Ancient Greek Herbal Medicine

Edited and published by Wellness Monster Dina

In the ancient world, Greeks primarily believed signs of serious illness or disease, such as leprosy, was a punishment by the gods and a reflection of an act of immorality or the lack of faith. To be mentally compromised in some way was, in most cases, a sign of being possessed by evil spirits. These types of maladies were often treated with prayer, exorcism or excommunication. These religious and spiritual interpretations of disease prevailed until the Greek physician Hippocrates (410-360 BC), known as the Father of Medicine (, developed the scientific theory of the four humors, which are: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile.

Not only were an individual’s symptoms and balance of humors considered in treatment, but one’s environment, habits, and age were considered. So too were the season and the country in which one resided as they influenced the humors and one’s state of health.

Each humor relates to a particular combination of elements: hot, dry, cold and moist. Each of these elements further related to a particular temperament: Choleric, Phlegmatic, Sanguine and Melancholic, which corresponded with certain aspects of personality.

  • Yellow Bile ~ Hot/Dry ~ The Choleric Temperament
  • Phlegm ~ Cold/Moist ~ The Phlegmatic Temperament
  • Blood ~ Hot/Moist ~ The Sanguine Temperament
  • Black Bile ~ Cold/Dry ~ The Melancholic Temperament

Normally, one particular temperament tends to dominate throughout a person’s lifetime. This can change, however, when they suffer from stress or trauma. Additionally, one is not exempt from sharing the personality traits of other temperaments. For example, a Choleric Temperament having high self-esteem may occasionally share the Melancholic’s moodiness or apathy, as all of the humors (HOT/DRY/COLD/WET) exists within each and every one of us at all times. The general idea was to have a fair balance of humors, as an imbalance of humors would result in bothersome symptoms, such as a headache, digestive upsets, pain or susceptibility to frequent viral infections.

To determine an individual’s state of health, one’s humors would be thoroughly looked at, touched, smelled and even tasted for discrepancies. Then, depending on which humors were out of balance, certain natural foods and herbs were prescribed to assist in putting the patient back on the map to health and wellness, which were intended for boosting the individual’s immune system, providing better energy flow, and, as a result, correcting humoral imbalances that lead to the illness or disease in the first place.

For example, the Choleric Temperament leans toward inflammation, and irritations (such as Gastritis), fevers and ADHD. A suitable diet for an individual suffering from a yellow bile imbalance and an excess of, both, hot and dry humors might be put on the path to health by eating a primarily vegetarian diet and foods that are cold and wet, such as fish, watermelon and red raspberry tea.

The Greek Hierarchy of Medicinal Treatments

There was a particular protocol or hierarchy followed in designing every treatment plan. This protocol was followed in every scenario beginning with treatments the patient could apply at home, which were diet, proper hygiene, and herbalism, respectively. The second half of the hierarchy included physical manipulations (massage, chiropractic, physical therapy, etc.), detoxification, surgery, or chiropractic manipulations. These last three were only performed by therapists and physicians. However, as it was against the religious law to cut into live bodies, surgeries were limited to topical diseases and injuries. Additionally, the hardier a person’s constitution, the more aggressive the treatment. Weaker constitutions were treated more gently for a longer period of time.

The third hierarchy of treatment, as previously mentioned, was the use of herbs. Herbs were chosen based on taste and their healing properties. For example, if the weather were to be cold outside an herb to warm the body, such as Cinnamon or Pepper. This would help to “warm and dry” the COLD/WET constitutional temperament.

The Greeks recognized that certain herbs worked very well to balance and heal certain parts of the body. Herbs were used fresh, whole, dried, and in powder forms for creating pastes, poultices, salves, and ointments. They were also used individually as well as in various combinations aimed at healing the condition in the quickest amount of time possible depending on the patient’s constitutional temperament.

Those who were fortunate to have access to a physician were likely treated with foods and herbs based on temperament only after lifestyle changes had been put into effect.

The Four Constitutional Temperaments

The Choleric Temperament

Cholerics correspond with Yellow Bile: Hot/Dry

Cholerics commonly lean toward inflammation, irritations (such as gastritis), fevers and ADHD. They might also experience headaches, chronic pain syndrome (muscular/skeletal issues), neuralgia, epilepsy, hypersensitivity, adrenal issues, fibromyalgia, energy disorders, depression (particularly manic), a feeling of being ungrounded or having lack of purpose. They may have a negative attitude, be haunted or experience stigmata.

Cholerics tend to do very well on vegetarian diets and do well in choosing nutrients that are Cold/Wet (Moist) to create balance and restore health and wellness.

Cold foods are also considered “cooling.” Choices included mint, banana, most tropical fruits, milk and dairy, fresh cheeses, lettuce, melons, cucumber, watermelon, fish, dandelion leaves, plantain, marshmallow leaf, most bitters, and any foods or nutrients that sedate the metabolism and relieve any excess heat.

