Discovering the Historical Remedies: What Was the Most Common Treatment for an Imbalance of Humours?

In ancient times, people believed that an imbalance of four humours caused diseases. These humours included blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Therefore, it was important to maintain a balance of all four humours to ensure good health. However, when an imbalance occurred, various treatments were used to restore the balance and fight illnesses. One of the most common treatments for an imbalance of humours was bloodletting.

Bloodletting was a medical practice that involved removing blood either through small incisions or by using leeches. It was believed that removing blood from the body could help reduce the amount of humours that caused illnesses. Bloodletting was regarded as a way to restore balance in the body and prevent deadly diseases. Thus, this practice was used to treat a wide range of illnesses, from fever to mental disorders.

In the ancient world, bloodletting was a vital practice that had been used for centuries. It was believed that this treatment could bring balance to the humours and restore good health. However, with modern medical advancements, the practice of bloodletting has been largely discontinued. Nonetheless, it is essential to recognize the significance of this practice in medical history and its role in shaping modern medicine.

Historical background of humoral theory

The theory of humors, or humoralism, has been present in medical terms for over two millennia. Its origins can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, particularly the works of Hippocrates and Galen. The theory states that the human body is composed of four basic substances called humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. These humors are believed to be present in the body in equal proportions and are responsible for maintaining the balance of bodily functions and overall health.

According to the theory, any imbalance in the humors can lead to illness and disease. This imbalance can be caused by various external and internal factors such as diet, lifestyle, environmental factors, and even emotions. Humoralism dominated medical thinking in Europe until the 19th century, and it was also widely accepted in the Islamic world and other parts of the world.

  • Humoralism has been present in medicine for over two millennia
  • Originated from ancient Greeks, specifically the works of Hippocrates and Galen
  • The human body is composed of four basic substances or humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile
  • Any imbalance in the humors can cause illness and disease
  • Factors such as diet, lifestyle, environment, and emotions can cause an imbalance in humors

Four Humours and their Characteristics

The concept of four humours or fluids was developed by ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, who believed that the human body contains four fluids, namely blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. These fluids are believed to affect a person’s physical and mental health, and an imbalance in these fluids could result in illness.

  • Blood: This fluid is associated with the element of air and is responsible for carrying oxygen and nutrients throughout the body. An excess of blood is believed to cause a fever and inflammation, while a deficiency could lead to anemia and fatigue.
  • Yellow bile: This fluid is associated with the element of fire and is responsible for digestion. An excess of yellow bile is believed to cause ulcers and heartburn, while a deficiency could lead to indigestion and constipation.
  • Black bile: This fluid is associated with the element of earth and is responsible for healing and sleep. An excess of black bile is believed to cause depression and insomnia, while a deficiency could lead to lethargy and apathy.
  • Phlegm: This fluid is associated with the element of water and is responsible for lubrication and protection of the body’s tissues. An excess of phlegm is believed to cause congestion and coughing, while a deficiency could result in dry skin and eyes.

In ancient times, it was believed that balancing these humours was crucial for maintaining good health. Physicians would often use various treatments to restore the balance of these humours within the body. One popular treatment was bloodletting, where a physician would use a lancet to drain off excess blood from a patient’s body to restore the balance of fluids.

Another popular treatment was purging, where a patient was made to vomit or defecate in order to remove any excess fluids from the body. Physicians also used a variety of herbs, substances, and minerals to restore the balance of humours within the body. For instance, black bile was often treated with opium or mandrake, while yellow bile was treated with chamomile and wormwood.

Humour Element Associated Qualities Associated Organs Associated Fluids
Blood Air Warm and Moist Heart and Lungs Red
Yellow Bile Fire Warm and Dry Liver and Gallbladder Yellow
Black Bile Earth Cold and Dry Spleen Black
Phlegm Water Cold and Moist Brain, Lungs, and Stomach White

While the concept of four humours has largely been debunked by modern medicine, it still remains an important part of the history of medicine. The idea that balance and harmony are essential for good health has continued to be an important part of medical philosophy throughout the ages.

