Ever since the dawn of man, the human race has searched for ways to preserve health, prevent illness and heal the sick. Those efforts have broadly broken down into three areas of focus: prevention, diagnosis and treatment. Primitive societies in prehistoric times believed that people grew sick because the gods were angry or evil spirits had made their way into a person’s soul; attempts to cure the ill involved appeasing the gods or driving evil spirits away, and priests served as the healers. While early efforts at surgery were misguided and dangerous - trephining, for example which involved drilling the skull to release malicious spirits - early man did make many brilliant discoveries such as chewing willow bark to relieve pain (willow bark, we now know, contains salicilin, a substance similar to the active ingredient in aspirin.).
The history of modern medicine, in fact, is full of both well-intentioned mistakes and wisdom so powerful it has lasted through the millennia - insights into how nature can help us remain well and cure illness that are still applied and respected today. And while many people believe that conventional medicine and alternative medical approaches are diametrically opposed, the fact is that there has been interplay between the two throughout history. A look back over the course of medical history reveals the complex path that has brought us to where we are today, with our new understanding of the countless ways to stay healthy...by choice.
Ancient civilizations were in many ways highly advanced in terms of prevention, diagnoses, treatment and cure. By about 3000 B.C., for example, the ancient Egyptians began to make important medical progress by developing systematic methods of treating diseases; a textbook produced by Egyptian surgeons as far back as 2500 B.C., provided instructions in treating dislocated and fractured bones, healing tumors, and wounds, and other critical medical procedures.
The ancient Israelites, too, made great strides in preventive medicine from about 1200 to 600 B.C.: understanding the value of quarantine in preventing mass infection, they isolated individuals with gonorrhea, leprosy, and other contagious diseases, prevented the contamination of public wells and prohibited the eating of pork, shellfish and other foods frequently found to carry disease.
Equally evolved were the medical communities of ancient China and India. The Chinese have practiced a rich body of medicine for millennia that is still respected and applied today, based on the idea that two principle forces of nature - yin and yang - flow through the body; when these forces are out of balance, illness results. Many ancient Chinese techniques for restoring balance that are still practiced today include acupuncture, herbal cures, meditation and diets high in soy and other low-fat sources of protein. Acupuncture is a method of relieving pain and treating a variety of diseases by inserting needles into specific points along the 12 paired and 2 unpaired meridians or energy channels through which the life force flow- energy that run longitudinally in the body. Specialists called acupuncturists insert needles at points along these meridians or at painful points on the body. Insertion of the needles is said to restore balance between two principal forces of nature called yin and yang. Acupuncturists believe that disease and pain are a result of imbalance between the yin and yang forces and insert needles in order to stimulate the meridians and thereby restore balance.
Acupuncture is often prescribed in combination with Western medicine or Chinese herbal preparations. Since the late 1950's, doctors in China have used acupuncture in lieu of anesthesia during major surgery; scientists have determined that acupuncture does indeed trigger the nervous system to adjust internal organ activity change pain signals sent to the brain. Researchers, in fact, have established that acupuncture increases the brain's production of natural painkillers called endorphins.
Ayurvedic medicine, too, has been practiced in India for thousands of years: Ayurvedic medicine, or ayurveda (a term which comes from the Sanskrit word ayur -life, and veda - knowledge), originated in India between 3,000 and 5,000 years ago.
Rather than curing disease, the focus of the Ayurvedic medical tradition is preventing disease by achieving a state of emotional and physical well-being and maintaining a proper flow of life force or energy in the body through proper diet, yoga, disciplined breathing, meditation, and herbal medicine. Ayurvedic doctors approach each patient as a unique individual with a unique constitution; therefore, although two people may seem to have the same symptoms, they will most likely receive different treatments. Furthermore, the physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of a person's life are given equal weight in making a diagnosis and prescribing treatment or a path of harmonious prevention.
Ayurvedic medicine holds that three biological forces (or “doshas”) combine in unique proportions in every living organism - vata, pitta and kapha - and that a deficiency or excess in a dosha results in disease. The principle “dhatus” of which the body is composed are (1) plasma, (2) blood cells, (3) muscle tissues, (4) fatty tissues, (5) bone, (6) bone marrow and nervous tissues, and (7) reproductive tissues while nutrients, energies, and emotions are transported through the body along 16 “srotas” (channels): when the flow is smooth, good health results; blockages and imbalance can result in disease.
Ayurvedic medicinal treatments include remedies made from minerals combined with the bark, roots, leaves, or seeds of plants. Practical treatments include therapeutic massage targeting the body’s 107 vital points (“marmas”) or stimulation with needles in a manner similar to acupuncture along with prescribed yoga and meditation. The earliest known Ayurvedic medical texts date back to 2500 B.C.; by 550 B.C., practitioners of ayurveda had developed a broad range of effective drugs and were performing relatively sophisticated surgery.
