In this podcast, Logan Christopher and Brandon Amalani discuss one of the major models of Chinese medicine and Taoism, the Five Element Theory. This includes:
- The Origination of this Model
- The Five Tastes
- 5 Positive and Negative Emotions
- 12 Yin and Yang Meridians
- How the Flow and Control Cycles work
- The 5 Elements as Personality Types
- The Circadian Rhythm of the Five Elements
- Differences between Chinese and Ayurveda and Western Herbalism Elemental Theories
- Examples of Herbs Nourishing Elements and Meridians
- How to Support the Earth Element in this Oncoming Season
- And much more
Click the link below to access the complete transcript.
Logan: Welcome to The Vital Way podcast. I’m Logan Christopher and today we’re going to be talking about the five elements. Joining me is Brandon Amalani who you may be familiar with. He was on our podcast just a couple of episodes ago where we talked a lot about schisandra. We touched on the five elements there and Brandon and I were talking some more and said it would be good to do an episode fully devoted to this because it’s really a foundational element of the Chinese medicine model. So we’re going to be talking about all different aspects of it, how it relates to many different things and how to really put it into use in your life in using herbalism as well as other things as well. So welcome to the call, Brandon.
Brandon: Thanks, Logan. Happy to be here, man.
Logan: Yeah. So where do you think is a good place to start on the five elements? I guess what the five elements are, right, would be a good place?
Brandon: That’s a loaded question considering how complex the five elements are in Chinese medicine, in martial arts and just philosophical systems. I think kind of touching a little bit on where it came from might be appropriate because it really has its roots on Taoism. So in Taoism, we see that to the Taoists, for people that aren’t familiar with the term “Tao,” is basically reference of the universe in its totality. So we’re looking at everything known and unknown in the universe, everything we can’t quantify and describe. Everything that’s contained in the universe is considered Tao.
So the Tao in Tao Te Tsing, so to speak, the Tao, the one created to two, the two being yin and yang, the two created the three, and the three created the 10,00 things. What’s kind of missing in that equation is after the three, you have the five, the five elements and this is kind of how energy condenses down from yin and yang, polar opposites, into kind of a circuit board, so to speak, of the five elements. And the five elements are wood, water, metal, earth and fire. So all of these elements work together and they all kind restrict each other’s movements so it’s kind of like a checks and balances system. So the five elements contain everything there is in nature and when we start talking about organ systems, start talking about herbs, you start talking about positive and negative aspects of it, emotions, smells, tastes, flavors, all of these models can fit into the five element system. So it’s kind of a way of looking at nature, health, the human being, anything in nature essentially.
Logan: And you also can refer to it by things besides the elements, sometimes called the five rhythms because they have to do like what you’re talking about, how the energy moves and so there’s a rhythm to that. Also the five seasons is often a name. And as you were saying, it’s associated, these five things are broken down into the five of everything else that there is so we certainly will be talking about many of those things as we go along.
Logan: So a little bit more of kind of the details, I would recommend people go to the show notes for this podcast and we’re going to have a diagram of the five elements. You’ll see this in many places. You have the five elements in a sort of pentagon shape with a star between them and arrows going around and all that. So I guess it would be good to start with just describing this in words for people why this kind of image of it is important.
Brandon: Well, this image, it’s easier to explain a lot of information in a symbol than it is in just kind of a linear way of writing or language or communicating like we’re doing now. When you look at an image, you can tell a lot more. If you’re symbol literate, you can actually pick up a lot of these things in these diagrams that are available. And they’re widely available. You can find them all over the place online because this five element theory goes back thousands of years and has been well-researched, documented and put to the test. Again, it’s kind of a model that we can look at to kind of know ourselves better and get more into our body, which is a lot of what my teaching is all about.
What I communicate and teach to people essentially is how to be more in the body because that’s the great gift of life in being here. And when you’re more in tune with your body, you can kind of listen internally what’s going on and externally what’s going on outside of you. A lot of what I teach and study with herbalism and internal martial arts and stuff like that, all of this is relevant and people can adopt this as a model or they can take some of the best parts that they like and just kind of use what makes sense to them at the time because again, it is very deep and it is kind of a lifelong study with just the five elements alone, not to mention like yin/yang theories and stuff like that.
So an appropriate place, in my opinion, to start is water. We look at this diagram and we see water. Water is kind of your foundational core. In Chinese medicine, the kidneys are rooted in the legs and in any type of tai chi or qi gong, one of the first places you start is developing root in connection with the ground. So the bladder/kidney system, it’s part of the winter cycle of nature. It references cold. You find it in the ears and it kind of governs our constitution essentially. It’s heavily associated and linked with jing energy. Jing is kind of what we get passed down congenitally from our parents and some of us have more or less of it, depending on our lifestyle, how much we burn through it and how much we’re just kind of imbued with at birth.
Water starts to produce and help wood grow so that relates to the liver, the gallbladder system. That is more of a spring element. So you see these seasons. You see these colors. You see these flavors. You see all of this kind of stuff feeding each other. So water feeds wood obviously and wood burns, so that feeds fire. Fire burns minerals and creates earth and ground, which is spleen and stomach. And then the earth produces the minerals which make metal and metal engenders water and you have this kind of self-feeding, self-containing closed system.
Now these elements can actually start to restrain each other and that’s where we create the balance of that kind of pentagon, star shape where you have the metal starts to cut wood. Wood grows in soil and basically roots down and kind of takes nutrients from the soil so it defeats soil. Fire will obviously be put out by water and all of them kind of go through this dance from an internal perspective. Now if we’re taking kind of universe, there’s just a large spectrum here. So it’ll be related to health, well-being, athleticism, what we’re going for to try and cultivate ourselves. We want to look at these as how they reflect on the organ systems and our emotions and what we deal with on a day to day basis.