Wet and moist foods are also considered “heavy”. Choices included from beef, eggplant, avocados, cherries, watermelon, peaches, dark red and blueberries, oysters, all fat from meat and fish, various meats in moderation, vinegar, lemon, coconut, and all rich or oily foods or foods that are emollient.

Foods to be avoided or eaten less often were ordinary table salt and salty foods, aged cheeses, vinegar and alcohol, high fat and fried foods, excessive red meat, extremely sour foods, fermented foods, and very hot spices, which tend to exacerbate the Choleric temperament.

Cold/Wet herb choices included Ashwagandha (HOT/WET), Red Raspberry (COLD), Lemon Balm (COOL/DRY), St John’s Wort (COOL/DRY), and Saw Palmetto (HOT/WET).

The Phlegmatic Temperament

Phelgmatics correspond with Phlegm: Cold/Wet

Phlegmatics commonly tend to have blood sugar, phlegm, brain, and hormonal issues and may also experience heart, circulation or blood pressure issues, some respiratory or digestive issues, autoimmune disorders, sleep problems, back and shoulder pain, or breast cancer. They may also experience extreme empathy (making it difficult to separate their own emotions from others, which is draining), depression, instability and love issues.

Phlegmatics seem to do well on, both, vegetarian and traditional diets and would choose nutrients that are HOT/DRY to create balance and restore health and wellness.

Foods to be avoided or eaten less often were milk, dairy products (including cheeses), wheat (and other foods containing gluten), refined sugar, starches and flours, very cold foods and drinks and moist, creamy, and rich foods which tend to exacerbate the Phlegmatic temperament.

Hot/Dry herb choices included Astragalus (HOT/DRY), Ashwagandha (HOT/WET), Elderberry (COLD/DRY), Holy Basil (HOT/DRY), Rosemary (HOT/DRY), Turmeric (HOT/DRY), Lemon Balm (COLD/DRY), Red Raspberry (COLD), St John’s Wort (COOL/DRY), Saw Palmetto (HOT/WET), Motherwort (Neutral/DRY), Valerian (WARM), and Ginger (WARM).

The Sanguine Temperament

Sanguines correspond with Blood: Hot/Wet

Nutrients that are COLD and DRY to create balance and restore health and wellness would be chosen.

Sanguines commonly have circulation, skin and liver/kidney/urinary issues and may also experience digestive upsets, indigestion, GERD, ulcers, diabetes, hypoglycemia, stomach problems, liver or pancreas dysfunction, hepatitis, gallbladder stones, irritable bowel, colitis, gastritis, and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and/or Fibromyalgia, arthritis, memory problems, hormonal complaints, menopausal, and eating disorders.

Sanguines do well on a very light vegetarian diet (meaning, some meats, eggs, fish, etc.).

Not eating enough vegetables and fruits and eating too much meat will bother the Sanguine temperament.

Cold or Wet herb choices included Ashwagandha (HOT/WET), Elderberry (COLD/DRY), Lemon Balm (COLD/DRY), Red Raspberry (COLD), St John’s wort (COOL/DRY), and Saw Palmetto (HOT/WET).

The Melancholic Temperament

Melancholics corresponded with Black Bile: Cold/Dry

Nutrients that are HOT and WET (MOIST) to create balance and restore health and wellness.

Melancholics often suffer from headaches and stomach distress, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and gall bladder issues.

Melancholics do better with diets containing meat.

Stale, rancid or astringent foods, soy, too many nuts (especially peanuts, which are herpes triggers, by the way) and beans, nightshades, especially tomatoes (another herpes trigger) and eggplant, will exacerbate the Melancholic temperament.

Hot and Wet herb choices include Ashwagandha (HOT/WET), Astragalus (HOT/WET), Saw Palmetto (HOT/WET), Valerian (WARM), and Ginger (WARM).

hippocratesAncient Greek Medicinal Folklore

Ancient Greeks without access to a physician often self-treated using herbs to treat the following conditions.

  • Olive and coconut oils were used for soothing scrapes, cuts, bruises, rashes, and burns.
  • Mint was used as an aromatherapy for headaches or as a tea for nausea.
  • Fennel was chewed for stomach cramps and to relieve muscle ache.
  • Tsipouro, an alcoholic beverage containing cinnamon and honey (, was often the remedy of choice for colds, coughs, and flu, as well as Horseradish and Fenugreek for respiratory illnesses.
  • Willow bark, which contains salicylates and is what today’s Aspirin is made from, helped to reduce fever.

So, as you can see, the herbal treatment of specific illnesses and injuries depended upon one’s constitutional temperament and treating the whole person and improving an individual’s health was the ultimate objective, rather than treating the disease or injury. The entire purpose of balancing a humor was to balance the mind, body, and soul in order to heal the illness or injury. This was considered a holistic point of view, which is still used today by many practitioners worldwide.


Photo Credits:

Mortar and pestle with fresh herbs greek nuts garlic. [ID 80873661 © Oleg Mayorov |]

Temperaments Four Humors Drops. [ID 60867878 © Peter Hermes Furian |]

Heal with food Hippocrates. [ID 107216127 © Yuryz |]