‘Let food be your medicine…’

Carl Nathan's History of MedicineSo I found this image on the interwebz and suffered a multilayered reaction. The first was a brief guffaw followed by curiosity as to who this Carl Nathan fellow is. Then I got a bit pedantic and defensive – the Medieval era probably deserves a little more credit and the early modern era/Renaissance is just completely left out! The horror!

But what really got me thinking, and what this post is about, is this new trend toward herbal medicine and the seeming fear of modern or clinical medicine – something that Professor Nathan briefly touches on at the end of his timeline. I get that he’s aiming more at the drug resistant bacteria angle – and for more on that kind of stuff, check out Kris Childers-Buschle’s post in Nerd Corner. But I wanted to take this opportunity to explore this trend of ‘natural’ medicine and write specifically about the dietary movement based around the Hippocratic aphorism: “Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food.”

You might not have heard of this – but a quick Google image search or a foray onto Pinterest will lead you down a rabbit hole of out-of-context Hippocrates quotes.

I like this one because they got it wrong.
I like this one because they got it wrong. (image source: veggienextdoor.com)
This pill might be a little hard to swallow...
This pill might be a little hard to swallow… (image source: ellischiropracticofpuyallup.com)

It all seems to stem from the work of a woman named Ann Wigmore, who wrote a book entitled The Hippocrates Diet and Health Program  after founding the Hippocrates Health Institute – a centre for holistic medicine. Anyway, the main idea seems to be that by eating the way ‘Hippocrates’ did (often portrayed in the movement as vegan and/or raw) you can cure all that ails ya – from hemorrhoids to cancer.*

Mandrake root is made of people!
Mandrake root is made of people!

Academically speaking: this is a hot mess. For starters, as you learned in my first post, we’re not entirely sure who Hippocrates was and we’re sure as heck not sure which texts he actually wrote. So it’s kind of hard to follow the diet of this Man o’ Mystery. Secondly, and more importantly, this quote is taken waaaaay outta context. Like, hella out of context. Yes, the Hippocratic Corpus did recommend some specific foods and exercise as a way to keep yourself healthy – because the best way not to be sick is to prevent it rather than cure it. And a lot of the remedies listed are food based – which is a lot of fun in the recipe posts. But there was also a lot of bloodletting. And purging. And pushing little packets of herbs into orfices. And, in another book of the Hippocratic Corpus, Places in Man (39.1), the author recommends mandrake as a cure for melancholy. And by mandrake, I mean the poisonous herb that can make you poop and vomit yourself to death (as if you weren’t melancholic enough?!). Do we really wanna go all Hippocratic with our medicine?

Salad. I omitted the tomatoes because ew.
Salad. I omitted the tomatoes because ew.

Listen. I’m all for a healthy diet (in theory). I know that apples are way better for me than Flaming Hot Cheetos. I even ate myself a salad while writing this post. Yeah, it may have had bacon on it but it was a salad nonetheless (you should really make yourself this salad, btw). The Hippocratic authors knew all that, too (minus the Cheetos part). So it’s not surprising that they dished out some good advice about eating healthy and in moderation. But this doesn’t mean modern medicine is something bad and to be avoided at all costs, IMHO. But remember: I’m a doctor of a very different sort. A non-modern medical-y historical sort. So no, I can’t help you with your rash.

I could go on and on about how dangerous these sorts of movements can be, I could quote life expectancies in classical Greece and list some of the horrific illnesses that Hippocrates and his ilk would have had to tackle that are no longer an issue today because of advances in medicine (I’m looking at you smallpox). But I ultimately think everyone has the right to choose was medicines they do or don’t want to put into their body. And I also think that Judgy Wudgy had no friends. However, I do think everyone should have all the information possible available to them – and this little post is just one grain of sand on the beach of knowledge. I’m sorry for that. I’ll stop now.

* This has been one of the most controversial things to come out of the Hippocrates Health Institute – claims that their representatives said their diet could treat cancer. The Institute, specifically a Brian Clement, has since denied making these claims, but here’s a little further information for you nonetheless:




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