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Diet to support the Five Element Theory


Hi everyone - I would like to learn more about diet/foods for each particular season based on the The Five Element theory. For example, what foods should be eaten in Spring to support yin and yang organs, live and gall bladder? We are used to eating any time of foods all year long disregarding seasons, which I think is counterproductive. Eating seasonal can be an answer to my question, but I am digging deeper than that - Thanks.


I put together a fairly complete presentation of this a few years ago. Please read my TCM Nutrition - Five Element Theory section to start and then feel free to ask any further questions within this thread.


Thanks Chad. This is exactly what I was looking for and somehow I couldn’t locate it on the theory site. This is a great resource!


Don’t feel bad about not finding it - it wasn’t back on the site until right before I posted that reply. I still have some sections to move over and the dietary section was one of the last to be moved. Some I held off on because I really wanted to make them much more comprehensive. But I won’t have the time to commit to making that section much better until summer probably, so I just put it back the way it was. Hope you find it useful!


First of all, I’d like to make a disclaimer: I’m not sure where this entry fits best (discussions or questions; this pre-existing thread or a new one) but I decided to post here due to its relation with TCM diet theory–because food is medicine too :pizza: :fried_shrimp: :ramen: :apple: :banana: …ok maybe pizza is not the best example :wink: :smiley:

                             Here are my questions: 

There are five flavors (sweet, pungent, salty, sour, bitter) which ascribe to the five elements–respectively (earth, metal, water, wood, fire). The five yin organs–which provide the substance for yang to function (also respectively) are the spleen, lung, kidney, liver, and heart. So, if we know this is true, then:

(A) Why is it so often recorded that the sweet flavor damages the spleen? Why does salty damage the kidneys? (Etc.). Do these flavors supplement their corresponding organs, but only in cases of excess cause damage? If the answer to this is “yin fluids are damaged,” then is this because the excessive flavor instead overstimulates the yang function which would subsequently lead to the damage of yin fluids? If entirely so, is this because flavors only supplement the yang function of the five yin organs?

(B) If the answer to the above is “yes, only in excess,” then for my next question let’s refer to the following diagram (large circles are yin organs, medium-sized ones are yang organs, and the small ones are elements associated with the yin organs’ function; green is liver–wood, red is heart–fire, brown is spleen–earth, white is lung–metal, and blue is kidney–water:

So, if we take into account the functions represented, is this to say that if one ever over-consumes the salty flavor then this subsequently over-supplements the water element and can therefore engender the damp evil/pathogen? (Inversely, if the spleen is dried excessively then yang becomes an evil/pathogen affecting…?) Or, would the excess saltiness damage the yin fluids associated with that particular yin organ–in this case the kidney?

© Why do some medicinals support organ(s) which do not exhibit the corresponding flavors and elements? (I.e. sweet Codonopsis invigorates the lung, sour Mume plumb astringes the intestines–but not the liver, and bitter and pungent Atractylodes invigorates the spleen by treating wood repletion).

(D) If we look at this diagram, we can see some foods to avoid per category of element. Why is sugar and chocolate bad for fire (the heart)? Why are eggs bad for metal? Why is meat bad for the spleen? I guess I’m looking for a clear connection.


Hi Fujiyoko and site contributors! I too would be interested in an answer to Fujiyoko’s qn’s above…
cheers in advance!


Hi Fujiyoko, I have some thoughts on your questions. I am still a student, still learning, so these answers may be different from than someone with a more developed understanding of such matters.

A) In general, associated flavors will have a stimulating/tonfiying effect of the associated organs. In the example of the Spleen: The Spleen has an affinity for the sweet flavor. This makes sense as the Spleen is the primary organ involved in extraction of post-natal qi from food and there is more qi to be had from the sweet flavor. However, sweet is sticky, is slowing, and too much of it will inhibit the Spleen’s transformation and transportation functions, leading to the creation of dampness. So, in this case, it’s not so much about damage to the fluids (“the Spleen likes dryness and hates dampness”), as it is simply making an organ work harder. This is why in tonic formulas (which are mostly sweet) or in prescribing “sticky” herbs (shu di huang being the most obvious example) one must evaluate the strength of a person’s Spleen before prescribing.

Another example of taste affinity and damage to the organ: Pungent/acrid will benefit the Lungs (think about hot, acrid things and clearing up phlegm), but too much of it will disperse Lung qi, leading to qi deficiency.

C) Supporting organs without corresponding flavors (this is definitely not a definitive answer as I feel confused about some of these concepts):

There are multiple factors to take into account when determining herbal “actions.” In addition to temperature and flavor, the shape and weight of the plant parts helps as a guide: is it light and airy? thick and heavy? what color is it? is it a root, a vine, a twig, etc?

