Hydration, or how every situation doesn’t call for a strong medicine.

As an herbal clinician I take a three-legged-stool approach to health. I might go into that at some other point, but it’s not really on topic for this blog. One of the key aspects of my approach to wellness is staying well hydrated which is necessary for building blood and healthy tissues.

The focus on purging and fasting and whatnot in alternative healthcare circles really unsettles me. It reminds me of how dutiful Victorian mothers lined their children up for weekly doses of Brimstone and Treacle on the advice of their doctors who believed everyone was full of humors that needed to be purged.

There was much to admire about Culpeper in his taking on the establishment and being a champion of local systems, but he was a humoral physician and way too fond of senna for my liking. I don’t work with it at all. The best thing about learning from historical documents is that you can research what you want from a particular work and throw out the garbage. No one is holding you to some outdated system or any sort of dogma.

Giving people harsh purgatives is emulating some of the worse aspects of professional medicine of the past that weren’t in the least bit holistic. Even back then lots of people didn’t do it, but it took several consecutive runs at these types of practices, first by the chymical physicians in the 1660’s and then by the herbal physicians of the late 1800’s before they were mostly phased out of medical practice.

The five emollient herbs recommended by humoral physicians like Culpeper weren’t even really all that intense. He recommended mallowes/hollyhock, violets, beets, pellitory of the wall, and garden mercury as the five emollient herbs. Some sources list brank-ursine (Acanthus mollis) instead of beets. [1] Today we see the word emollient and we think that almost immediately of skin care, but it pertained more to “loosening” herbs back then which were agents that hydrated you and kept you evacuating regularly.

Often when people are writing about history, they are looking for the sensational and weird as clickbait, but if you look closely there is a lot of common sense too. Physicians didn’t write about the daily preventative sorts of things because it wasn’t in their wheelhouse. And as I have said before if you focus too much on one type of manuscript, you miss the big picture.

The truth is that the early modern healthcare culture focused far more on staying well than it did the physicians’ purging remedies. You couldn’t even open a book about taking care of your eyes without being told that the preservation of eyesight “doth consist partly in good order of diet.”[2] When’s the last time your optometrist told you what to eat?

Our friend, the eye specialist, recommended that broths made of gentle emollients like mallowes, violet leaves, groundsel, raisons with the seeds removed, Damaske prunes and currants were best for staying regular. He assured us that strong medicines that agitate the humours are not good to be used frequently and steered people away from the harsher remedies.

Another author explained that oatmeal gruel was “very good to be Drank after Labour, Travel, Sweating, or the like, to prevent Surfeits, [see footnotes] no sort of strong Drink being comparable to it in that respect.”[3]

The message really hasn’t changed all that much in terms of taking proactive measures to stay well. I mean my doctor joked with me a few years ago that it was time for me to start eating prunes. I am not much of a prune person, so I worked up the following decoction. It is good in terms of not really tasting like much so it can be mixed with juice or used to make oatmilk.


[1] It should be mentioned here that plants like Mercurialis annua which contain mercury, and mercury, should be left in the history books. Ingestion of any heavy metal is not safe. I don’t work with Acanthus spp. just due to mixed reports of toxicity.
[2] Baley, Walter. A Briefe Treatise Touching the Preservation of the Eie Sight …, 1602.
[3]Tryon, Thomas. Monthly Observations for the Preserving of Health with a Long and Comfortable Life 1688. (It is useful when reading this manuscript to understand a surfeit as an illness caused by too much of anything. So too much food, overexertion, too much heat &c.)

Published by Stephany Riley Hoffelt

If you want to read more about me, it's on the website www.domestic-medicine.com

%d bloggers like this: