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The Roots of Health
Realizing the Potential of Complementary Medicine
By Romy Fraser, Sandra Hill
UIT Cambridge LtdCopyright © 2001 Romy Fraser and Sandra Hill
All rights reserved.
The Roots of Health
'La Santé, c'est le luxe de pouvoir tomber malade et de s'en relever' — George Ganghiler
(Health is the luxury of being able to fall ill and to recover.)
"I have an earache!"
2000 BC "Here, eat this root."
1000 AD "This root is heathen. Here, say this prayer."
1800 AD "That Prayer is superstition. Here drink this potion."
1900 AD "That potion is snake oil. Here, take this pill."
1950 AD "That pill is ineffective. Here, take this antibiotic."
2000 AD "That antibiotic is artificial. Here, eat this root."
The advancements of modern biomedicine have provided a sophisticated but somewhat mechanistic approach to health. It is an approach which is able to function well in emergencies, but which has fallen down in the more basic areas of maintaining and creating health. Dazzled by the progress of science, we have lost touch with the simple remedies and body wisdom that were once a part of every household. Throughout this briefing, we would like to suggest that Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) has a central part to play in the future of health care. Both by looking into the past and reclaiming some of the more traditional views of health and disease, and by looking into the future and encouraging the application of appropriate scientific research into the body and its energy systems, we can begin to re-introduce balance into a system which is spiralling rapidly out of control. We would like to question the usual assumption that CAM is unscientific by suggesting that there are many ways to measure success and failure, and that possibly a qualitative rather than a quantitative approach is needed to evaluate health.
Over the past twenty years alternative and complementary medicines have steadily grown in popularity. Patient demand has created a place for complementary medicine within many mainstream practices. This popularity is not simply a matter of safer treatment without side effects, or even the personal time spent in consultation. Many alternative therapies are able to offer a different view of health, to put symptoms in perspective, to provide a framework in which the patient is able to understand the disease process and to become a part of the cure.
Many of the disciplines within CAM have their roots in the traditions of the past, and have embraced a philosophy of health which informs their practice. Most traditional systems of healing share a common philosophical ground based on an understanding of nature and of natural cycles. They provide a world view of mankind living in harmony with nature and in contact with a world of spirit. The human body is seen as an extension of the earth, our spirit as an expression of heaven or the divine. In many traditional systems, the earth is called the mother, the sky or the spirit, the father. In Chinese medicine these polar opposites are referred to yin and yang, essence and spirit, in the Ayurvedic traditions of India as matter and consciousness, where Purusha, the unmanifest consciousness, unites with prakriti, the material universe, to create life. In each case the two are held in an embrace which is the very essence of life. Similarly both Northern and Southern American traditions maintain that all nature is imbued with spirit. These traditional world views engender a respect for life and a respect for nature.
The roots of medicine lie in a distant time when mankind lived close to the earth and depended on an understanding of nature and climate for survival. There was an understanding that the laws of nature are reflected in the laws which govern our bodies and therefore our health and wellbeing. The Western herbal tradition, for example, grew out of the Greek system of the four elements, the four temperaments and the four humours, which is based on observation of the natural world and the ways in which we respond to it. It assigns the attributes of hot, cold, moist and dry to each element and its appropriate season, but also recognizes related disease patterns and both constitutional and personality types, developing a complex system of resonances, in which a particular 'type' may be likely to respond to a particular medicine. In many cultures, diseases are described as cold or hot, moist or dry, and herbal remedies may be prescribed on the basis of their warming or cooling, moistening or drying properties. Herbs are also classified by their taste, which is a sign of their effects within the body. Herbs will be described for example as bitter, sweet, astringent. A similar system underlies that of Chinese medicine, where the five elements or five phases (wu xing) are drawn from observation of the energetic changes throughout the four seasons. Earth, at the centre, creates the fifth element, and supports each phase of change and transformation. In the Chinese system, each climate and taste is seen to have a particular resonance with an organ system. Native North American traditions hold similar views, attributing specific qualities to the seasons and directions.
