Herbalism and traditional medicine

I resolved this year to live simpler and healthier. In particular, I was interested to expand my knowledge in the health benefits of herbs while also developing my home garden to complement adopting a healthier lifestyle. I’ve begun by studying contemporary Western herbalism.

This modern manifestation of herbalism is very much based on some of the earlier herbalist traditions. For example, a key concept is energetics, based on the physical sensations of hot/cold and dry/damp for diagnosis. These energetics are built upon the theory that that there are four humors which include temperaments, elements, body component and related energies:

HumorTemperamentNatural ElementBody ElementEnergyRequired Herb Type for Treatment
CholericAngry/irritableFireYellow bileHot and DryBitter
SanguineOptimistic/ cheerfulAirBloodHot and MoistCool and drying/warm and moistening
MelancholicSad/pensiveEarthBlack bile (dried blood and dark urine)Cold and DryNervine, carminative, and antispasmodic herbs
PhlegmaticSlow/sleepyWaterMucus and clear fluidsCold and MoistPungent

This theory of the humors has its origins in Ancient Greek medicine and has somewhat corresponding systems in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. Chinese medicine has a five phases system related to the humors composed of wood, fire, earth, metal and water. These five phases correspond to the five tastes which are also on contemporary western herbalism which are pungent, sweet, bitter, sour and salty. The majority of common herbs and spices such as cinnamon, garlic, ginger, basil, peppermint, rosemary, sage, thyme and turmeric are included in that category. Ayurvedic medicine also has corresponding humors pitta (fire), vata (space/air) and kapha (earth/water). There is not a perfect alignment of these systems but they all approach treatment of disease and sickness as bringing balance to the body.

Despite the Ancient Greek system referring to these humors, it was known to be based more on the scientific method. Hippocrates aimed at treating the causes of diseases as opposed to their symptoms and believed they were dictated by natural law which he documented in his treatises Aphorisms and Prognostics. This Greek tradition would be revived by the Arabs in the Middle Ages. The Andalusian-Arab botanist Abu al-Abbas al-Nabati, the teacher of Ibn al-Baitar, introduced empirical techniques in the testing, description and identification in pharmacology. He would go on to influence Persian polymath Avicenna who wrote about 40 books on medicine including The Canon of Medicine and The Book of Healing, which were considered the primary medical texts in the Middle Ages.

A main difference between the modern western herbalism and many of the preceding traditions is the element of spiritualism mainstreamed in the system. Ayurvedic medicine was associated with Dhanvantari, an avatar of the Hindu deity Vishnu. Balance is a key concept including managing natural urges and yoga and meditation are also integrated. It has philosophical parallels with the Buddhist and Jain traditions. The Chinese tradition also emphasized a spiritual balance exemplified by the ying-yang dualism. Confucius wrote about the xue-xi, or blood-life balance, where such moderation was also integral to moral uprightness. Confucius said in his Analects: “The (morally) noble man guards himself against three things. When he is young, his xue–qi has not yet stabilized, so he guards himself against sexual passion. When he reaches his prime, his xue–qi is not easily subdued, so he guards himself against combativeness. When he reaches old age, his xue–qi is already depleted, so he guards himself against acquisitiveness.”

The Islamic tradition is very interesting as it has these various influences in its traditional medicine literature which is generally under the heading of Prophetic medicine. However, as stated, this is sometimes a misnomer as it sometimes goes beyond the Prophetic tradition. Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya mentioned in his book Prophetic Medicine “Sickness is of two kinds, sickness of the heart and sickness of the body…sickness of the heart is of two kinds, desires and doubt and desires and misguidance…three things are the foundations of treatment of the body, preserving of health, protection from harmful things and removal of corrupt elements.” The Islamic tradition also includes more emphasis on consumed foods and condoned practices like blood cupping in additional to medicinal plants.

A book like al-Jawziyya’s is an example of a moderate approach, limiting discussion on foods and herbs mentioned in the Quran and Prophetic literature, though he does mention some of the energetics descriptions such as about garlic, “it is hot-dry.” Other authors like Abu Na’eem al-Isfahaani are more traditionalist, restricting discussion to what was conveyed in Prophetic narrations. Other authors like Jalal a-Deen a-Suyyutti seemed to be much more influenced by the other traditions, probably Greek, and discuss medicinal plants and herbs extensively and with the energetics terminology but also with reference to the Prophetic literature. He says in his Maqaamaat a-Suyuutti about pumpkin for example “A-Nasaa’i narrated on the authority of Anas bin Malik may Allah the Exalted be pleased with him, said ‘the Prophet, may Allah’s prayers and peace be upon him, loved pumpkin’…it’s cold-wet.”

Contemporary Western herbalism is very much built upon an old tradition of herbalism though it seems to have been secularized and exists in the realm of alternative medicine to which many people are skeptical and generally not accepted as a legitimate treatment by mainstream modern medicine. The Islamic tradition seems lost today aside from what is mentioned about food and health in the Quran and Prophetic literature which is void of the energetics approach. Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine are still very much alive and recognized as alternative but mainstream treatments.

I’m not really convinced on the philosophy of the energetics and humors. Emotions and physical sensations certainly exist but I’m doubtful about to what extent herbs and foods can influence them. That said, plenty of recent studies have confirmed the benefits of compounds in different foods and herbs, but they are very much supplementary to other healthy practices and modern treatments. I personally view herbalism as supplementing a healthy lifestyle and diet and don’t expect any significant impacts from adopting more herbs in my diet. What do you guys think? Do you have any experience with herbalism? Please let me know your thoughts and experiences in the comments!

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

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