The History of Holistic Medicine: The Ancient Greeks and Holistic Medicine

Clinical Herbalist Reviewed on April 2, 2009 by Paulina Nelega, RH

Another forebearer of today’s holistic medicine can be found amongst the ancient Greeks.

The ancient Greeks had extensive knowledge of herbal and botanical medicine. Much of their herbal information came from the ancient Egyptians. Both the Egyptians, and later, the Greeks were herbalists who extensively used many common herbs and plants for healing, such as anise, honey, myrrh and frankincense. Aristotle’s pupil, Theophrastus was one of the ancient Greeks who wrote extensively about herbal medicine. Socrates and Plato also wrote about botany and holistic healing through herbal medicine.

Hippocrates, who is considered the father of modern medicine, was a physician in ancient Greece in around 400 BC. He emphasized a holistic approach to medicine, warning doctors not to interfere with the body’s ability to heal itself.

Hippocratic medicine bears more resemblance to today’s holistic medicine than it does to allopathic (traditional) medicine. Hippocrates based his methods on “vis medicatrix naturae” – the healing power of nature. According to Hippocrates, the body contained the ability to heal itself through balancing the four humors (blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm). When one of the humors was out of balance, the body became ill, and Hippocrates taught that administering certain natural substances would bring about a rebalancing of those humors.

Much of Hippocratic theory centered on supporting the body so that it could naturally rebalance itself, thus relieving disease. To this end, Hippocrates was a proponent of rest and immobilization. He also taught the importance of keeping patients clean and conditions sterile.

For the most part, Hippocrates was slow to administer drugs. His treatment was conservative – first attempting natural means. Drugs were only administered in extreme cases.

While Hippocrates is considered the father of modern medicine, many of his practices bore more resemblance to what is today considered holistic or alternative medicine. Many of today’s holistic practices date back to the understandings of Hippocrates and the ancient Greeks.

Read the Rest of the History of Holistic Medicine Series.
The History of Holistic Medicine: The Modern Age
The History of Holistic Medicine: The Indian Tradition of Ayurveda
The History of Holistic Medicine: Chinese Traditions

Read also: Laughing Your Way To Health

Our Expert

Paulina Nelega, RH
Paulina Nelega, RH, has been in private practice as a Clinical Herbalist for over 15 years. She has developed and taught courses in herbal medicine, and her articles on health have appeared in numerous publications. She is very passionate about the healing power of nature. Ask Dr. Jan

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