Logan: There’s a lot there, just kind of how one element flows to the next, the water to wood to fire to earth to metal back to water, this is often called the flow cycle. I’m sure that has a number in different names. Then the control cycle is how one element may control another, how water controls fire which controls metal, which controls wood, which controls earth, which controls water. This is often called the control cycle or restriction is sometimes used as well. So these are different ways that these elements interact with each other.
This is important because you may have multiple different symptoms or problems you’re trying to work with and using the elemental theory, you can zero in on what may be the root cause of that. So let’s say you have some liver imbalance and also spleen problems. Well, the liver is controlling spleen so perhaps if you correct the liver issue, that spleen issue will take care of itself alone because that’s actually being caused by that energy. So that’s one of the ways in which the five element theory is used.
Brandon: Sure. Absolutely and there are several different ways, including the kind of natural ebb and flow of the circadian rhythm that happens on a day to day basis. So if you look at kind of what they call the organ clock, these organs are more active at different times of day than other so if we look at what herbs we take at certain times of the day, if we look how we’re feeling emotionally, if we wake up at a certain time of night every night and have to go to the bathroom, or we’re sweating, or we can’t sleep or we have an overactive mind, these things all relate to the organ systems. Again, this is a tool that we can use to identify and kind of get to the root of what’s happening.
Logan: Right, because for every organ—and when we’re talking about organs, I’ve done this then, this is more on the Chinese sense so the organ/meridian system—it has to do with that organ but also much more in the broad sense, not just physically that organ alone. For instance, that kidney organ which we talked about a little bit is very foundational. That’s like where the jing is housed and that has a lot to do with your hormone, your endocrine system and many other things. So it’s going beyond just the single purpose of the actual kidney organ but certainly that’s a part of it as well.
Brandon: Absolutely. That’s what really made me passionate about Chinese medicine. When I started years ago, 15 years ago when I started getting into nutrition, health and herbalism and I started learning about these things, before I really came into the five-element theory in Chinese medicine as a whole, when I found that, it became more complete to me, like the whole system of the body because we’re talking mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually. All of us, we are these holistic beings and we need to approach our health, wellbeing, lifestyle in a holistic way if we’re going to be balanced, have longevity, have health and create what we are here to create in our life.
Logan: Right. Yeah, that’s important because they don’t divorce the psychological from the physical so each of these elements are reflecting both physical characteristics as well as the mental and emotional side as well. That’s why perhaps you have an imbalance in your emotions. Let’s say you’re an over-angry person. Anger is sort of the negative emotion of the liver or the wood element so that being out of balance can then force some other things out of balance including bringing up physical symptoms.
Brandon: Yes. Absolutely. And there are actually sounds that you can use, too. This is one thing people might hear what I’m saying and be like, what does is it mean that there’s a sound or a color associated with an organ or an element? Take the liver like you were mentioning for example. The liver and gallbladder, they feed into the eyes. They have positive and negative emotions. For instance, the negative emotions we pretty much know of as like anger, which goes down to frustration, jealousy and envy. And then you’ve got to the positive emotions. If the liver is really balanced and energized and protected and nourished, then you have kindness, you have generosity and that’s the energy of growing life. That’s why it’s spring element, when you see all the stuff comes to life in the spring. And the sound associated with that is like a shh sound, which is different from the lung which is like a hiss which is more like air deflating out of a car tire. It’s more like a shh, be quiet. And when you do that, you can actually heal that organ and tonally, vibrationally affect that organ in a positive way without eating anything, without thinking any thoughts. With just sound alone, you can affect the organ systems.
Logan: So you want to mention the other sounds for the other elements?
Brandon: Sure. Wood feeds fire so fire would be next. That’s like the heart and small intestine. That’s more of a hah sound. That kind of invokes love, joy, happiness, elements of summer. The negative aspects or the physical symptoms anyway like heart palpitations, high blood pressure and chest pains, if you’re experiencing those types of things or if you just have negative emotions like you’re feeling kind of like hate, cruelty, impatience from the liver, both of these, the heart and intestines, the heart and liver, both the sounds will kind of help with that stuff.
If we look at spleen, which is the earth element, that’s really like—I want to talk about spleen because the we’re in that type of the year, it’s late summer, what’s known as kind of like an Indian summer where you’re having those really nice, warm days right before it really starts to cool off, at least where I live then the spleen and the earth element is kind of in full force. I want to talk in detail about that but just for the flow of the sounds, the emotions are worry, anxiety and mistrust. So that’s a “who” sound. So you do it kind of in a flow like W-H-O and just who-who-whoo. Once you start to practice relaxing with your body and really kind of like setting down or calming due to these sounds, you’re really going to start feeling it vibrate in certain areas. There are movements associated with them, a little bit more than we can go into the scope of this podcast.
So we have liver which is shh, heart which is hah. We have the spleen which is who. We have lungs which is hssh and think of like tongue on the top—hssh—slightly on the top of the mouth, the teeth closed, just a little bit opening and just visualize grey energy coming out of your body, like your breathing in white light and then you’re breathing out this grey, dark stuff and you can purify yourself. Again like I said, there are movements with it that you can really amplify it with but just the sounds alone, the vibrations of those are really healing. And then the kidney is choo. So if somebody’s like, “How the hell am I supposed to remember all of them?” you can find it online. It’s just the healing sounds but those are the ones that will correlate with what we’re talking about, the five elements.
