By Joanna Cunningham, as part of the Undergraduate Series
Find out more about ancient ideas on asthma, and whether the remedies that ancient physicians used actually work!
Asthma and Its Ancient Background
Asthma is an affliction of the lungs which numerous ancient physicians discussed in their writings. It was first mentioned in Homer’s works (Iliad, book 10) when men gasped for air in the moment of death. One of the Hippocratic authors was the ‘first physician to understand the relationship between the environment and respiratory ailments’ (Cserháti 2004, 248; Ryan 1793, 62), discussing cold air as a cause for asthma. However, his understanding is questionable, as he associated asthma with epilepsy and hunchbacks (On Airs, Waters and Places, 3). Galen referenced asthma over 70 times in his books (Jackson 2009, 23), but the extent of these ancient men’s understanding of asthma as a separate affliction is questionable; they make no distinction between different types of asthma (cardiac or bronchial). Instead, the Greek word asthma is used to describe the general symptoms of dyspnoea (Stolkind 1933, 37; Frea 2011).
Nevertheless, Caelius Aurelianus gave ‘a better description of bronchial asthma as a distinct disease’ than earlier physicians (Stolkind 1933, 37), and Aretaeus documented the earliest known description of the definition we use today; breathing difficulties after exercise. Therefore, we can see how the ancient understanding of asthma changed over time.
Ancient medicinal techniques have been adapted throughout the centuries, informing modern medicine. Naturally, we are so caught up in the technology of modern medicine that we forget the routes of these discoveries. However, whether these original remedies work is something I was curious to discover. Therefore, I journeyed back in time to see whether myself, as a modern-day asthma sufferer, would have survived an ancient physician’s advice.
Ancient remedies for asthma mostly focused upon loosening the humours. There were the more dangerous and vile remedies, including drinking animal blood, eating rabbit fat and fox lungs, inhaling or consuming numerous herbs and plants, for example, coltsfoot, hellebore and hyssop (Dioscorides De Materia Medica 2.41, 2.30), blood-letting, cupping, and even surgery (Nutton 2004, 56)! However, there were just as many feasible remedies to try, including eating raisins, dried figs, vegetables, barley, capers, bread, and cake, alongside steaming, baths, wet compresses, and moderate helpings of wine with dinner (Jackson 2009, 16, 33; Stolkind 1933, 37; Sanders 2007, 73); certainly a contrast to the more gory options!
My Body on Modern Asthma Medication
My current asthma medication consists of a brown inhaler twice a day, and a blue inhaler when breathless.
On a weekly basis, I take part in numerous extra-curricular activities, including cheerleading and dance, which consist of practising our routine and performing full-outs (performing the routine as you would at the competition), with high energy stunts and bursts of energy throughout. Usually, I cope to a certain point, however, with vigorous exercise, I quickly become short of breath, and anxious about my breathing. So, let’s see how my body copes with the ancient remedies, alongside my inhaler…
From my research, I devised the plan below, with the ancient remedies highlighted in red:
This plan varied depending on what I could buy in the shop, what extra rehearsals I had, and how much time I had that day.
My Body Using Ancient Remedies
Breakfast: Porridge with Nutella, tea.
Lunch: Niçoise salad.
Dinner: Chicken thigh fillets, roasted vegetables, glass of red wine.
Bed time: Warm flannel on chest, arm massage.
Exercise: Dance (8-9.30pm) – my heart rate increased, I was sweating, and my breathing became rapid and difficult.
Findings: My breathing was no different to usual; I became rapidly out of breath during dance. However, after only one day, I cannot discredit these ancient cures just yet…
Breakfast: 1 toast, with avocado and scrambled egg, tea.
Lunch: Niçoise salad, honey and lemon water, piece of birthday cake.
Dinner: Chicken, roasted vegetables, glass of wine, peanut m&ms.
Snacks: Honey and lemon water, and finished the snacks from the bowl yesterday. I dislike the figs, however, as with any medicine, you take it regardless.
Day time: 10 minute steam.
Bed time: Warm flannel on chest, arm massage, lavender-scented bath.
Exercise: Dance (8-9.30pm) – same as yesterday.
Findings: My breathing recovery time was speedier than usual, but I’m sure this was either psychological, or by chance.
Breakfast: 2 toast, 2 poached eggs (I didn’t finish this), tea.
Lunch: Vegetable and barley broth.
Dinner: Chicken, roasted vegetables, glass of wine.
Snacks: A mini-roll, lemon and honey water.
Day time: Sing-along to my favourite playlist.
Bed time: Wet flannel on chest.
Exercise: Cheerleading (3-5pm)/Dance (9.30-10.30pm) – I sweated, and was a little out of breath.
Findings: My breathing was difficult by the end of each routine, but my recovery time was great!
Meals: I was very ill, so didn’t eat anything.
Day time: Arm massage, 10 minute steam.
Bed time: Bath, wet flannel on chest.
Breakfast: Toast with scrambled eggs.
Lunch: Vegetable and barley broth.
Dinner: Salmon, barley, asparagus, broccoli, glass of wine.
Snacks: Mixed nuts, raisins and figs.
Day time: Another sing-along.
Bed time: Wet flannel on chest, arm massage, 10 minute steam.
Exercise: Cheerleading/Dance Showcase (6-8pm) – 3 full-outs of each routine.
Findings: After each run through, I felt out of breath, however, I recovered quickly.
What My Findings Have Shown Me…
My findings have shown me that these ancient techniques really do work, as my recovery time seemed to improve throughout the week. However, could this simply be a trick of the mind? Or could it just be that a relatively healthy life-style, ensuring to take care of one’s body, works wonders? In reality, only by the 16th century were doctors able to identify and diagnose asthma, and only sometimes able to treat it successfully (Hicks 2006, 30). I think I’ll stick to my inhaler for the foreseeable future, but I see no harm in ensuring to maintain a healthy lifestyle, minus the ancient addition of copious glasses of wine!
My name is Joanna Cunningham, I am 21, and I am currently in my final year at Cardiff University, studying Ancient and Medieval History. I am a cat lover and sushi fanatic, and have always been a keen writer. After writing my ancient asthma cures blog post for my second year Greek and Roman medicine module, I was totally inspired. Since this assignment, I have started up my own blog focusing on lifestyle, fashion, beauty, food, productivity, and travel (you can find it following this link), and I am now looking to start a career in content writing, copywriting, and journalism, as this is what I am truly passionate about.