Healing with the Five Elements: Tools for Self-Care

The qualities of energy we take in with the foods we eat, the types of activities we engage in, our moods, and all other aspects of life, may be thought of as being relatively yin or yang in nature. Put most basically and perhaps over simplistically, yin experiences tend to be more contractive while yang is relatively expansive. No one thing or experience is inherently yin or yang. Rather, the relationship between any one thing or experience and a second thing or experience allows us to see one as relatively yin or yang in relation to the other. In other words, the things and experience in our lives must be seen in context with the rest of our lives, not in isolation. That means that no one food or exercise is right for you at all times. There are many tools that help us understand the interrelationship of yin and yang. With an appreciation of these interrelationships we can make choices that honor our needs as they change with the time of day, time of year, and time of our life. Two of these tools are the Five Elements and the Chinese Clock.

Five Elements
The theory of the Five Elements, also known as the Five Phases, grew out of the idea of yin and yang. The Five Elements, or Phases, further elaborate the two movements of yin and yang, (e.g. contractive and expansive, black and white) into five distinct types of qi, or energy, movement. Each Element or Phase is associated with a different season, a different phase of life, different functions within the body, the mind, the emotions, the spirit, and much, much more. There are many wonderful resources that teach Five Element theory in depth. With a simple understanding of the Elements and how they relate to the season, for example, one can see that the types of foods, experiences, and mental activity appropriate to each season varies. Basic starters for living with the Five Elements: eat seasonally and locally, go to bed when the sun goes down, arise when the sun comes up, choose more extroverted (yang) activities in the more yang, or sunnier, times of year, and more restorative activities in the yin, or darker, times. For more, see my website for seasonal health tips. Read Dianne Connelly’s Traditional Acupuncture: Law of the Five Elements for a highly readable explanation of the Elements. Attend one of my seasonal workshops on the Elements.

Chinese Clock
The Chinese Clock is an idea that grew out of the Five Elements and an awareness that our bodies tendencies and strengths change through the course of the day as the amount of sunlight changes. The Chinese Clock reminds us, as do all tools of Chinese medicine, that we are in a continual and shifting relationship with our environment.

Here is an outline of the Chinese Clock showing which type of qi is most available (in health) or most challenged (in illness) at each two-hour period.

3-7AM – Lung (3-5am) and Large Intestine (5-7am) Metal Element, Autumn
7-11AM – Stomach (7-9am) and Spleen (9-11am). Earth Element, Harvest time and all seasonal transitions
11-3PM – Heart (11-1pm) and Small Intestine (1-3pm) Fire Element, Summer
3-7PM – Bladder (3-5pm) and Kidney (5-7 pm) Water Element, Winter
7-11PM – Heart Protector (7-9pm) and Triple Heater (9-11pm) Fire, Summer
11-3AM – Gall Bladder (11-1am) and Liver (3-5 pm), Spring

There are multiple ways to use this information. One often used by acupuncturists, is called the Law of Mid-day and Midnight. If a symptom is most problematic at particular time of day, it may indicate a weakness in the qi system that is either associated with that time of day, OR the qi system that is ascendant 12 hours before or after the time of the symptoms greatest intensity. So, for example, a big drop in energy between 3-7pm may indicate a deficiency in Bladder or Kidney qi, OR in Lung or Large Intestine. Other diagnostic tools would be used to confirm or which qi system most needed treatment in order to resolve the symptom. To reflect on which Elemental energies are strongest in you, ask yourself during which time of day are you most energized? Least energized?

Another way to use the Chinese Clock is to plan one’s day in such a way as to engage in activities which draw on the type of qi associated with each two-hour period. For example, the digestive power of the Stomach is most available at 7-9am and weakest at 7-9 pm. So, planning to eat the largest meal when Stomach qi is strongest and avoiding food or eating lightly when the Stomach qi is weaker will support your health. If you are not hungry at breakfast time, the Stomach and Spleen energies are not optimal and could be strengthened with appropriate, diet, exercise, and acupuncture. Another example is using the time before dawn for spiritual practices as has been done in spiritual traditions around the globe. This is when Lung qi, the energy of inspiration, physical and spiritual, is strongest. This quiet and dark time of day (yin) is ideal for contemplation before the work of the day begins. How else might you apply the Chinese Clock to your own schedule?

Reflecting on the Chinese Clock is a useful way to consider how you balance work and rest, nourishment of spirit and body, and enjoyment of social and intimate relationships, all contributing to your optimal health. The Taoists have taught us that illness arises with habit – unconscious or addictive behaviors. Health arises as we release habits and became flexible and responsive to our environment. The ideas presented here are meant to be enjoyed with compassion, not as rulers against which to judge oneself. May these tools assist you in living a flexible, compassionate and joy-filled life.