Causes of Imbalance of Humours

The concept of the four humours, blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile, was central to the understanding of human health and disease for centuries. According to the theory, sickness was caused by an imbalance of these humours. Each humour was associated with distinct qualities, such as hot, cold, dry, or wet. When the humours were balanced, one enjoyed good health, but when they were imbalanced, one became sick.

  • Environment: Living in an environment with extreme temperatures was believed to create an imbalance in the humours. For instance, living in a hot or humid climate could increase the phlegm and reduce yellow bile.
  • Diet: One’s diet was considered one of the primary causes of an imbalance of humours. Every food had its qualities represented by the four humours. For example, vegetables were associated with phlegm and black bile, while meat was linked with blood and yellow bile. Eating an imbalanced diet could, therefore, lead to an imbalanced humours system.
  • Emotions: Different emotions were also associated with the four humours. Anger was associated with yellow bile, melancholy with black bile, joy with blood, and calmness with phlegm. Experiencing emotions in excess or inadequate amounts could, therefore, lead to an imbalance of humours.

Treatment for Imbalance of Humours

The most common treatment for imbalance of humours was bloodletting, also known as venesection. It involved cutting a vein and draining a certain amount of blood to restore the balance of the humours. Other treatments included purging, emetics, and enemas.

Herbal Remedies for Imbalance of Humours

Herbal remedies were also commonly used to treat an imbalance of humours. These remedies aimed to restore the balance of the humours by introducing substances with qualities opposite to those of the humour causing the disease. For example, a herb with hot and dry qualities would be prescribed to balance the cold and wet qualities of phlegm. The following table shows some of the common herbal remedies used for treating an imbalance in humours:

Humour Herbs
Blood Fennel, Myrrh, Rose, Sage, Saffron
Phlegm Anise, Garlic, Ginger, Mustard, Thyme
Yellow Bile Calendula, Dandelion, Peppermint, Rosemary, Tamarind
Black Bile Gentian, Horehound, Lavender, Marjoram, St. John’s Wort

While these herbal remedies may have had little physiological effect, the belief that they helped balance the humours likely led to a placebo effect, which may have contributed to the patients’ healing.

Practices to balance humours

The practice of balancing humours dates back to ancient Greece and was believed to be necessary for maintaining good health. Ancient healers believed that an imbalance of the four humours – blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile – led to the manifestation of diseases in the body. In order to restore balance, various practices were developed and implemented.

Herbs and diet

  • Herbal remedies were commonly used to balance humours. For example, the herb rosemary was believed to help balance black bile, while thyme was used to balance phlegm.
  • Diet also played a role in balancing the humours. A balanced diet that contained foods that were thought to restore balance was recommended. For example, foods thought to balance yellow bile included honey, ginger, and saffron, while foods that balanced phlegm included onions, garlic, and mustard.
  • In addition to consuming foods to balance the humours, it was recommended to avoid foods that were believed to exacerbate imbalances. For example, foods that produced phlegm, such as dairy and wheat, were avoided if a person already had an excess of phlegm.

Exercise and hygiene

Exercise and hygiene were also believed to be effective practices in balancing the humours:

  • Exercise was recommended to promote the circulation of blood and to help evacuate excess humours. Certain exercises, like moderate walking and stretching, were thought to be particularly effective, while excessive exercise was believed to exacerbate imbalances.
  • Hygiene practices, such as bathing and cleaning the body, were believed to decrease the accumulation of excess humours.
  • Hot and cold treatments, like alternating hot and cold baths, were also used to balance the humours.


Bloodletting was a common practice used to balance the humours. It was believed that removing excess blood from the body would help restore balance. Bloodletting was performed using various methods, including the use of leeches, cupping, and scarification.

Humour Location of bloodletting
Blood Veins in the arm
Phlegm Veins in the forehead or the back of the head
Yellow bile Veins in the leg
Black bile Veins in the liver or spleen

While bloodletting was a common practice, it was also dangerous and could lead to excessive blood loss and further imbalances. This practice is no longer recommended in modern medicine.

