The 5 Elements in Chinese Medicine: Understanding the Water Element

by Dr. Liz Carlson |

The 5 Elements in Chinese Medicine: Understanding the Water Element

Here at Common Point, we refer to Traditional Chinese Medicine as “the original lifestyle medicine.”  Eating for the season, using bone broth as medicine, breathing for self-regulation and moving to calm the mind have always been pillars of the practice. Along with this ever increasing awareness of lifestyle medicine, there is the consideration of our environment and how it impacts our health. 

As we now design work and living spaces to optimize health and happiness, we look back to see Chinese medicine has always placed great significance on our external and internal environments ––how the macrocosm, our world, affects the microcosm, our body (and vice versa).  

If we expand on each element of our internal and external environment, this blog would turn into a book; so today, in the dead of winter, we are highlighting the element of the season: water.  

A Season Tied to Emotions, Smell...& Your Kidneys 

It is interesting to note that each element is not only related to a season but an emotion, smell, taste, color and organ as well. It is the kidney organ that governs the water element, which makes sense from a Western medical perspective too — it is the job of our kidneys to regulate water, after all. 

Here are some tips to help support your kidneys, brighten your winter, and mind your water element –– from the basic biology of hydration to the esoteric importance of spending time near water.

Stay Hydrated 

Water is essential to life. Our bodies are about 60% water and proper hydration is vital for every single aspect of health (the common response is “duh” but quickly followed by, “am I actually hydrated?”).  As a fertility expert, the amount of women I witness that conceive more easily after properly hydrating will never cease to astound me. 

Yes, drink water throughout the day but most importantly, very first thing in the morning (better yet, add lemon and liquid chlorophyll –– especially if you are a coffee drinker like yours truly).  But also, consider what might be dehydrating you. Processed foods like flour + sugar, drinks like alcohol + coffee, and even blue lights from screens parch moisture from your body in order to metabolize.  

Don’t fret, you don’t need to completely cut out any of these in order to stay hydrated –– just stay mindful throughout your day.  Drink water before and after your one serving of coffee, eat hydrating vegetables if you are celebrating with your favorite pizza, and take an hourly break from your screen and look up at the sky for natural light. 

Are you someone who drinks “a ton” of water but still feels thirsty?  Consider a few things...

Are you eating enough hydrating fruits and vegetables? Switch one grain for some cooked dark, green leafy vegetables. Are you perhaps knocking your electrolytes out of balance with too much plain water? Add lemon juice, sea salt and a little raw honey to your water in the afternoon. 

Make sure to mention your experience of thirst and hydration to your acupuncturist as it is hugely significant to our differential diagnosis in Chinese medicine.  When you hear your practitioner refer to Yin, we are often noting the moisture, hydration, and fluid balance of the body. 

water five elements

Spend Time Near Water 

Wouldn’t a day on the sea feel nice right about now? Spending time near water holds incredible health benefits...but why? Beyond soaking up sun to boost Vitamin D, and our tendency to be more active around water, water emanates the essence of Yin – the calming, grounding, fluid-like energy we refer to so much in Chinese medicine theory. In other words, the feelings we experience when we spend time near water help your body shift from “fight or flight” into the healing state of “rest and digest.” This state is imperative for restoration, healing and increased happiness. 

The feelings we experience when we spend time near water help your body shift from “fight or flight” into the healing state of “rest and digest.” This state is imperative for restoration, healing and increased happiness. 

Because you might not be able to visit a lake or an ocean, consider blue spaces for your emotional and physical well-being too. For an interesting perspective on blue spaces (that even addresses water as a source to fight inequalities!), visit this article in the Guardian.

One Last Note: Consider Your Water Source 

Drink filtered water when you can. The jury is out on whether tap water is bad for you but no one is going to argue that it is better for you.  Here in NYC, fluoride and chlorine are added to our water source –– both are known to disrupt the endocrine system.  This doesn’t mean you must purchase spring water at a restaurant, just make sure to filter the water you have the majority of your day. Our favorites filters are The Berkey, Aquasana and AquaTru. 

Let’s continue to seek the truth in the age old adage “we are what we eat” –– or really, “we are what we consume” –– water quality included. Focusing on lifestyle medicine doesn’t have to be complicated or overwhelming. If you read our first post, you know that we base everything we do on "the Basics," the common sense, everyday principles of health: eat, drink, move, breathe, sleep, detox, celebrate. The Basics are always the best place to start with any kind of health goal. 

Dr. Liz Carlson is the founder, Licensed Acupuncturist + Herbalist of Common Point in Tribeca, New York. Their goal is to translate the perspective and philosophy of Traditional Chinese Medicine into something usable and understandable. In clinic and telehealth appointments available. Liz can be reached at

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