In the case of dang shen (codonopsis) there is a simpler explanation however. Basically, anything that is a “Lung tonic” will also likely be a Spleen tonic and be sweet… This is because Spleen is the first step in the prodcution of post natal qi: Earth is the mother of Metal. Spleen and Lung, the taiyin pair have a close relationship, evident in aspects of tonifying qi, or in the idea that dampness is created in the Spleen but will affect the Lung. Another herbal example of this is huang qi-probably the most well known “Lung/immune” tonic, it is sweet and warm and, again, tonifies both Lung and Spleen qi.

Wu mei: I don’t have a great answer for this. What I could imagine though, is that mume, simply because of being a fruit, will have a Lung and Intestinal affinity moreso than Liver. Whereas something like bai shao, which has both a sour and bitter nature as well as being a root, will more readily affect the Liver.

Finally, sometimes supporting an organ can mean removing/transforming pathology that inhibits function rather than just tonifying. For example, one of the foremost Spleen tonics is bai zhu (codonopsis, which, by the way, my materia medica does not talk about in the context of wood repletion). Bai zhu is warm, sweet and bitter. The sweetness will tonify the Spleen qi. But the bitter flavor will also drain dampness via urination. Thus, bai zhu has tonic properties via strengthening (sweet flavor), but also supports the Spleen by draining (bitter).


Keep in mind while 5 phase (phase is technically a more accurate translation than element) theory provides a general framework, much of what you see in modern TCM is derived from actual clinical experience. Five phase theory is not an exact science like say, quantum physics where theoretical predictions are confirmed by experimental results with a degree of accuracy unprecedented of in the history of mankind. So with regards to the actions of both herbs and foods…those have been determined by long term consensus across many years and many practitioners as to the observable clinical effects, which obviously sometimes do not correspond exactly with five phase theory.


As @Stephen points out, there isn’t always one, but there is in relation. Chinese Medicine, five element theory and yin yang theory are about relative relationships first and reasonably solid theory of relations/actions second and linear interactions (like the kind that our western minds are used to) nearly never. Hot is hot in relation to cold, cold is cold in relation to hot and on and on.

So the sweet flavor within reason is beneficial to the spleen and when it is over consumed it is harmful - but - this isn’t that simple. With weak spleen qi - does candy taste good? - no, you have an immediate poor reaction - digestive disturbances and the like. With reasonable spleen qi does it taste good? yes - may not be good for you but it tastes good. Some of these things are really just commonsense and simple observance which is hard to create hard and fast rules with as we are never fixed and our inter relations are never the same as someone else’s internal balance. Think of Chinese Medicine as more of a framework than a systemic set in stone rule set and you will go far with this - within medicine and otherwise.

So for some of your questions (eggs bad for metal - this is because dairy -tends- to produce dampness). So in a person with damp issues or prone to them this will constrict the metal functions - but in someone else who is so weak they can’t breathe from systemic depletion - they might be a great source of energy - Using raw goats milk to build someone back from deep weakness would be an example of this. Excessive meat can be bad for the spleen, but it can also provide valuable yang energy which, again in severe depletion, could be the difference between someone surviving or not surviving.

As you get into herbs and herbal formulas this all gets a little complicated - again because of the relations between elements/phases but also the differences in people and where they are at. Additionally the herbs, just like with foods, can have multiple influences with only some of them being talked about as their “traditional” use so to speak and then the reality that they will do “x” in person “y” but “y” in person “z”. Some herbal formulas, for example, may clinically raise testosterone in someone who has low levels, but the same formula will always consistently lower it in people where it is high. Largely by triggering the multitude of functions internally to balance themselves, rather than providing the body with something hoping that it was it needs (i.e. many western pharma approaches).

All of this could be viewed as a weakness in the system, but it is actually its greatest strength. It’s why people cannot practice Chinese Medicine (well anyhow) without a deep understanding of these relationships, a strong habit of observance, and openness. Trying to make a three dimensional hexagon of relationships into a straight line defiles Chinese Medicine.

So why write books? why even try to systematize it? Well you have to start somewhere. Many aspects of traditional arts are like that - tai chi for example. You can sort of learn from a video, you can sort of learn the movements from books and experience will help with all of this - but there are some aspects you can’t learn without the help of a teacher. The teacher isn’t necessarily telling you something you don’t already know at some level, just stopping your mind from thinking you already know (or know how to figure out what you don’t know) which actually is the main thing blocking you from figuring anything out.


Great input. I really appreciate everyone’s answers. :blush:

So, question: How could I interpret this excerpt–or more importantly, what are some good herb combos (and/or dietary suggestions) that can fit this plan?::

“[In reference to the treatment of Gu conditions or Drum Belly,] … it is justifiably appropriate to [(1)] supplement the spleen, and it is also necessary to [(2)] nurture lung metal to restrain wood in order that the spleen is freed from the worry of bandit evils … [(3)] enrich kidney water to restrain fire in order that the lungs are enabled to exercise purification. Abstain from the salty flavor lest it should assist the evil and cut off frenetic desire in order to protect the maternal qi.” (emphasis added).

Are there any specific books (Chinese is ok too–I am fluent) on the subject of labeling herbs within the context of the five phases (elements) or at least describing their actions from this standpoint exclusively?

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