Role of Diet in Humoral Medicine

Humoral medicine was a popular medical theory in ancient Greece, which stated that the human body was controlled by four humours: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. The imbalance of these four humours was believed to cause illness. The treatment for an imbalance of humours involved balancing them with opposing humours. One of the most common treatments was through diet.

  • An excess of blood was treated with foods that were believed to produce phlegm, such as milk and seafood.
  • An excess of phlegm was treated with foods that were believed to produce yellow bile, such as spicy food and wine.
  • An excess of yellow bile was treated with foods believed to produce black bile, such as whole grains and bitter vegetables.
  • An excess of black bile was treated with foods believed to produce blood, such as meat and iron-rich foods.

In essence, diet played a crucial role in humoral medicine. The belief was that certain foods helped to balance the humours, ultimately leading to better health.

It’s important to note that this medical theory was not scientifically proven, and many of the treatments were ineffective or dangerous. Nevertheless, the concept of using diet to promote wellness has continued in modern times.

Today, many people choose to follow specific diets that are believed to help balance their body’s chemistry, like the ketogenic diet or the paleo diet. While these diets may not be based on humoral medicine, they do reveal the continuing interest in the idea of using diet to achieve overall health and wellbeing.

Humour Food Recommendations
Blood Milk, seafood
Phlegm Spicy food, wine
Yellow Bile Whole grains, bitter vegetables
Black Bile Meat, iron-rich foods

Table 1. Common food recommendations for balancing humours.

Popular herbs used for humoral imbalances

The use of herbs for the treatment of humoral imbalances has been a common practice for centuries. Different cultures have developed their own list of herbs that have been traditionally used to balance the four humors—blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. Here are some of the popular herbs used for humoral imbalances:

  • Ginger: Ginger is a warming herb that stimulates blood flow and helps eliminate excess phlegm from the body. It is often used to treat colds, coughs, and digestive issues.
  • Garlic: Garlic is a pungent herb that is known for its ability to break up excess mucus and phlegm in the body. It is also used as an antimicrobial and immune system booster.
  • Turmeric: Turmeric is a bright yellow herb that has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. It is often used to balance excess bile in the body and to improve digestion.
  • Chamomile: Chamomile is a calming herb that helps balance excess black bile. It is often used to promote relaxation and to improve sleep quality.
  • Licorice root: Licorice root is a sweet-tasting herb that helps balance excess yellow bile in the body. It is often used to soothe irritated tissues and to improve digestion.
  • Cinnamon: Cinnamon is a warming herb that helps balance excess phlegm and black bile in the body. It is often used to improve circulation and to support healthy digestion.

Herbal remedies for humoral imbalances

In addition to using individual herbs to balance the humors, herbal remedies that combine several herbs can be particularly effective. Here are some of the popular herbal remedies used for humoral imbalances:

Triphala: Triphala is an Ayurvedic formula that combines three fruits—amla, haritaki, and bibhitaki—in equal parts. It is used to balance all four humors and to improve digestive health.

Yarrow tea: Yarrow tea is made from the leaves and flowers of the yarrow plant. It is a traditional remedy for balancing excess phlegm in the body and for promoting sweating during a fever.

Bitter herbs: Bitter herbs like gentian root, dandelion root, and burdock root are used to balance excess black bile in the body and to improve digestion.

Herbs to avoid

While many herbs are considered safe for use in treating humoral imbalances, some should be used with caution or avoided altogether. For example, herbs like rhubarb root and senna leaf can be harsh purgatives that should only be used under the guidance of a healthcare professional. Similarly, some traditional Chinese herbs like ma huang (ephedra) and aristolochic acid-containing herbs have been associated with serious health risks and should be avoided.