Logan: Yeah, and as we’re going through those elements, you were referring to them by their major organ name so I think that’s a good thing to address. This podcast is all over the place but I’m hoping people are finding it useful. So each element has a yin and a yang meridian associated with it, except in the case of fire where you get an extra pair along with those. So the yin organs, those are considered the more important organs in a sense. Obviously, everything is important, every meridian is important but these are kind of the primary ones we’re working with because that’s like the seat of these three treasures and just a lot going on in those. They’re the full organs as opposed to the hollow organs where stuff is passing through all the time. So those yin organs are very important.
So with water, we have the kidney. Then the bladder is the yang organ. With wood, the liver is the yin organ then the gallbladder is the yang organ. With fire, we have heart and small intestine. Then as I said before, there’s an extra pairing. You have the pericardium, also known as the heart protector, and then you also have the triple heater, or triple warmer, or triple burner. It goes by a few different names. With the earth, we have the spleen as the yin organ then the stomach is the yang organ. And for metal, the lung is the yin organ and the large intestine is the yang organ.
Brandon: Yeah, absolutely and that yin and yang, one way to look at it is in the way they categorize that or quantify that is that the yin organs are typically more solid. The yang organs are more hollow so they have kind of like more movement, expansion and contraction and things of that nature. One of our most important yin organs is actually our lungs because it’s the one that’s most exposed to the outer elements, the outside world. We should probably talk a little bit about that, too, later after we cover spleen on that because we’re moving into fall and fall governs the lung meridian.
Logan: Right. And another way to look at the organs is the yin organs are more generally active all the time whereas the yang organs, they come into play, when they’re more yang they’re like aggressive at certain times but then go back and don’t do anything for a while. That’s one way that they also look at them.
Brandon: Yeah. And if you’ve never heard of this before and you’re listening to this, maybe it might do some good to talk about what a meridian is. We’ve heard a few things. The Chinese term for meridian is jing luo which is a combination of words. “Jing” is kind of referencing these vertical channels that are present in the body and then “luo” means to connect or to kind of bind together and form channels. So they’re basically energy channels in the body that distribute chi and blood.
Now an important distinction here, it often gets confused is that meridians are not blood vessels. So when I’m talking about distributing chi in blood, it’s a totally different anatomical thing. There have been tons of research done on the meridians. Theories have been around for a long time. The nervous reflex models are kind of the, I guess, most recently accepted but research still has to come up with a definitive model that gives a complete anatomical description of the meridian system but what we know is that when you start opening these channels and you start doing the energy arts, the qi gong or tai chi chuan or anything like that, you really start to feel a lot of these governing vessels, consumption vessels, these meridians, these organ systems in your own body but it takes a little time, training and dissolving a lot of intention and being able to focus your mind for more than a few seconds.
Logan: Right. Another idea was that it may have some interaction or connection with the fascia. Not a lot of people unless they’re into physical training or massage know much about the fascia. For a long time, we just thought that this is this layer of basically just empty sac which holds our muscles together but more recent research, finding just how important this is and actually looking at the lines in there. A guy that was doing a lot of research on this kind of mapped it out and people that had kind of Chinese medicine backgrounds were like whoa, those look like the meridians. So that could be one of the ways in which they’re physically working but really it is about that subtle energy and becoming more in tune with those energy flows.
Brandon: Yeah. That’s what I really appreciate about Taoism’s contribution to just our understanding of life in general, especially in regards to the human being and the human anatomy because they were like old-school scientists. They wanted to prove how this was working, why this is working. That’s why they’re all about dissolving their ego and completely seeing things for what they are and what’s actually really real and they would like pressure test stuff. They would figure how this works, this works this way, doesn’t. And over thousands of years, I guess they’re passed down generationally. They’re not afraid to look at insubstantial as well as substantial.
A lot of science these days, we look at stuff that we can quantify, put in a box and stamp and look under a microscope and those are all aspects of it but understanding that here’s a phenomenon in nature, how somebody can do something or how the thought at the same time as somebody cross the world, like how do these phenomena that are non-local that we can’t really quantify happening? Because they are observably happening in nature. So I think a really coolly contribution and part of where this comes from with the meridian systems is people just used to sit and be in tune with their bodies and they practiced and refined these arts for a long time. It sounds kind of far out but through personal practice on myself, I know that you can start to feel this stuff with just a few minutes of training a day. I think if you can just kind of work with it, you’ll understand it a little bit better.
Logan: Absolutely. And the science is catching up. As our instruments get more fine-tuned, they are finding evidence of this stuff. For instance, just looking at acupuncture points, which are specific points that lie along these meridian lines that there is less electrical resistance at those points versus a point that’s not a point. So there is some data behind this stuff as well on top of just the subtle feelings that yeah, like you said, anyone can learn to cultivate this. This is stuff that I thought was completely BS a long time ago but you start having some experiences then you start feeling energies and whatnot. Although some people may have this occur for them much naturally than others, I do believe it’s a natural human thing that anyone can cultivate if they so choose.
Brandon: Yeah, and they even have biofeedback technology. You can find acupressure pens that basically will let you know the conductivity at the skin level on certain acupressure points. You can measure this kind of stuff. Because it’s life force, it’s on a spectrum that we don’t have a way to kind of trap it and look at it really closely. We just know it’s there and we have tools to reference it and we have feelings to reference it but we don’t really have a complete understanding, like most things in nature, in the universe. That kind of theory, we think we know. That’s why it’s always good to be loose and flexible and be able to kind of understand that you might not know the whole story even if you have a map or a story inside your mind that says hey, we’re hurtling through space in a circle. Well, maybe it’s a spiral. We don’t know any of these kinds of things for sure unless we kind of know it in ourselves. And that’s part of the practice of all this. It’s getting a deeper awareness of ourselves. That’s why being in the body is so important because that’s the only sensory tool that you have to really work with.
