Since ancient times through the Victorian era, humoral medicine has been the main treatment for almost all types of illnesses. The idea is that the body’s humours or also known as fluids, which are black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm had to be kept in harmony, or the person would become ill.

Any imbalance had to be corrected through a series of ‘treatments’ and has led to the methods of bloodletting, induced vomiting, cannibalism, ingestion of gold, ingestion of metal, and the list goes on.

Humoral medicine has been deemed irrelevant, especially among modern medicine practitioners as they lack truly effective treatment and are not evidence based. However, not everything from that day and age is inappropriate.

Diet and exercise

Healthy diet and exercise can improve a person’s wellbeing.
Healthy diet and exercise can improve a person’s wellbeing.

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is still the best advice for every patient. As illnesses were thought to arise from an imbalance of humours, factors such as diet and activity affected an individual’s humoral composition.

In the past, people have resorted to gold pills and even cannibalism to maintain humoral balance. "You are what you eat ... if you can consume something that was full of vitality, then you can be full of vitality," says Dr Lydia Kang, a primary care physician in the United States and co-author of "Quackery: A Brief History Of The Worst Ways To Cure Everything" – which talks about the logic behind cannibalism.

As far as logic goes, a balanced diet is still relevant. "An apple a day, keeps the doctor away" is a phrase that is commonly used and this relates well to dietary concerns. Fruits and vegetables are always good for health, but they lack certain nutrients that are only available in meat and eggs. Balance and moderation is key, as too much of a good thing is also detrimental.

Exercise and physical activity is being prescribed for the body and mind, from conditions such as stress and depression, to diabetes and heart diseases. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate activity each week, showing how exercise is an important part of a person’s wellbeing.

Environmental change

Environmental factors also play a role in humoral health. Many researches have been done linking pollution to health.

Apart from that, hazards in the workplace also plays a role in the wellbeing of patients. It is important enough that some places have mandatory leaves after a certain duration of workdays, such as those in drilling factories – where they can get hearing impairment from the continuous drillings and stress due to the vibrations and sound.  A change of environment and partaking of “fresh air” were also frequently prescribed.

Humour then and now

Preventive medicine and public health practices developed in the 19th century was closely related to the basic humoral belief, especially the correlation between environment and lifestyle to the person’s health.

Physicians trained in humoral medicine relied not only on their theoretical knowledge but also on the patient’s description of his or her symptoms. This is followed by inspection of the patient’s blood, urine, and other bodily fluids while extensive physical examination is rarely done.

In modern medicine, it is almost the same. History taking, which is collecting information from the patients is done as a first step, followed by physical examination, investigations and treatment. The investigations done today are also from the patient’s blood and urine with more specific information, and the addition of radiological investigations such as ultrasound and x-ray if needed.

The practice of humoral medicine in the past has shaped modern medicine in many ways, now with more in-depth research especially about diet, exercise and lifestyle. The phrase 'prevention is better than cure" was a relevant advice back then, and still is now. MIMS

Read more:
How coffee, tea, and chocolate helped overturn an antiquated system of medicine
More healthcare professionals now value the role of food as medicine
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How to obtain necessary nutrients from food, minus the pills - Part 1