The Emergence of Modern Humoralism



Upon first glance at the United States’ medical system, one may find a health care industry dominated by pharmaceutical companies and full of physicians obsessed with prescription medications. Furthermore, it is generalized that the market is merely focused on money, efficiency and the quickest alleviation of symptoms, without concern for each individual and the underlying problem at hand. Additionally, most people are only familiar with the western biomedical approach which often ignores psychological and spiritual health but addresses the physical and chemical abnormalities of the body. However, this is only half of the picture. The U.S. and many countries, both developed and developing, are embracing another more comprehensive form of medicine: alternative medicine. This type of medicine, sometimes referred to as integrative or complementary medicine, is quickly moving away from the periphery into the spotlight. Society is witnessing the emergence of modern humoralism in which alternative medicine provides a more holistic approach to healing, accounting for the physical, psychological and spiritual well-being of an individual.


In order to better understand alternative medicine and its functionality, it is helpful to first understand the history of medicine and Galenic humoral theory. According to an article on humoral theory from the Harvard University Library Open Collections Program, humoral theory was originally created by Hippocrates but later expanded upon by Galen, a Greek physician (1). Humoral theory stated that the body was comprised of four humors including phlegm, blood, black bile and yellow bile (1). If these fluids were balanced, then an individual was healthy; however, disease resulted from an imbalance of these humors (1).


Furthermore, each humor was connected to one of the seasons and was associated with either coldness, hotness, wetness and dryness (1). Pursuing this further, other environmental factors such as geographic location, climate and planetary alignment as well as personal factors like age, sex, occupation and diet were also influential in determining the unique humoral balance of an individual (1). Accordingly, treatment was unique for each individual and often involved a regimen with lifestyle and dietary changes. Another aspect of humoral theory according to Professor Messbarger, Director of Medical Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL), is that the humors are associated with certain temperaments, ultimately influencing personality type (personal communication, September 5, 2017). When diagnosing and treating a patient, physicians practicing humoral theory would often examine and test bodily fluids. Their ultimate goal was to remove impediments to return the body to its resting state. As Galen gained authority through his anatomy writings and lectures, his ideology and practices became prominent throughout the second century, and humoral theory was considered common through the 19th century (1).


Although humoral theory decreased in popularity, much of its ideology, including a balance contributing to one’s well-being, continued on and can be seen in alternative medicine today. Emphasizing physical, psychological and spiritual well-being, alternative medicine is much more broad in scope and can address the shortcomings of biomedicine. The European Association for Predictive Preventive & Personalised Medicine (EPMA) Journal explains how biomedicine is rooted in the physico-chemical laws that govern cellular activity (2). In an interview with Bradley Stoner, a practicing physician and the Associate Professor of Sociocultural Anthropology at WUSTL, he explained how biomedicine does not work with certain issues like chronological problems (personal communication, November 15, 2017). Also, biomedicine may not actually solve a problem and heal the patient; it only results in a cure, which does not get at the root problem. When asked about his openness to alternative medicine, he said, “Anything people can do to empower themselves, improve their quality of life and feel great satisfaction of life is fantastic” (personal communication, November 15, 2017).


There are many types of alternative medical treatments as well as traditional medical systems that are still around today. One popular alternative medical treatment is known as acupuncture which stimulates certain areas of the body using needles and allows for naturalistic healing (3). Other alternative medical treatments include chiropractic medicine, herbal medicine and energy therapies, including the subfields of Reiki, Therapeutic (“Healing”) Touch and Magnetic Field Therapy (3). There are also several traditional medical systems that fall under the alternative medicine category. First, Traditional Tibetan medicine (TTM) involves the intersection of the mind, body and energy, as well as the flow of energy which allows for mental alertness and health (2). Some of TTM’s therapeutic practices align with another common traditional medical system: Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Sarsina states, “Both TCM and TTM have a complex therapeutic system that includes plant-based remedies, forms of physical therapies such as massage and acupuncture, baths, forms of meditation and ritual movement (Yoga or Tai Chi)” (2). TCM also stresses the union of the body, Xing, and the mind, Shen (2). Another common traditional medical system, Ayurvedic medicine, is based on the interaction of the sense organs, soul, mind and body in combination with a human being’s interactions and adjustment between sensory perception, mental elaboration and adaptive response toward the environment (2). Furthermore, this traditional medical system characterizes the human as the combination of three Ayurvedic principles, known as Dosha, which can have a direct impact on character and also influence disease (2).


Since all of these treatments and systems of alternative medicine focus on the realignment of the components of the body—whether that be the Xing and Shen in TCM or the three Dosha in Ayurvedic Medicine—in order to achieve better states of health, they directly coincide with the ideology of Galenic humoralism. For instance, they recognize the body as a complex model that has many elements which must be in balance for an individual to be healthy and reach his or her full potential. Likewise, ancient Galenic humoralism puts emphasis on the precise balance of the four humors—phlegm, blood, black bile, and yellow bile—to prevent disease. Even the approach to healing, one based on holistic treatment instead of a narrow, one-sided biomedical approach, speaks to the Galenic nature of these alternative medicine forms. In particular, physical therapy and the ritual movement of TCM and TTM resemble the exercise regimes that Galen would have recommended when dealing with a sick patient.


As the desire to engage in alternative medicine is increasing, the practice of person-centered medicine (PCM) is becoming more popular, since it also allows for a better standard of care. Sarsina states, “PCM takes on the task to rebuild an effective therapeutic relationship based on trust, empathy, compassion and responsiveness to individual needs and values” (2). In other words, the increasing trend in PCM represents a desire for medical interventions with greater humanization and personalization. Dr. Stoner also stressed the need to assess each situation in terms of the patient and see what is important to him or her. One might value his or her physical and psychological health, but not spiritual health at all; it is all dependent on what the person values and prioritizes. Regardless of the scenario, the treatment must be individually tailored to the meet the needs of the patient. Additionally, both Dr. Stoner and the article emphasized the need for continuity in the care process, as people value consistency when they are vulnerable (personal communication, November 15, 2017). Naturally, alternative medicine is more person-centered in nature as it often does not have the normal time constraints of the large-hospital system. Far too often, patients are transferred from one physician to another. Although sometimes unavoidable due to the level of specialization in medicine today, it is definitely a worthwhile goal as it gives the patient peace of mind in a difficult time.


The use of alternative medicine and PCM, which exemplifies the return of Galenic humoralism ideology, provide a more comprehensive approach to understanding the body and its components. Although biomedicine is key in curing certain issues, the personalized care and concern for each individual as well as the focus on addressing the root problem of a disease are tremendous advantages of alternative medicine.

Edited by: Anupama Balasubramanian

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