Logan: So I think another important aspect of this, especially if we’re going to talk about herbs is how each of these elements is associated with a taste.
Logan: Do you want to describe that?
Brandon: Yeah. So that taste, and that’s one thing we kind of touched on the podcast about schisandra because it’s the five-flavored fruit. It contains bitter, sour, sweet, pungent and salty flavors. Salty correlates with water. Sour correlates with wood. Bitter is fire or heat. Sweet is spleen and then you have the pungent for the metal. All of those have different effects on the body. If we’re eating something that’s salty, we know it’s going to nourish our kidneys. Even the color is important, too, like black. Water, cold, black, salty, all of these things kind of correlate with the bladder and kidney system and what that means is that if you’re eating black beans for instance, that’s nourishing the kidney. If we’re eating sour fruits, lemons, if we’re eating greens, bitter greens, what come up in the spring naturally, you go harvest some nettles, dandelion leaves, some bitter greens, those are going to help with digestion, assimilation, movement, growth and then so on and so forth throughout the elements.
Logan: Yeah, you just mentioning black beans and the kidney and water element, he shou wu is a pretty classic kidney formula and one thing they do in preparing that is they’ll use different beans but typically it’s black beans in order to cook and process that, which is kind of solidifying that energetic to make it even stronger on working on the kidneys.
Brandon: Yeah, and particularly kidney yin. When we’re talking about yin and yang, yin is the accumulation and storage of energy and yang is the use of that energy. We’re always like hitting hard all the time, always using and always giving and not putting back, that would create problems, stress, inflammation and our bodies start breaking down, our mental capacity is not at its highest level. He shou wu is an incredible liver and kidney tonic. It builds blood really well, high iron content. Its builds your yin jing so it basically builds all those hormonal precursors. So if you’re taking a lot of herbs to stimulate testosterone, if you’re taking a lot of herbs or doing exercises and using a lot of yang energy and you’re not really doing so much of the chi work or the energy work with the qi gong or tai chi then an herb like this is I think paramount. It’s super important, not to mention the antioxidants, the stilbenes, all these fractions of these that aid in longevity with the antioxidant system, the glutathione system of the body uses.
Logan: Yeah, that’s one that I actually am quite regular in taking just because it’s one I want to be on every single day.
Logan: So it’d be good to probably talk about one herb for each of these elements so what would be a good example of the wood element herbs that really kind of embodies that sour taste?
Brandon: Well, there are several. I can actually name a few. I’m going to have to go with the schisandra just because it’s predominantly sour. It has all five flavors but when you take that, it’s astringent. It’s sour. It activates phase 1 and phase 2 liver detoxification so by all definitions if we’re looking at the wood element and liver and keeping it clean, healthy, happy and able to circulate heat. Because that’s the big thing about liver. When we get angry, when we get totally pissed off and just like stressed to the max, our chi isn’t regulated and that’s a big deal because all the other elements, all the organ systems, all the other parts of the body, those are dependent on the liver having smooth, flow of chi. So that’s going to be really important.
Other ones, there’s like codonopsis root, Gynosemma, goji. Goji is a good liver herb. It’s very much more of a nutritive. So take schisandra with the goji with the he shou wu, you’re building a lot of yin and building a lot of precursor material to allow your body to be nourished, to utilize and to hold more of a yang charge, to be able perform better and do more.
Logan: Yup. And all berries do tend to have that sour taste to lesser or bigger degrees. Obviously, schisandra is a whole other level on top of that and it has the other flavors there. But yeah, berries are embodying that wood element. When do berries come up? It’s after that spring time when they really start growing, as do most plants I guess but they embody that quite well.
Brandon: Absolutely. And I’ve got to say I’ve got to give props to reishi, too, for liver because it’s an underrated liver tonic herb. It just does so much for the body. It’s one of the classic anti-aging herbs. It actually works on not only the liver but the kidneys, heart and lungs. It’s a three treasure tonic, like schisandra. So you’re getting the jing qualities, you’re getting the chi energy production, you’re getting the shen on top for the heart for conscious awareness and spiritual growth. So it normalizes body function, inhibits histamines, improves oxygen but in particular it lowers negative liver enzyme levels and also lowers cholesterol and excessive fatty acids in the bloodstream. We want cholesterol because it builds. Cholesterol is a steroid is a precursor. The body makes hormones out of it; however, it can be out of bounds when you’re talking about LDL:HDL and it takes the low density lipoproteins down a notch and keeps your good cholesterol where you want it to be for these hormones.
Logan: And that’s actually a really good example of the fire element because reishi definitely has that bitter taste going quite strongly with it.
Brandon: Absolutely, yeah.
Logan: And it does work on the heart. Although it has three treasures, kind of the main thing is that shen aspect to it. We could look at it at so many different lives but the calming the heart, which in Chinese medicine they come to think of the mind in the heart rather than just in the head so the anxiety or depressive thoughts, these sorts of things that people may have, just being able to calm that stuff down so you can be more peaceful essentially, reishi helps to support that.
Brandon: Absolutely and again, I want people to be clear that we’re breaking it down into the five elements, into yin and yang and all these kinds of little pieces but really a lot of these herbs cross over into a few of the elements.
Logan: That’s why they’re superior herbs, right? You’re not just looking at it does one single thing for you; it’s doing a lot.
