First in Physiology, First in Holistic Health, First in Accountability
Hippocrates of Cos, (5th Century B.C.E.), the Greek “Father of Medicine”, is also the father of Holistic Healing, although many may not realize this. Hippocrates was the first physician to closely study the human body’s functions to diagnose and treat disease. He was also the first to turn away from what in his day was considered ‘mainstream medicine’—prayers and sacrifices to the Gods and Goddess for relief and cure of the ailment.
During the birth of conventional medicine in late 19th to early 20th centuries, that concept was considered to be an extreme departure from ‘modern’ medicine. With that in mind, it is interesting to note that today’s ‘alternative medicine’ is, in a way, a return to the mainstream of Hippocrates’ day: appeals to spirituality and faith as a part of the healing process.
In this ‘new age’ of the 21st century, recognition of the power of the mind and spirit to heal the body is becoming more acceptable. In the news, we hear about people conquering cancer, diabetes, heart disease and immune disorders through ‘positive thinking’, a change in diet and a return to nature.
Hippocrates’ most famous lesson was, “Let food be thy medicine and thy medicine be food”. Another of his lessons is: “Neither repletion, nor fasting, nor anything else, is good when more than natural.” What is ‘natural’ differs among everyone—some have lower tolerance to viruses, some have higher metabolism, while others may fluctuate between the highs and lows.
The trick is in balancing the repletion, the fasting, and the ‘anything else’ between too little and too much. Hippocrates was the first proponent of balance and moderation in maintaining health, and probably the first ‘diet doctor’ when he wrote: “Persons who are naturally very fat are apt to die earlier than those who are slender.”
He was also the first to observe the mind/body connection: “Persons who have a painful affection in any part of the body, and are in a great measure sensible of the pain, are disordered in intellect”, and “In every disease it is a good sign when the patient’s intellect is sound, and he is disposed to take whatever food is offered to him; but the contrary is bad.”
One concept put forward by Hippocrates especially deserves our attention today: the concept of ‘environmental influences’ on health—that is, weather, the seasons, and the climate in which a person lives. Hippocrates believed: “Of natures, some are well—or ill-adapted for summer, and some for winter.” and “In autumn, diseases are most acute, and most mortal, on the whole. The spring is most healthy, and least mortal”, and also “If the summer be dry and northerly and the autumn rainy and southerly, headaches occur in winter, with coughs, hoarsenesses, coryzae, and in some cases consumptions.”
Barometric pressure plays a large role in the way we feel throughout the year, as does too much damp or too much dry, too little sun or too much rain. Of course today, we have other environmental issues unknown in 5th century Greece: pollution, global warming, radiation, toxic metals, electro-magnetic frequencies, microwave radiation, pesticides and a host of other problems.) What Would Hippocrates Do?
That’s just the outdoors. We really spend a great deal of time indoors, so sometimes our worst environmental enemy can be a ‘sick building’. In our homes, schools and workplaces, we have rampant bacteria and viruses being spun through forced air systems while the windows remain securely sealed. The majority of our exposure to light comes from fluorescent tubes, not sunlight.
Therefore, it is readily apparent that a healthy environment is a very important factor in our health, in addition to a healthy body, mind and spirit. Hippocrates’ writings devote a great deal of space to environmental factors which also include a person’s locale: “We must consider, also, in which cases food is to be given once or twice a day, and in greater or smaller quantities, and at intervals. Something must be conceded to habit, to season, to country, and to age.”
Hippocrates wrote his Aphorisms as a legacy to be passed down to all those wishing to become knowledgeable in the healing arts. Granted some of his techniques, such as bloodletting, are no longer considered standard procedures today (fortunately!); however, most of what Hippocrates has handed down is still applicable. He addresses the spiritual part of the mind/body/spirit triad in his Oath, which opens with, “I swear by Apollo the physician, and Asclepius, and Hygeia and Panacea and all the gods and goddesses as my witnesses…” He later promises, “In purity and according to divine law will I carry out my life and my art.”
Though the Aphorisms make little mention of the influences of spirituality upon health, his Oath obviously shows thought given to the influences of integrity, honesty and purity on the part of the physician. Although it isn’t documented, it may be that Hippocrates knew about ‘transference’—the ability of the healer to transmit either positive or negative influences to the patient, thus affecting his/her treatment for better or worse. In this view, it is much better for the physician to put forth a positive attitude.
The primary tenet of the Hippocratic Oath is “to do no harm”. It is commonly believed that taking the Oath is a requirement for graduation from medical school, however, that is not the case. A student can choose to include the Oath in the ceremony only if he/she wishes but it is not mandated. It’s a sad statement, and a reflection on our times that healers can choose to disregard the Oath.
Dr. Jack Kervorkian comes to mind as one who bears the title ‘Dr.’ yet flaunts the part of the Oath that states “I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan…” Another hot topic in health care, patient privacy was addressed by Hippocrates as well: “Whatever I see or hear in the lives of my patients, whether in connection with my professional practice or not, which ought not to be spoken of outside, I will keep secret, as considering all such things to be private.” Who would have thought that the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) was originally conceived of in the 5th century? I guess today we could call this the “HIPAAcratic Oath.” LOL. 😉
It is safe to say that the overwhelming popularity of alternative medicine and natural healing can be traced to the desire to return to simpler times–before the days of outrageously-priced invasive surgeries, prescription medications and HMO’s. It may also be safe to say that the next big ‘shake-up’ for the health care industry will be the masses of people either flocking to naturopathic practitioners or simply staying home and treating themselves.
Prevention is an ugly word in the world of corporately-owned health care–it implies a decrease in visits and therefore revenue. Natural and herbal remedies are anathema to the pharmaceutical industry. It doesn’t have to be that way. Rather than fighting it, the health care industry could embrace the wave and allow itself to return to simpler times and milder treatment. How could it get any simpler than ancient Greece?
Hippocrates of Cos (1849) Works: Aphorisms. (F. Adams, Trans.). London: University of Adelaide Library E-books Program. (Original work published 5th century B. C. E.). Retrieved February 19, 2006. http://etext.library.adelaide.edu.au/h/hippocrates/h7w/aphorism.html
National Institute of Health. (2000) Greek Medicine. (M. North, Trans.) National Library of Medicine: History of Medicine Division. Retrieved February 19, 2006. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/greek/greek_oath.html