In Chinese medicine, disease is classified by eight factors; hot and cold, internal and external, full and empty, yin and yang. A Chinese doctor's diagnosis will often begin by differentiating between these pairs of opposite qualities. Similarly, in Mayan culture disease is differentiated as hot or cold, ill health often referred to as cold entering the body, and death being the ultimate cold state. Not surprisingly, a large percentage of Mayan herbs are considered as warming, and are used to treat the various cold conditions. Similarly, the earliest and still most influential of the Chinese herbal texts is the Shan Han Lun, the compendium of 'cold diseases', compiled during the first century AD, and the most valued of herbal tonics are those that warm and strengthen. The Mayans also recognize 'hot diseases', which refer to local conditions such as local infections, skin eruptions and fevers. It was not until the 10th century that Chinese medicine recognized 'hot diseases', and the Wen Bing Lun, or compendium of hot diseases, lays down strategies for the herbal treatment of fevers. It is interesting to note that this discovery of hot diseases within Chinese medicine arrived at a time when settlements began to move towards larger communities and more urban populations. Fevers and epidemics became a problem for the first time, and new strategies of healing were required. It is also a reminder of how medicine always reflects its cultural and historical context. Traditional medical practices tend to be regional, and specific remedies will often reflect the specific needs and requirements of a local environment and climatic region.
This acknowledgement of the cycles of nature, of the seasons and the climates in traditional healing systems, is also reflected in an understanding of the natural cycles of life. A similarity will be seen in the practices which grew up in the Northern hemisphere, where the spring represents birth and beginnings, the summer fruition and growth, the autumn harvesting and decline, the winter death and renewal. Although different in their detail, these cyclical cosmological maps are common to the Galenic, Chinese and Native North American cultures. The observation of nature teaches that the seed within the earth in the depths of winter is the beginning of a new life in the spring; that decline naturally follows growth and fruition. Traditional healing systems relate the rhythms of the body to the rhythms of nature: an understanding of nature automatically assumes an understanding of health. They also stress the importance of balance. Whether a balance of heat and cold, growth and decline, or between the individual and the environment, balance is seen as the key to good health. Within the Galenic tradition, the melancholic temperament will tend to be chilly and pessimistic, and could be prescribed warming herbs and vigorous exercise in order to bring balance to the system. To the Chinese, anger may be a manifestation of an unbalanced liver energy; it will be interpreted as a lack of 'free flow' of energy reflected in an inability to relate well with others. The blockage to this free flow will be discovered, and addressed with herbs, acupuncture, massage, diet, exercise or whatever may be appropriate.
According to Native American Cree healer Lea Bill:
The systems within the world of plants, animals, trees, rocks and the atmosphere all contribute to the overall understanding of life processes and the principles of cause and effect. The imbalance in one system ultimately affects the other. The natural world celebrates our healing as it means greater opportunity for increased balance and biodiversity. Both systems strive for balance in their own manner, whether it is of mind body, spirit or emotion. Humanity and the environment are stewards of each other.
Spirits and shamans
Our attitudes towards these traditional healing systems has been changing throughout the last century. The original confrontation between Western orthodox science and what it saw as a variety of apparently magical and most definitely heathen medical practices was one of total rejection. In recent decades, the field of medical anthropology has provided vital information about many traditional and tribal healing practices. In their article 'A General Overview of Mayan Ethnomedicine', E. A. and B. Berlin point out that in the preoccupation with the cosmological or magical aspects of Mayan healing, it has often been dismissed as superstition. The Mayans' assumed lack of knowledge of human anatomy and physiology was considered to prove its lack of scientific basis. But the Berlins' research has shown their understanding of the medicinal qualities of plants to be extremely complex and their diagnosis accurate:
In this sense, highland Maya traditional medicine is an ethnoscientific system of traditional knowledge based on astute and accurate observation that could only have been elaborated on the basis of many years of explicit experimentation with the effects of herbal remedies on bodily functions.