Brandon: Yeah. That would be considered an inferior herb or like what we call in the west, just like a more isolated, fractionated compound. So that would affect one element for one purpose and one thing. But we’re talking about things that are adaptogenic, regulatory and nutritive at the same time that don’t have any negative side effects, have a cumulative beneficial effects over time, and are non-toxic even in high doses which is pretty ideal if you’re talking preventive medicine and you’re wanting to create a quality of life over time where you don’t really get to a position where you’re compromised.
Logan: Absolutely. All right, so what about the earth element?
Brandon: Earth is sweet. That’s the yummy stuff. There are lots of that. Some of my favorite ones are actually in the ginseng family. Ginseng is a classic spleen tonic. It does a lot of stuff in the body, more than what’s publicized in a lot of ways. It’s generally considered a lung-spleen tonic. It’s a three treasure again so you’re talking jing, chi and shen. The funny thing about it, there’s a relative, eleuthero root. It’s known as like the Siberian ginseng. That is actually a relative of the Korean, Chinese or American ginseng but it actually has kind of more functionality, if you look at the research. It’s a tremendous adaptogen. It’s pretty much one of the premiere adrenal tonics next to schisandra.
And again when we’re talking adrenals, I know a lot of people have heard that term and know what it is but adrenals add on to the renal system or onto the kidneys so it really correlates with hormones here. It really helps to kind of build and increase physical strength, and sharpens concentration. That’s what it’s famous for. But it also increases your vision and healing power so you’re able to kind of regenerate at a really fast rate. It’s a lung, spleen, liver, kidney—I believe it’s a heart tonic. Don’t quote me on that but I think it is a heart tonic as well because it has some bitterness to it. But yeah, that one is really good for the spleen.
Also, one of my really likes, which I remember seeing in one of your female formulas, is longan berry? That’s a really great spleen tonic. It’s an awesome blood builder as well so it makes sense that you put it in a women’s formula but it’s also really great for males as well.
Logan: Yeah. I think it’s important to know about these tastes is most westerners have had their palate completely screwed up by chemical taste and literally people in labs making things taste good and making them addictive and whatnot. So when we think of sweetness, it’s necessarily as sweet as sugar. Certainly, there are some things like that like goji is pretty sweet. There’s a fair amount of sugar in that berry. But it can be a more subtle sweet taste. It can even be just like the taste if you were to eat grains or something with carbohydrates. That’s still considered that sweet taste so there are kinds of different levels of these.
That’s important to know about your tastes. If you haven’t had these things before, like everyone thinks bitter tastes horrible, right? That’s just because we stopped eating bitter and what you actually eat it, then you begin to enjoy that taste. It’s important to enjoy all five of these tastes because really it is cluing the body into what to do with the different things but behind each taste, there are certain phytochemicals or different sorts of nutrients that aren’t necessarily there if you’re not getting that taste. That’s why we actually encourage people to, while we don’t have capsules at least at this time, actually taste the herbs, why we have powders and tinctures because that helps your body to know what to do with it and to really kind of build this capability within you that is oftentimes just lost and forgotten.
Brandon: Right, and another point that I’d like to make here is because these flavors are important, it’s really important not to over-process the herbs. Now what you guys do at Lost Empire is really cool because you get really concentrated stuff so people take really small amounts and get really big results. But it’s full spectrum nutrient profiles for most of them, which is really great because you’re trying to keep it intact but also concentrated to a level where you’re getting therapeutic grade, therapeutic levels of these herbs which is really good. So that’s not to be understated because it’s important how your process these herbs because you can get a million to one concentrate of something but it doesn’t mean it’s going to have the efficacy unless the flavors and the essence of it is still there.
So the smell, the flavor profile, the mouth feel, all of that has to kind of be present to work. And yeah, a lot of these things are really bitter naturally and if you would make a tea out of it, out of fresh stuff that you harvest out of the woods or in your backyard, it’s going to have those qualities and it’s good to reintroduce those in our system and get acclimated. But not only eat that. Some people just try to like all I have to do is each bitter stuff but it’s not really that true.
Logan: It’ll probably turn you into a bitter human being.
Brandon: It might. Yeah.
Logan: Okay. Well, let’s talk about the metal element and the lung and the flavor there of being pungent or also called spicy often. Spicy is pungent but there are kind of some different types of pungency in a way.
Brandon: Yeah. Like oregano is pungent and you’re like whoa, taken back. Or you take schisandra which is really pungent and it just kind of knocks your socks off right out of the gate. One of my favorite lung herbs, actually metal herbs is cordyceps.
Logan: Yeah. Mine, too.
Brandon: It’s really great for endurance. It’s been shown in Olympic athletes to actually increase oxygen uptake so the lungs work less and actually achieve more and it obviously increases endurance. That’s been proven over and over. So that’s one of my favorite lung tonics. Actually, reishi actually has a metal element as well. So there are lots of them, like Gynostemma s another good one. Astragalus kind of fits in the earth and metal department as well because reishi or astragalus is amazing for athletic performance. It’s probably one of the most underrated herbs. If you can get a good quality one, which is really actually quite hard to come by, that is really—like in that adapt extract that I made, that one has a astragalus and it’s a really good grade of it. That’s a classic martial arts formula. That supports the spleen and the lungs to really kind of regulate not only or your immune chi or immune energy but it’s also going to be doing a lot to kind of stabilize the muscles, the limbs and the upright chi and stuff like that, which I think you wanted to talk a little about the spleen later so I’ll kind of leave that alone later for now. But yeah, the cordyceps, astragalus, reishi mushroom and schisandra kind of fits the bill, too. Those are all really great for the lung or metal.
