Jen-Hsou Lin, DVM, PhD
Philip Rogers, MRCVS
To the Chinese, the Principle of Five Elements is a universal law relating types of things in a harmonious, balanced system. If one of the elements becomes too weak or too strong, the entire system can become unbalanced. Restoration of balance depends on redistribution of energy between them so as to restore the harmony, if it is possible. The subtle control system based on the Five Element concept can be shown to operate in hormone regulation. As an example, the relationships between the brain-pituitary-adrenocortical axis are discussed in detail.
To simplify complexity is one of the aims of science. Symbols and mathematical formulae are used to reduce complex relationships to a scientific “shorthand”. The concepts of Yin-Yang and Five Elements were established under this category by Chinese philosophers 2000 years ago. The Chinese realized that although nature is complicated, it is going basically through its natural process of changes. To sum up those changes, they developed Yin-Yang and Five Element theories not only for explaining the things and phenomena they knew, but also for predicting those they did not know. Thus, to Chinese, these concepts are two major principles of Universal Law. They can apply to every aspect of life: sociology, economy, politics, ecology, science and even medicine. If someone were not familiar with these concepts, he/she would neither obtain the spirit of Chinese medicine nor be a good Chinese medical doctor or acupuncturist. On the other hand, if someone has training in Western medicine accompanied with a good background of the Chinese medical concepts, he/she would be an excellent doctor or scientist.
Hormone regulation in the living body also follows a cyclicity, by which the body can maintain harmony. In this paper I will compare some of the known controlling mechanisms in the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis with the control system inherent in the concept of Five Elements.
The Five Element Concept
The theory of the Five Elements postulates that everything in creation can be categorized into one or more of five basic TYPES: Fire type, Earth type, Metal type, Water type or Wood type. This does not mean that they are Fire, Earth etc. in the usual meaning of these words. Rather they have the character or nature of the Five Types. These types are the five elements of traditional Chinese thought. Everything on the earth is considered to belong to one or several of the Five Elements. Besides the categorization of all materials of the universe, living or nonliving, into the Five Elements, the theory also postulates their interdependence in terms of stimulation or inhibition, creation or destruction. In other words, the Five Elements are related by anabolic pathways (creation), catabolic pathways (destruction) and mutual restraints. These relationships are very important to keep nature in harmony. If there is creation without destruction, the strong will become too strong and exhaust everything in the system. In contrast, the weak will become first too weak and then extinct. Overacting and counteracting also exist for mutual restraint when an element becomes hyperactive or hypoactive. The rules of the Five Elements are shown in Figure 1.
In normal condition (harmony)
The Five Element cycle has two major components, the Sheng cycle and the Ko cycle. The Sheng is anabolic (creative, nourishing, feeding). The Ko is catabolic (controlling, inhibiting, modulating). For example, Fire creates Earth via Sheng and also inhibits Metal via Ko.
Sheng cycle: Things of a fire nature promote things of an Earth nature, which promote things of a Metal nature, etc. The cycle is: Fire – Earth – Metal – Water – Wood – Fire (see Figure 1) In this cycle, things of Fire are “parents” of things of Earth which are the “children” of things of Fire. The Sheng cycle is represented by a clockwise circle. It is continuous, having no beginning or and no ending. Although Fire creates Earth, Earth is necessary for Fire. Without Earth the succeeding elements: Metal, Water and Wood would not be, and Fire itself would become too strong and then die. The Sheng cycle demonstrates the concept of interpromotion among the elements and is necessary for creation and nourishment of one element by its preceding one. Thus, the Sheng cycle is a growth and promotion (anabolic) cycle. However, all growth must be under control, otherwise abnormalities like hyperplasia, cancer, overpopulation, starvation and crime arise.
Ko cycle: This is a catabolic cycle of mutual control, inhibition and modulation. In this cycle things of Fire nature inhibit things of a Metal nature. Metal inhibits Wood, etc. The cycle is: Fire – Metal – Wood – Earth – Water – Fire. The Ko cycle is represented by a clockwise pentagram or star. Although Fire inhibits Metal, Metal has some control on Fire also, because without Metal, Water and Wood could not be in the Sheng cycle, therefore Fire could not be. Thus the Ko cycle is a cycle of mutual control and modulation.
Both the Sheng and Ko cycles are necessary for balance. Without nourishment (Sheng) there can be no growth and development. Without restraint (Ko), excessive development would be harmful. Thus, the Sheng and Ko cycle represent a state of continuous, dynamic anabolism and catabolism. All things in nature must change. In biology, as in nature, nothing is static. During this movement there are active (Yang) and passive (Yin) phases. The good combination of Sheng and Ko is represented in the good condition of nature.
In abnormal condition (disharmony, disorder)
If there is an excess or deficiency in one element, abnormal phenomena may appear in other elements because the primary imbalance may overact or counteract on other Elements. There are two pathways:
Tseng cycle (overacting): It means attacking a weaker element. An element with normal energy, but especially one with an excess of energy, may attack a weaker element via the Ko cycle. It is harmful to the weaker element. For example, if Wood is in excess it can overact (destroy) on Earth (weaken it). If Wood is weak (deficient), Metal could overact on it, thereby exaggerating the problem. The phenomenon of overacting uses the Ko route.
Wou cycle (counteracting): This is another type of attack by one element on another via the reverse Ko and Sheng cycles. For example, if Wood is in excess, it can overact on Earth and can simultaneously counteract on Water and Metal. If Wood is weak, it can be overacted upon by Metal and be counteracted upon by Earth at the same time.
The Sheng, Ko, Tseng, and Wou forces are the basis of all interactions between diseased organs. The Chinese divided the body by its function rather than its structures. Based on this concept, the organs are divided into Yin-Yang and Five Elements (Table 1.). For the present discussion it is sufficient to know that Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water are associated with the liver, heart, spleen, lung and kidney Yin organ-meridian systems respectively. Disease in any one of these organs can have secondary effects on any other member of the system. For instance, although kidney disease could be primary, it could also be secondary to disease in the lung (mother Metal affecting the son Water in the Sheng cycle); the liver (son Wood affecting the mother Water by the Wou [reverse Sheng] cycle); the heart (heart Fire counteracting on kidney water by the Wou [reverse Ko] cycle) or the spleen (spleen Earth overacting on kidney Water by the Tseng cycle).
In summary, the Five Element theory is a universal theory relating types of things in a harmonious, balanced system (the Sheng and Ko cycles). If one of the elements becomes too weak or too strong, the entire system can become unbalanced. By overacting and counteracting forces (the Tseng and Wou cycles), one imbalanced Element may affect other elements. Correction of the balance depends on recognition of the strong and weak parts of the system and in redistributing the energy to the correct parts of the system to restore harmony.