Stomach Spleen Earth Element

Harmony Within: Exploring the Earth Element in Traditional Chinese Medicine

By Maria Chah, DOM, AP & Jennifer Troyan

Welcome back to the series of five elements in TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine). We've covered the heart, which is the fire element, and lungs, which is the metal element.

Each element is equally important, and they all work together. Balance is the key.

This month, we are sharing about the earth element. The earth element is associated with the spleen, stomach, and digestive health. It also symbolizes being centered and grounded. You can think of our planet, Mother Earth and think of stability. In TCM, the Earth represents our bodies. This is our home, so it is an important element.

Because the body is always changing, what it doesn't store, it dumps into our bellies and other parts of our bodies. Comparing our body to the earth, which is always changing seasons and grows certain foods at certain times of each year, there's always a check and balance to consider. When we want a happy body, we need to respect its natural orders. Liken to the earth; when you give your body proper nourishment, aligned with the seasons allocated at the right times of day you offer the body a better state of harmony. Like fire and water are check and balance corresponding pairs, each keeping the other in the correct energetic flow, so too how you exercise, think, eat, rest and sleep corresponds in check and balance with your external environment. The Five Elemental Theory is a specific TCM diagnostic concept based on the observation that our external nature operates similarly within our body.

In the book, Five Elements and Ten Stems by Kiko Matsumoto and Stephen Birch, it quotes from Su Wen (the earliest surviving work on Chinese medicine) the mechanism by which these external influences can affect the body and its organs is described:

“The Yellow Emperor asked, ‘There are eight winds in heaven and only five winds in the body, how is this?’

Chi Po (who would be like a Confucius or sage who's answering, it's like a riddle) answered, ‘The eight winds make {create/become} evil. Using the meridian winds {Chi} the eight winds can approach and touch the five Yin organs. Then the Evil Chi makes disease.’”

What they're saying basically is, when these elements come together, it would be like creating a tornado or hurricane. When you have too much hot and cold air fighting, there's this friction and it causes turbulence. An example - this is what we might call a flu. It's an airborne pathogen. It gets cold and then we have wind. That wind can push the pathogen deep into our orifices. Like our nostrils, throat, eyes and ears. That's why we have body hair, it acts as a buffer to capture airborne particulates. When we breathe through our mouths, we have the tendency to get dry in the mouth. When you breathe in very cold air, it can freeze your lungs to the point it begins to get uncomfortably tight and restrict breathing.

They're saying it’s a cycle to elaborate on the above passage. The east direction creates wind, wind creates wood, wood creates acid sour flavors, acid sour flavors create the liver, the south direction creates heat, heat creates fire, fire creates bitter flavors, bitter flavors creates the heart, the west direction creates dryness.
Consider how the earth has different kinds of terrains all over. There's Iceland, the north pole. We know the west is drier, more desert-like. We know the east is damper. Jungle and tropical climates are south and can also be damp. These same elements evolve within our own earthly body.

Diseases (or dis-eases) can show up in the way our bodies respond to these seasonal elements. Take acid reflux as a demonstration (this is considered like a fire in TCM). Fire starts to burn, then we get this bitter taste. Dryness creates metal, metal creates hot spicy flavor. Herbs have aromatic effects. Consider cinnamon, mustard, wasabi, or ginger - you can drink water to diffuse it. Anything we ingest is going to break down. The earth is consumed and the spleen and the stomach have to get to work!

The earth element is the crux or the source, which is the beginning source of post energy. So you have this unlimited, intangible source of energy we call air, space, sunlight, by which all other elements are born. From here, the body (inhales), eats, and drinks these post-energy elements by which it is transported and transforms into different types of energy forms identified as biology and physiology.

Think of your body as the container of your spirit and soul and your stomach is the Earthly source that converts infinite energy into sustainable fueled energy. It is the human belly that is “your center” of your galactic body and it is considered the Earth element because we wouldn't be alive if we weren't getting milk from our mothers or food from the tree or the ground or air from the planet. A lot of illnesses are due from the suffering of our earth and, quite often, it's all one can think about. Too much earth (dirt) can smother a fire. Too much earth, like mudslides can, can kill anything in its path. In fact, one of the five major extinctions was too much plankton. It blanketed the ocean thus suffocating and killing all sea life and it lasted for thousands of years before harmony was restored.

For this reason it is important to take specific care of your earth element and to do your best providing exactly what it needs. When your Earth element is given the proper nutrients and hydration then all other energy pathways also keep clear and healthy. Remember, Earth is the element of nurturing, so we know like a mother feeding a child, it's the one that is vital for sustaining harmonious energy.

What are your habits? What is your primary stressor? Your work and living conditions? How you think it is or can affect your emotional, physical and mental state. According to Dr. Chah, “People don't know how they got a cold except when on vacation traveling amongst many people. But oftentimes it could be from an everyday type of activity such as when on the boat sunbathing in the wind not realizing that their back pain correlates with constant wind blowing on their back and midbody.

The symptoms you give your acupuncture physician tells which of the five elemental energy pathways lead to a specific organ channel. Based on the story told as to what happened and habits, whether it be recreational, occupational and/or any mental, emotional stressors, the physician uses these stories to paint a diagnostic patterning. So it's important to share as much of your story as you can about what, when, how your ailment came to your awareness, the better the doctor can help the patient. Acupuncturists consider “cold wind”, which settles in the body, a pathogenic factor that can contribute to physiological imbalances. Your acupuncture physician can figure out where the pathogen is and usually it's based on how you describe your pain.

Sometimes people leave things out and as a doctor, you have to do some detective work, talk to the patient to figure out what they have or haven’t done recently or differently or new - those are all important. Acupuncture physicians diagnose patterns not diseases and this is based on one of several primary principles and theories. The 5 Elemental Theory is one of the most primary in assisting the doctor to come up with a treatment plan for restoring your body to natural health.”

In closing, we want to leave you with this thought:

“The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh quote
Globe and hands within headline image & quote design courtesy of rawpixel.
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