Herb Humor it balances Benefits Possible Side Effects
Ginger Phlegm Stimulates blood flow and helps eliminate excess phlegm May cause heartburn or stomach upset in high doses
Licorice root Yellow bile Soothes irritated tissues and improves digestion May raise blood pressure or cause water retention in high doses
Turmeric Yellow bile Anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, improves digestion May cause stomach upset or interact with certain medications

It is always important to talk to a healthcare professional before using any herbal remedies, especially if you have an existing medical condition or are taking any prescription medications.

Ancient medical texts on humoral theory

The theory of humours goes back to ancient Greek times, but it wasn’t until the medical texts of physicians like Hippocrates and Galen that the idea truly gained traction. These texts provided the basis for humoral theory, which held that the body was composed of four main humours: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. It was believed that these humours needed to be kept in balance in order to maintain good health.

Common treatments for an imbalance of humours

  • Bloodletting: This was a popular treatment for an excess of blood. Physicians would make an incision and drain blood from their patient in an attempt to restore balance.
  • Purging: To treat an overabundance of phlegm, patients were often given emetics or laxatives to help expel the excess mucus.
  • Sweating: This was believed to be an effective way to rid the body of excess yellow bile. Patients were wrapped in blankets or subjected to hot baths to induce sweating.

Humoral theory in the Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, humoral theory continued to be an influential theory of medicine. However, it was often combined with other, more mystical beliefs about the body and the world at large. Physicians often prescribed remedies that involved the use of amulets, charms, and other magical items in addition to more traditional treatments.

One of the key texts of this era was Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine, which was written in the 11th century. It was a hugely influential work that shaped medical practice in the Middle East and Europe for centuries to come.

The legacy of humoral theory

Today, humoral theory is largely considered obsolete. However, it was an important step in the evolution of medical thinking. It helped physicians to understand the interconnectedness of various bodily systems and the importance of maintaining balance for good health.

Humour Quality Associated Element
Blood Hot and moist Air
Phlegm Cold and moist Water
Yellow bile Hot and dry Fire
Black bile Cold and dry Earth

Although we no longer rely on bloodletting or other extreme measures to rebalance the humours, modern medicine continues to recognize the importance of balance and maintaining healthy bodily systems.

FAQs – The Most Common Treatment for an Imbalance of Humours

1. What is an imbalance of humours?

An imbalance of humours refers to a medical theory from ancient Greece and Rome, that believed that body fluids, or humours, had to be in balance for optimal health. An excess of any of the four humours was thought to cause disease and illness.

2. What was the most common treatment for an imbalance of humours?

The most common treatment for an imbalance of humours was bloodletting. It involved making a cut in the skin and letting blood flow out, which was believed to restore balance of the humours.Many people also used purging techniques like induced vomiting or using laxatives to get rid of an excess of certain humours.

3. Was bloodletting painful?

Yes, bloodletting was a painful and often dangerous procedure, and people often had to be restrained while it was performed. The tools used for bloodletting were often unsterilized and could spread infections.

4. Did people always believe in the theory of humours?

While the theory of humours was popular in ancient times and the medieval and Renaissance periods, it began to fall out of favor during the Enlightenment era as people began to understand more about anatomy and physiology.

5. Why did the theory of humours fall out of favor?

The theory of humours was replaced by scientific theories that emphasized the importance of the circulatory and nervous systems in maintaining health. The invention of the microscope also allowed scientists to see bacteria and other pathogens that were not visible to the naked eye.

6. Were there any alternative treatments for an imbalance of humours?

Yes, some people turned to herbal remedies, massage, and other alternative treatments to restore balance of the humours. However, these treatments were not widely accepted by the medical establishment at the time.

7. Do people still believe in the theory of humours today?

No, the theory of humours is considered outdated and has been replaced by modern medical understanding of how the body works. However, some aspects of the theory, such as the idea of maintaining a healthy balance in the body, have been incorporated into modern medical practices.

Closing Thoughts

Thank you for taking the time to learn about the most common treatment for an imbalance of humours. While it may seem strange and even barbaric to us today, it was a widely accepted medical practice for centuries. We have come a long way in our understanding of the human body and modern medicine provides us with safer and more effective treatments.

Remember to visit us again for more interesting articles and information!