At the same time, throughout the Mediterranean, conventional or “western” medicine continued to evolve along a path that has led us to many of the fundamental tenets of today’s natural health movement. Hippocrates, who lived in ancient Greece from around 460-380 BC, is called by many the father of medicine. A Hippocratic work named The Nature of Man argued that illness was caused by an imbalance between the four fundamental “liquids” identified as blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile - a theory that was held all the way through to the late 1800s; Hippocrates introduced the notion that diseases have only natural, not supernatural, causes and was therefore the first known physician to consider medicine a science and art rather than a religion. Greeks seeking cures began to flock to practitioners and analysts rather than temples.
In the 1500's, the French army doctor Ambroise Pare made great inroads in surgical techniques: rejecting the common practice of cauterizing (burning) wounds with boiling oil to prevent infection, he advocated applying a mild ointment, instead, thereby allowing the wound to heal naturally. The Swiss physician Philippus Paracelsus explored the role of chemistry in the preparation and effectiveness of drugs, realizing that in many cases, one ingredient in a medication canceled the effect of another.
In the early 1600s, the English physician William Harvey studied the ways in which blood circulates throughout the body: observing the pulse and heartbeat, he discovered that blood is pumped by the heart through the arteries to every part of the body, and returns to the heart through the veins. This new, wholistic understanding of how blood circulates and the body’s structure constituted a turning point in the history of medicine. In the mid-1600's, the Dutchman Anton van Leeuwenhoek (an amateur scientist) discovered microorganisms - also known as “microbes” or “germs.” This discovery was the first step in our modern understanding of the relationship between certain microbes and disease.
In 1796, English physician Edward Jenner discovered a safe method of making people immune to smallpox- the first officially recorded vaccination. By the end of that century, researchers had discovered the bacterial causes of such devastating infectious diseases as leprosy, malaria, plague, cholera, diphtheria, dysentery, pneumonia, tetanus, and gonorrhea. The principles of inoculation and the idea that injecting a specific preparation into the body produces immunity are forerunners to the wisdom of homeopathy: inoculation with a treated “toxin”, or a disease-producing bacteria or virus tends to stimulate the body's immune system against a particular disease-causing agent. Although inoculation has actually been practiced since ancient times in China, India, and elsewhere, it was Jenner’s discovery, in the late 1700s that brought validity to the sometimes risky and dangerous concept of vaccinations in the West. At the same time, however, Samuel Hahnemann, a German physician, had an equally powerful premise - one that was safer and at least as effective: instead of “vaccinating” people by introducing toxin-disease-matter into a healthy body in an attempt to create immunity to that same disease, Hahnemann realized that we can introduce non-toxic substances similar to the illness we seek to treat into the sick body, thus creating an artificial disease that resembles the problem but can overpower and annihilate the natural disease. Introducing a toxic substance into a healthy body comes with dangerous side-effects, Hahnemann understood, whereas introducing non-toxic substances into an unhealthy body can only produce healthy results. Thus, homeopathy was born.
In the early 1900's, Dutchman Christiaan Eijkman and Sir Frederick Hopkins of England, together with a number of other forward-thinking physician-scientists, established the importance of vitamins in preventing and curing nutritional-deficit diseases like beriberi, rickets, and scurvy; at around the same time, German physician and chemist Paul Ehrlich introduced chemotherapy, which operated on the principle that certain chemicals that have a more toxic effect on diseased cells than on healthy ones. This discovery led to the Gerhard Domagk’s work and the development of bacteria-fighting compounds called sulfa drugs, while bacteriologists Sir Alexander Fleming discovered the germ-killing power of the Penicillium mold, a forerunner of penicillin - the first antibiotic.
During the last few decades of the 20th century, scientists made significant progress in understanding genes and the genetic roles played in certain diseases. By 1990, American surgeons were using gene therapy to treat patients. Also in recent years, a number of high-tech instruments and devices have begun to help the medical community diagnose, treat, and prevent a wide range of diseases with a new level and scale of understanding. Imaging techniques like the MRI, CT, and positron emission tomography (PET), produce internal views so detailed, we have begun to understand the physiology of wellness and disease on an entirely new level.
Many healers - both physicians and alternative treatment practitioners - now understand that the body can heal itself if given a chance and assisted with specific remedies and practices; we now know that such "invasive" treatments as drugs and surgery should only be used as a last resort.
Alternative medicine today includes acupuncture, chiropractic, naturopathy, vitamin therapy, herbalism and homeopathy along with disciplines like hypnosis, relaxation therapies, yoga, tai chi, and meditation. Growing numbers of people both here in the United States and abroad have increasingly come to realize that the expense, risks and limits of conventional medicine aren’t necessarily central to creating and maintaining physical and emotional health and well-being. Many people realize that the conventional and alternative paths can complement one another extremely effectively in the commitment to staying healthy.