Dr. Michael Tierra L.AC., O.M.D.

Traditional Western Herbal Medicine evolved from the Greeks who were strongly influenced by the Egyptians and Middle Eastern civilizations. In fact, with the similarities between these civilizations; universally based on the concepts of a pervasive life energy, the elements and humours, one can make a Planetary Herbal Medicine.

The humoural system is elucidated in a treatise called “Affections” in the Hippocratic Corpus which states: “In men, all diseases are caused by bile and phlegm. Bile and phlegm give rise to diseases when they become too dry or too wet or too hot or too cold in the body”; and the author goes on to state how such derangement’s are precipitated by imbalances in food and drink, exercise, injuries, “smell, hearing and sight”, sexual excesses and “hot” and “cold” themselves.

The Four humors of the Greeks

1. Sanguine (air) hot/moist 3. Phlegmatic (water) cold/moist

2. Melancholic (earth) cold, dry 4. Choleric (fire) hot/dry

Sanguine qualities in an individual exhibited symptoms of heat and moisture, ruddy complexion, cheerful, confident and optimistic, with a tendency toward feverish, inflammatory diseases.

Melancholic qualities had opposing qualities of cold, dryness, pale complexion, heightened sensitivity and visionary tendencies. These were more susceptible to nervous and reproductive disorders.

Phlegmatic qualities were cold and moist, duller, slower with less sensitivity than the sanguine. Theirs was a tendency toward diseases associated with congestion, stagnation, rheumatic and mucus conditions.

Choleric qualities in an individual being hot and dry were the opposite of phlegmatic. They would tend to have a hot and fiery temperament, thus more easily angered. They tended to develop liver diseases, high blood pressure, rashes, sun sensitivity, burns and fevers with little perspiration.

Galenical dietetics and medicine

The second century Greek physician Claudius Galenos, known as Galen (130 a.d.), was responsible for assimilating and reorganizing disparate medical theories and transforming them on the basis of an interrelated energetic context. This was further elaborated upon by the Persian Ibn Sina (Avicenna) of the 11th century. For the next 1500 years Western medicine was termed Galenical and extended its influence throughout Europe and into the New World.

It was superceded by the discoveries of other elements and chemicals by primitive 16th century chemists and finally the rationalist philosophy of the 18th century. It was completely overthrown by experiments of the French biochemist, Francois Magendie in the 1st decade of the 1800s.

Unani Tibb medicine is based on the late 10thand early 11th century Avicenna and Galen. Galen believed in a vital energy or creative force that he called “pneuma” that is similar in concept to the Chinese concept of “qi” and the Ayurvedic “prana.” Like Hippocrates, he accepted the concept of the “humours” which arise out of the liver and form a subtle network throughout the body. He also assigned foods and herbs to each of the four humours that form the basis of “galenical” dietetics and medicine that was accepted throughout Europe and the Middle East for 1500 years.

Herbs and foods were Energetically classified as hot or cold, in fact, there are four degrees each of hot and cold, making a total of eight possible categories into which a food may be placed.

Cold in the first degree
Cold in the second degree
Cold in the Third degree
Cold in the Fourth degree

Hot in the first degree
Hot in the second degree
Hot in the third degree
Hot in the fourth degree

First degree: affects metabolism, but not in any way discerned by overt physical sensation. Slightest action. Water is an example of a first-degree substance.

Second degree: Acts upon the body, causing metabolic change, but in the end is overwhelmed by the body. All nutrients belong in this category. Among the actions caused by second-degree substances are opening of pores, initiation of peristaltic action, perspiration and stimulation of digestion. Ginger is an example of the second degree. Third degree: Not acted upon by the body, but acts upon the body. All medicinal substances belong to this category. An example is senna pods, which overwhelm the eliminative powers of the colon and force evacuation. Fourth degree: Poisons. Cause cessation of metabolic function. Some herbs are used as medicine from this category, but only in the most minute strengths and under the direct supervision of a physician. Hemlock and belladonna are examples of the fourth degree.

The difference between these degrees in terms of hot and cold values, is that a second-degree hot-substance would speed up metabolism, while a second-degree cold would slow it down. In the extreme fourth-degree, the difference would become more apparent, when a hot herb would cause an increase of metabolism beyond the limits that support life, while a fourth-degree cold substance would slow down metabolism to the point of death.

Such theories, common to most ancient civilizations, point out the essential difference in perspective between the holistic objectives of traditional medicine of diverse countries, in contrast to that of contemporary Western medicine.


Traditional vs. contemporary approach

The traditional approach tends to be more integrative, emphasizing the attainment of health through a combined holistic integrating body, mind and spirit, using diet, exercise and lifestyle changes as well as ritual, chants and prayer.


The contemporary Western medical approach tends to be disintegrative and myopic; viewing the body more mechanically as a conglomerate of separate physiological organs and molecules. The emphases is in merely relieving symptoms rather than maintaining health, while the ancient approach provides a wider perspective. Both have their respective strengths and weaknesses.

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