetes, kidney disease, and chronic liver disease, meaning that there is good (but not strong) scientific evidence for these uses. But the best medicine is to treat your liver with TLC all the time, avoiding anything more than very moderate alcohol, avoiding tobacco, and avoiding any other substances that stress the liver.

  • Get Regular Acupuncture! Acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicinal formulas can help improve the overall health of your liver as well as treat stress, anger and frustration, which are often associated with liver qi disharmony. Seasonal acupuncture treatments just four times a year can serve to tonify the inner organ systems and can correct minor annoyances before they become serious problems. Give HealthPoint a call at 952-767-4910 to see how we can help you stay healthy this spring!

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