Logan: Yeah. One thing that I think is important to know is we are talking about the Chinese elemental model. Since I’ve studied different forms of herbalism, it can be a little tricky trying to fit things together so I just wanted to mention this here. If you look at western herbalism or Ayurveda, they also use five elements but in that case, their five elements are different, some similar, some different. You have water, fire, earth, air—so there’s no metal, no wood—then the fifth element is ether. Sometimes that goes by other names as well. Like in Ayurveda, each element is associated with two different flavors. So there some similarities in these systems but really each one kind of stands alone and it can be hard to map them across. That’s one of the difficult things for others when we’re talking about Chinese herbs here because we may be able to figure out which herb from Ayurveda fits in these different areas but it often does become tricky in doing that. So I just wanted to mention that because that’s certainly something I’ve come across and been trying to like figure out mentally and it’s hard to do.
Brandon: Yeah. And I’m more trained in Chinese medicine. That’s my primary field of study personally and professionally. I do know of Ayurveda. I know that it’s an older system. It’s less documented than traditional Chinese medicine. There are a lot of similarities and crossovers from what I read about it. They focus on the systems of the patients rather than the disease so they’re not disease-oriented. They look at a patient like a gardener looks at a garden versus like a mechanic looking at a part in your car. So both those systems fundamentally promote health and enhance quality of life and they both have some therapeutic strategies and stuff like that. Again, if we want to open up that wormhole as far as going to Ayurveda because they have more of the tridosha system. They still have the elements that you mentioned, they have a lot of these but I’m not qualified to really kind of speak to that as much as TCM.
Logan: Yeah, I just wanted to mention that because that’s something I’ve come up against. But the important thing to note is that all these different systems really do have an elemental model within them. And yes, Ayurveda uses more of that three-fold pattern with the tridosha theory whereas Chinese medicine it uses primarily as the main sort of model as five elements but if you go to Greek medicine, like any of these, they’re always looking at what are sort of the patterns behind and often the elements are used as one of the kind of archetypes of what that is. So I think that’s an important thing. Even though the systems may be different and how they use it is a bit different, it’s always tending to look towards that which is something our western medicine does not have.
Brandon: Yeah, it is and it isn’t, right? It only appears different but just a bit different than it is with those things happening.
Logan: Yeah. So one other important aspect, with this it’s both physical and the psychological, we kind of address that. So sometimes the elements are used as a personality typing type of thing. The person can be more of a water element versus an earth element. You want to mention some things about that?
Brandon: Yeah. That’s a big question and pretty you started on something like that. Okay, let’s get down to it if you want to. I don’t even know if “classify” would be a good word because that kind of puts somebody in a box and you’re classified as wood element. But really, these elements kind of move and shift and change and how you are as a teenager might change when you’re 30, when you’re 50. So we’re made up of all the elements essentially and these elements basically categorize the body structure of a person, like how their face looks, how big their hands are, how big their shoulders or torso are compared to the rest of the upper body. It looks at tendencies, like does this person tend to get angry or pretty crazy or does is this person really passive and watery? So the temperaments, the tendencies, emotions, positive and negative behaviors and also what kind of illness they attract. You can tell a lot about a specific elemental type based on what they attract in the world and what kind of illnesses they come down with.
Again since we’re part of nature and part of the seasons, part of the celestial bodies and the earth, we’re not manifestations of just one element. You can’t really corner anybody into the box. And that’s what’s challenging about talking about any of this stuff really. We’re trying to get people a signpost or a direction to look further for self-examination but really all of this relative based on what conversation you’re having. So if we move this into the personality types, we can see that when people have like a greenish complexion because obviously there’s gallbladder, there’s liver, there’s green, these people will have smaller hands, longer face. Generally speaking, the emotion associated with wood is going to be the anger element. So a person becomes easily frustrated and upset when obstacles show up for them. That’s one piece but they’re also able to really root in, like suppress their feelings, too. So they’re not able to communicate those as easily. When they get angry, they’re prone to shouting. That’s like the sound like somebody that gets like up is kind of more of a wood type constitution. We all know that we’ve been there and can go there but that might not be our predominant—that can just surface contextually, so to speak.
So we’ve got to have to go internally and understand and look back at our relationships, our experiences, how we react to things and be self-reflective to really figure out what our dominant trait is. Fire people, for instance, they have more of a red complexion. They’re skinny. They’re full of muscles in the back and have a small head.
Logan: They easily get hot.
Brandon: Yeah. They love sensation. They love drama and sentiment. Usually, these people are generally speaking more of like public figure types. They tend to have little confidence. They worry a lot and they’re fond of beautiful things. Typically, like fire is just passion so they go kind of manic a little bit. They appear fun-loving, romantic but usually they can’t sustain that type of energy. Fire burns quick, right? Burn the candle at both ends kind of thing. They easily manifest—
Logan: And then burn out.
Brandon: Yes, and burn out. So you’ll see like giggling and talkativeness and just like fire and excitement and that kind of thing. And if they don’t keep it in balance, they’ll feel empty and hopeless like nothing really has substantial meaning because everything burns up quick. Metal people, what can we say about them? They’re just—
Logan: In their head a lot. It’s really more of the—you can think metal as mental. It’s people that are in their heads like engineer types or computers, perfectionists. That can often be like an over-excess of metal in there. Often physically you’ll have like taller, lankier people with like skinnier features. If you’re looking at Ayurveda, very similar to vata because the metal kind of maps over pretty well with the air element, which is part.
