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December 7, 2010

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Five elements guide TCM doctors

UNDER TCM theory, even people are classified according to the five elements. Each category requires certain dietary requirements to balance the body, writes Zhang Qian.

Metal, wood, water, fire and earth are the five elements that compose everything in the universe in traditional Chinese philosophy. The five elements are widely used to identify things with different characteristics.

This philosophy is also widely used in traditional Chinese medicine concepts. For example, lung belongs to metal, liver to wood, kidney to water, heart to fire and spleen to earth.

TCM also classifies people into five categories according to their energy condition. It is believed people are born with a certain energy condition though it can be adjusted with proper health maintenance. The natural-born energy condition usually determines whether some organs may be more vulnerable than others, and thus require more care.

Though reinforcing by nutritious food is the major principle in winter, TCM doctors suggest that different people need different therapies.


People of "fire" are granted with sufficient energy from the sun - active yang (hot) energy according to TCM. They usually have a red face and stout body. They are quick in both action and thought, yet they are often irritable and impatient.

"Fire," just like its natural characteristics, burns body fluids, which often leads to deficient yin (cold) energy and overactive yang energy.

Influenced by active yang energy, "fire" people are more easily bothered with pathogenic heat-related problems such as dry lips and ulcer problems. And as heart belongs to "fire" in the five elements, these individuals are more vulnerable to heart-related problems, such as coronary disease, high blood pressure and hardening of blood vessels. The combination of deficient yin energy and overactive yang energy may often lead to problems like diabetes.

The burning may be even severe in dry winter. Getting control on overactive yang energy and reducing body fluid burning is the major health-maintenance principle for "fire" people, so as to prevent the negative effects it may bring, according to Tang Guoshun, doctor of internal medicine at Shanghai Chinese Clinical and Medicine House, a local TCM clinic.

Keeping calm and avoiding short-temper is essential to avoid quick-ascending yang energy all year around. Foods that benefit the heart while nourishing yin are often recommended such as lotus seeds, mai dong (lilyturf root), bamboo shavings, and lily's root.

And considering the condition in winter, Tang especially recommends dietary therapies that help nourish yin energy while benefiting both the liver and kidney at the same time.

This includes nuts, beef, wolfberry, yam, sha shen (straight ladybell root) and yu zhu (radix polygonati officinalis).

Hawthorn and beef soup


Beef (500g), hawthorn (10g), dried orange peel (10g), 10 peppers, and 10 prickly ash, and three slices of ginger.


1. Getting rid of the hawthorn core.

2. Put all the ingredients in a saucepan and cook soup with them.

3. Add salt to season when the soup is done.


It helps nourish yin energy and benefits the liver and kidney. It is especially recommended to people with high blood pressure.


"Metal" people usually have a broad forehead, white skin, middle-height and strong bones. They usually have "neutral" personalities. They are mentally-tough, broad-sighted and with high self-esteem.

Yang energy is also high in "metal" people though not as severe as in "fire" people. Thus "metal" people may also be bothered with pathogenic heat-related problems. However, pathogenic dryness is usually an even bigger problem for their health. Lungs are the most vulnerable organ from pathogenic dryness and arouse problems like coughing and inflammation in the respiratory system.

The combination of pathogenic heat and dryness also burns body fluids easily and causes problems like diabetes and constipation.

Yin-benefiting foods such as lotus root, pear, lily's root, almond and white fungus are all good choices for "metal" people so as to help nourish and protect the lungs. They should also avoid stimulating foods like spicy and fried cuisines as well as cigarettes and alcohol. Taking deep breaths in green belts is also recommended.

Foods that benefit the lungs such as sha shen (straight ladybell root), lily's root, ginkgo seed, orange peel, grapefruit, pine nut and honey are especially recommended in winter, according to Dr Tang.

Pine nuts and honey congee


Pine nuts (30g), rice (150g) and honey as needed.


1. Mash the pine nuts.

2. Cook congee with rice and mashed nuts.

3. Add honey in when the congee is warm.


It helps nourish lungs and benefits kidney.


"Earth" people are granted with the energy from the "earth," which belongs to yin in TCM.

They usually have a round face, yellow skin, broad shoulders, thick back, strong shins and steady steps.

Just like the characteristics of "earth" in Chinese culture, "earth" people are often described as good-tempered, diligent, tolerant and loyal. They are keen on slow and steady pace in everything and lack curiosity.

Thanks to their slow temper, acute severe ailments are less common among "earth" people and they are known to live relatively long lives compared to others.

Excessive dampness is the major health problem for "earth" people.

It usually contributes to slow energy and blood circulation, and results in thick blood and phlegm gathering.

These people may be bothered by a slow metabolism and edema problems.