The ethnobotanical knowledge of tribal peoples is now being recognized, and possibly already exploited by the pharmaceutical companies hungry for more medicinal patents. But we still tend to dismissas magic and hocus pocus some of the more ritualistic healing practices. The Berlins' work suggests that a case of diarrhoea, for example, may be treated successfully with herbs either by self-medication or with the help of a local herbalist. But if the illness does not respond to the usual treatment, the advice of a healer or shaman may be sought, as the illness may be a case of 'spirit possession', particularly involving an encounter with an ancestral ghost. Herbal remedies may still be used in treatment but these will be accompanied by prayers, healing rituals, ceremonial chants etc. Tibetan medicine recognizes four categories of illness, the first can be treated by adjusting behaviour and diet, the second needs to be treated by medicines, while the third is due to 'evil spirits' and must be referred to the lamas for prayers and exorcism before any other treatment will be effective. The fourth category covers disorders which result from actions in a previous lifetime. This is the most serious category of disease, and may be fatal. In the Tibetan tradition, once this diagnosis has been made the patient may be encouraged to devote their life to spiritual practice. Even in modern day Japan, if a disease is not cured by the usual means, and especially if it becomes progressively worse despite treatment, a priest may be sought to look into the spiritual dimensions of the illness. Before we dismiss these more obscure and occult healing practices, it may be enlightening to consider more deeply this idea of spirit possession. The Tibetans would suggest that we can become possessed by an attachment to a past situation or emotion and that desire, hatred and ignorance are at the root of all illness.
African writer Malidoma Some has shown that tribal practices considered ignorant and superstitious may actually prove as effective as our much more sophisticated attempts at psychological medicine. He shows how an attitude towards health which includes a reverence to one's family, community and ancestors goes a long way to create a healthy psychological environment. In illness, one looks to the local herbalist but also to the village elders to address any problems in relationships which may be at the core of the imbalance. A village meeting may be held where disputes can be aired in a kind of group encounter session, facilitated by the shaman or village elder. He stresses ritual as vital in maintaining personal and community health, and considers that many of the problems facing Western culture stem from the abandonment of our rituals, which are an acceptable way to share our problems with others, and our loss of community:
Alienation is one of the many faces of modernity. The cure is communication and community — a new sense of togetherness. By opening to each other, we diminish the pressure of being alone and exiled.
Ageing and death
Malidoma Some suggests that our lack of respect and understanding of death has created a society which refuses to acknowledge the ageing process, preferring to prolong youth at all costs. As we fear death, and often refuse to talk about death, our death rituals are shallow and have no meaning. They do not serve the purpose for which they were intended — to create a safe passage to the next world for the deceased, and to give full vent to the grief of family and friends. Our inability to grieve may also impact on our health. According to the Chinese, who also have precisely formulated death rituals, unresolved grief affects the lungs and restricts the breath. The ability to breathe deeply reflects the ability to engage with life. Similarly the Yaqui tradition of Mexico suggests that without acknowledging death, one cannot fully live, that only by accepting the transience of life can one fully engage with the present moment. The imbalances of our present day health care system may be partly due to our unbalanced view of life. In our well-meaning attempts to prolong life, we must be careful that we aim to prolong quality of life, not simply quantity. In our current medical system, the death of a patient is generally seen as a failure of the medical care teams to succeed in maintaining life. Current fears of the ultimate uncontrollable event in our lives lead us to expect the medical service to do everything in their power to prevent death. This situation, which can result in a very poor quality of life for the sick patient, will deny the rights of the individual to be involved in their own process of treatment, or in the way they might choose to die. In order to understand health, we must examine our attitudes to our lives, and within this we must not avoid the discussion of death and the need to include the process of dying in that of life.
Intricately linked with our inability to accept death is our desperate attempt to ward off the ageing process. In our desire to prolong youth, psychologist James Hillman would suggest that we are denying the role of elder and advisor that is so key to a balanced society:
For centuries late years were associated not with dying but with vitality and character. The old were regarded as stable depositories of customs and legends, guardians of legal values, experts in skills and crafts, and valued voices in communal council. What mattered was force of character proven by length of years.
In our use of pharmaceutical drugs to delay menopause, we must be aware of the long-term effects both on our health and on society. According to Dr. Barbara Evans in her book Life Change:
Some societies reward women for their services to the race when they reach the end of their fertility, giving them the freedom and often the status they had lacked during their reproductive years. Women from countries where age is venerated suffer less physically than other women at the change of life, or menopause. Unfortunately, ours is not one of those societies.
Excerpted from The Roots of Health by Romy Fraser, Sandra Hill. Copyright © 2001 Romy Fraser and Sandra Hill. Excerpted by permission of UIT Cambridge Ltd.
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Table of Contents
Introduction and Summary,
Chapter 1 The Roots of Health,
Chapter 2 Health and Holism,
Chapter 3 The Web of Healing,
Chapter 4 Sustainable Health,