Brandon: I love that, that metal-mental aspect because I was going to say that they’re usually like structure and discipline-oriented. They live their lives by reason and principle so they’re very like rigid.
Logan: Yeah, they can certainly be.
Brandon: And then yeah, water people which is kidneys, they have more of a greyish complexion. Usually, you’ll see the people like that with darker rings around their eyes. It might be their predominant trait. Again, they might just have kidney stuff going on or whatever but those people usually move fluidly and it kind of appears like they’re struggling, like it’s difficult. They’ve articulate. They’re very clever and introspective. They’re self-contained like water is. They seek knowledge and understanding. They seek to the lowest point, the ground and root.
Their life though can be dominated by expectation of threats that disturbs, puts some ripples in the water, so to speak, if that makes any sense. So they’re worried about calamity, disaster. It’s fear. They’re kind of like, for lack of a better term, they’re the conspiracy element. So that they’re worried about bad stuff happening. Obviously, most of the stuff that we tell ourselves in our minds and worry about never happens, most of it. So a person that has kind of a water element will do well with like tai chi and developing practices, really starting to let go of that tension and that muscular crystallization that happens in the muscle memory in the body to where they can actually kind of dissolve that, unfold and be fluid again and kind of enjoy life.
And then earth people are really cool. I know some earth people personally and they’re very round head, just like big. They’re very kind of nurturing types. They’re very loyal people. They’re very cool and they’re very pensive and contemplative. That’s kind of like the negative side. So they have worrisome thoughts. They worry and—
Logan: They can be compassionate which is a good side, and compassionate to a fault, like over-worrying about other people like extremely family-oriented. Oftentimes with that worry, like earth element you think that’s kind of like earth is big and structured, a lot of there and often many times these people and it has to do with that spleen as well which has to do with the assimilation, but they can pack on extra pounds as a way of kind of dealing with that over-worrying.
Brandon: And Logan, would you say that’s more of I guess a kapha trait?
Logan: Yeah, definitely. The kapha is kind of described as earth and water in Ayurvedic medicine while pitta is fire and water. And then vata is air and ether.
Brandon: Yeah, and since we’ve kind of outlined the types of people according to the five element Chinese theory, I thought since we ended on spleen, we should really get into that since we’re at that time of year. We’re in the Indian summer. It’s going to start really cooling off for most people across the nation and I thought the spleen is so critical because if you go to school for TCM or you go to school for acupuncture, one thing you learn really, really quick in your first year is that we are a spleen-deficient culture.
Logan: Right. And we don’t even in the west, just looking at the spleen, the pancreas, we don’t pay much attention to it but it is probably one of the—they’re all important—most important things to look at in TCM.
Brandon: Absolutely. So just to give people just a super quick overview of the more technical stuff like the spleen functions like what does it do, like how does it work, a lot of people think that a spleen is just about lymphocytes, moving things and lymphatic stuff. That’s very true but the spleen serves many functions according to Chinese medicine. For instance, it controls blood. It’s responsible for manufacturing blood and the spleen chi is what keeps it in the vessels. So if the spleen chi is weak, a person will bruise easily and have problems with bleeding and they won’t have the clotting action. It also controls the muscles in the four limbs so this is really important from an athletic perspective because it’s responsible for circulating nutrients to the muscles and the and if the spleen is not at a peak performance, the muscles and limbs are not nourished and may become weak and tired so you lose endurance.
Part of this is because the energy of the spleen promotes what’s called upright chi and it kind of resists gravity. It keeps our organs from sinking all the way down to the bottom of the body, which is super important. Because we’re not like animals, man. If you look at our spine, we’re vertical. We’re a bipod and we walk on two legs. A lot of animals in nature, their spine isn’t vertical and all their organs are able to hang in chi and blood can just move through that stuff. It’s so easy and they’re getting a massage every time they walk. We are as well; however, it’s much less pronounced. That’s why a lot of these tai chi movements or qi gong or any kind of exercise will support the spleen unless it’s like too yang and you’re burnt out and you don’t really have the adrenal health and don’t. So that’s responsible for transforming nutrients that are extracted from our food and drink and it takes those nutrients and basically creates chi, blood, vital substances, upright chi and the manifestation of that in the body is the mouth, the opening of the mouth. So chewing is obviously necessary for functioning of the spleen and that’s how we get nutrients into your body, through eating.
Then the last piece that we’re talking about, a mental-emotional level, we’ve touched on how a person with a spleen deficiency, earth person can get into worry. The spleen is considered to govern or house thought. I think that’s the way it’s said in Chinese medicine. So it houses its own spirit which is called Yi. Yi is directly related to our capacity for thinking. So I kind of wanted to give some kind of easy, quick solutions for people if they’re like hey, I kind of like worry, or have nervous energy, or I’ve got a lot on my plate, and then every once in a while, I have a cold or my body just needs to shut down and I need to get sick to regenerate that. A few things that we can do this time of the year that’s especially critical is put away the cold stuff. So don’t put ice on your drink. Avoid ice creams and things like that, especially this time of the year. Now in the summer where it’s more fire, it’s cool. You can do that kind of stuff. But if we’re doing a lot of frozen foods, a lot of ice, that’s going to really hurt the spleen because the spleen and the kidneys work together to kind of create that warmth and heat in the body and the spleen doesn’t like cold.