And due to the close relationship between "earth" and spleen (digestive system), they are usually vulnerable to digestive problems such as poor appetite, stomachache and diarrhea. Problems like gastroptosis may happen in severe cases.

Foods that help regulate energy and activate blood circulation are recommended to help prevent high blood viscosity.

These foods include dried orange peel, turnip, hawthorn, tomato and fungus.

And damp dispelling foods like yi mi (pearl barley), green beans and bai shu (bighead atractylodes rhizome) can help protect the spleen.

Helping the spleen while reinforcing the lungs should be the principle of winter reinforcement for "earth" people, according to Dr Tang. Lean pork, jujube, glutinous rice, beef, chicken and black mullet are good choices.

Lean pork, jujube, walnuts, wolfberry fruit and glutinous rice


Lean pork (150g), wolfberry fruits (10g), walnuts (10g), 10 jujubes, glutinous rice (100g) and rice (50g)


1. Wash and chop the lean pork into slices and stir it with soy sauce, sugar, salt and cornstarch evenly.

2. Pan-fry the pork.

3. Cook rice with jujubes, wolfberry fruits, glutinous rice and rice together.

4. Spread the pork on the rice when the water is almost gone, simmer until the rice is done.

5. Put walnut pieces in and stir even.


It helps reinforce energy, benefits spleen, and reinforces liver and kidney.


Yin energy is usually surpassing for people of "water." They usually have dark skin and slim figure, and possibly dark eyes and big ears.

Just like soft and calm water, "water" people are usually introverted and quiet. They often have strong intuition and stay calm during times of crisis.

Yet influenced by excessive yin energy, "water" people are often bothered with pathogenic coldness and deficient yang energy.

Pathogenic coldness often causes blood and energy stagnation in the body, and thus these people are more easily bothered with problems like pain and numbness in joints, bones and muscles.

Deficient yang energy may also arouse problems like fatigue and cold limbs.

Due to the close relationship between water and kidney, these individuals are often vulnerable to kidney (urinary and reproductive system) problems. They may be more easily bothered by edema, infertility and syncope syndrome.

"Warm" foods that reinforce yang energy are especially recommended to "water" people to drive away pathogenic coldness and dampness. This includes jujubes, mutton, chestnuts and longan, so as to help prevent and relieve "cold"-related problems like painful or numb joints.

Symptoms like fatigue, sore back, cold limbs and pale tongue usually suggest deficient yang energy in the kidney, which is also common among "water" people. Dr Tang recommends liver and kidney reinforcing foods represented by pig's liver and kidney in winter. Other foods with similar functions include lily's root, sheng di (root of rehmannia), shu di huang (radix rehmanniae preparata), gou qi (wolfberry), sang shen (mulberry), beef and mutton.

Pig's liver and kidney rice


Rice (200g), pig's liver (50g), pig's kidney (50g), ginger powder (10g), cooked oil, yellow wine and sugar as needed.


1. Wash and chop the liver and kidney into small pieces

2. Spread cooked oil, yellow wine and sugar on them and stir evenly.

3. Cook rice and spread ginger powder when the water is almost gone.

4. Put the liver and kidney on the rice and simmer with gentle heat until well-cooked.


It helps reinforce kidney and liver and helps relieve sore back and joints as well as frequent dizziness.


"Wood" people usually have a slim figure. They are usually outgoing, active and quick thinking, yet they are also suspicious, sensitive and sometimes narrow-minded.

Pathogenic wind is the biggest problem for "wood" people in health maintenance. Therefore, they are more sensitive to allergic ailments that are caused by pathogenic wind. Liver belongs to "wood" and is the most vulnerable organ. As liver in TCM helps adjust moods, stores and regulates blood and aids digestion, damage to the liver may also arouse problems like depression, high blood pressure, stroke and digestive problems.

"Wood" people should remember to avoid allergens especially in spring and autumn. Being exposed to big wind may also aggravate the problem of overactive yang energy in the liver and cause problems like high blood pressure and stroke.

Staying calm, keeping in a good mood and avoiding big wind should be the principle for "wood" people all year around.

And considering liver's importance in digestion, Dr Tang suggests reinforcing qi (energy) and the spleen while benefiting liver. Ling zhi (glossy ganoderma), huang qi (milk veteh), lean pork, chicken and wolfberry fruits are all recommended.

Ling zhi, huang qi, lean pork soup


Ling zhi (10g), huang qi (15g) and lean pork (150g)


1. Chop the lean pork into small pieces.

2. Cook the pork, huang qi and ling zhi together with water until the pork gets soft

3. Add salt to season.


It helps boost energy, benefits spleen, liver and kidney.


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