One of the biggest things in our society, like I mentioned us being a spleen-deficient society, is the fact that we’re not very mindful because we have too much on mind. We have our cellphones, our computers. We have too much of this stuff and one thing you’ve got to know about the spleen is that it’s not just what you’re eating. It’s what you’re consuming intellectually. If you’re reading a lot of books, if you’re studying, if you’re over-pensive and just really—that’s what pensive means. It’s like focusing on one thing for too much time, our body has to digest information just as much as it has to digest food and nutrients and if the spleen is over-loaded or it’s not in a good shape as it is, we won’t really remember the last couple of pages we just read. We won’t really be digesting our food and we’ll feel like we got the heavy kind of knot in our stomach.
So being mindful, like when you eat, don’t just sit in front of the TV or read or do some work or catch up. Take time to be with your food. There’s a book called Íf the Buddha Came to Dinner that’s really kind of outlined that point quite well and I think it’s a nice little book for that kind of idea. So when you’re in front of the TV, you’re probably not being mindful of chewing your food very well and you’re just kind of not paying attention. The sensory organs of your body or your body as a whole is not really taking in that food. Other things you can do is eat soups. Eat easily digestible stuff. Eat some nice pungent herbs. A lot of these tonic herbs, man, I add them to my soups. I think they’re great way. I think they’re a great way to eat it and like you said, get that flavor in what you’re eating.
Some of the things in America might not be as popular like taking a break. Stop and take a break and chill out. Go on a walk. Leave your phone at home. Just meditate ten minutes a day. Just take some time for yourself to replenish because even doing this a few minutes a day, the spleen will notice a huge difference in how you feel. You’ll feel calmer, more aware, more at peace. And we want to be happy while we’re here so that’s a huge part of it.
Logan: Yeah, I think it’s very important to note that, as you said, the spleen does a lot. So the spleen kind of governs assimilation and as Brandon was saying this is food but it’s also information or other things that we need to assimilate so that’s a very big role. And then also the spleen is very tied into our immune system so if it’s not working well then our immune function is going to be down. There’s obviously a corollary there between the whole digestive function as such an important part of our immune system. So the spleen’s role is quite big so I think doing these few steps, you really want to work to support that spleen because that’s a foundational energy and as Brandon said, not something that is well off in western culture.
Brandon: Yeah. Think of it this way – you go outside, you look around, you see a food that’s available to eat. You see water that you can drink and nourish your body. You see the minerals in the earth. You see all these elements but none of it would exist without the grounding, the substance of the earth. So the spleen is a big deal. It’s a really big deal. So taking a little time to kind of understand these organs, what they do and these concepts is huge. If you’re into health—if you’re listening to this, you’re into health—this is just a really great tool for all of us to have access to and take it to the next level. Pass it down to the next generation. Help people be well because our society is going to put more demands on us with technology. It’s funny. You think we’d have to do less and have more time to cultivate ourselves but with technology, because technology can do stuff but then again it actually makes us a little bit more in front of the screen, not moving our necks so much. We have these issues and that affects the gallbladder. It just trickles down to all the organ systems and then the spleen, immunity, is going to be hampered. When that’s strong, you really are not going to experience sickness like most normal people do.
Logan: Right. The sickness is generally just forcing a reset of the body so it’s actually a good thing although people are trying to suppress their symptoms and all that with cough syrups and whatnot, which is also then why it takes them several days to heal rather than like maybe one or two days.
Brandon: Absolutely. Yeah.
Logan: Right. Okay, just one thing to add on there. I don’t think it could hurt; it’s definitely going to help that that being the earth element, actually going to the physical connection like bare feet on the ground is certainly probably something that’s going to support that spleen energy as well as so much else so I would highly recommend you do that as well. That can be a good time to be contemplative or do tai chi, qi gong, do any sort of other workouts or just sit there and meditate. But do that grounded and you’ll get even more benefit.
Brandon: Yeah, absolutely. Again, cold foods, raw cold foods especially—not that I’m against raw food in general—just more like this time of the year, your body is not going to be able to process it as well so too much sugary fruit juice, foods, refined flours, stuff like that and greasy type foods are harmful to the spleen. Some things you can do are some of the lean organic meats, seaweeds, pumpkin seeds, raspberries, walnuts, all kinds of pungent herbs, black pepper, cinnamon, cloves. Chai teas are good, ginger, and probably good in Ayurveda, I’m assuming, lots of legumes, too. Legumes are really good for clearing out dampness if you prepare them correctly. One thing to keep in mind with legumes is like soaking and sprouting are really great before cooking them and then actually adding apple cider vinegar to kind of reduce some of the phytic acid compounds and the anti-nutrients out of them but legumes and TCM are huge for not only kidney reinforcing but that’s going to give you the fiber, long burning energy and just really going to do a lot to clear dampness out of the system because when the spleen is not happy, it has to the potential to create cold, damp conditions in the body.
Logan: Yeah. Well, we threw a lot of stuff out there. If you have any questions on this, you can head to the show notes. Once again if you’re not familiar with it, we’ll be sure to post a picture there so you can see the image of the five elements. It’d kind of be good to stare at that and keep looking back and forth as we’re talking about these different things. That’s actually what I was doing as we were talking here just so I had a reminder of it. That’s going to help you to do that and really just, as Brandon said, you could spend a lifetime just learning and working with the five elements and going deeper and deeper with it. Hopefully, even if you don’t learn any more about it than this one hour here, you can take something from this, start applying that and lead a healthier, happier life because of that. Thank you very much, Brandon. I think you’ve shared a lot of knowledge and I’m sure people will appreciate it.
Brandon: Thanks, Logan. I appreciate that. It’s awesome being here. Thank you.
Logan: All right, and thanks everyone for listening. Like I said, you can leave any questions or comments on this material over on the show notes on LostEmpireHerbs.com. If you like this, we’ll do more things like it in the future. Thanks for listening.