NATURE CURE AND THE PROCESS OF HEALING
Jared L. Zeff, N.D., L.Ac.
According to Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian, the Egyptians were among the healthiest people in the ancient world because, “they purge themselves every month, three days in succession, seeking to preserve health…for they suppose that all diseases to which men are subject proceed from the food they use.” (Garrison, History of Medicine, Fourth Edition, Saunders, 1929.)
Even a cursory examination of Classic Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine, Native American Medicine, the ancient medicine of Persia and Greece, and even the monastic medicine of old Europe will demonstrate an emphasis on diet, digestion and life style as the fundamental preservers of health, with the use of botanicals, hydrotherapy, acupuncture, and prayer as mainstays of therapeutic intervention. Upon analysis, one can see a common understanding of the causes of illness and the restoration of health. This understanding developed from the observation of nature, and particularly from observing the natural progress of illness and recovery.
The nature cure movement began as such in 19th century Europe, partly influenced by the writings of the French philosopher, Rousseau, with his cry of “Return to Nature!”, as the source of truth and inspiration, health and healing. The formal medicine of Europe at that time was dominated by the misinterpretation of Hippocratic and Galenic medicine of nearly two millennia earlier, which surrogated bleeding, purging and dieresis (usually induced through the use of poisons such as arsenic and mercury) for the natural elimination of disease-causing toxins. There was a common understanding that physicians were the lowest professionals, causing more harm than good. In reaction to this, a medical movement began, not so much as a challenge to orthodoxy, but simply in search of an alternative approach to healing which was truly health giving. This came to be called “nature cure”.
THE FOUNDATION OF NATURE CURE
The foundation of nature cure is based upon the observation that it is the nature of things to heal themselves. We can see this in a piece of land, which has been disturbed by earthquake, fire, or human intervention. We see this in a hillside, for example, where, after a disturbing factor disrupts the ground, first the thistles come in. Not only do they begin the process of reestablishing a stabilizing root system, but also their thorns set up a barrier to those who might further disturb the soil. As the thistles grow for a few years, and lay down an organic mat, they begin to be replaced by other plants, until the stable ecosystem, which was once there, is reestablished.
So it is with human beings as well. A disturbing factor, or a number of factors, disturbs the stable ecology of the body, and illness occurs as a response or reaction. The illness goes through a more-or-less predictable process, the intention of which is the reestablishment of the normal functioning of the organism. If the disturbing factors persist, we will see a chronic response by the body.
When confronted with illness, the nature cure physician looks for the factors, which are disturbing the normal health, and seeks to remove or moderate them. The illness is seen much as the thistles in the example above. The solution to illness is not simply to remove the “thistles”, but to understand what had caused this natural response. If the thistles are removed prior to changing the conditions, which stimulated their presence, we should expect them to recur. Furthermore, any interventions employed by the physician must not add further disturbance, but should be based upon that which is capable of reestablishing the healthy “ecology”.
To do this effectively, such a physician must come to understand the nature of health, and both that which establishes it as well as that which disturbs it. This simple understanding creates a set of instructions for the nature cure physician. Nature cure is a system of medicine one can characterize as “the restoration of health” by following a set of simple principles. Beneath these principles is a set of assumptions, based upon the observation of nature, and particularly the observation of disease and healing. The basic assumption is that nature is benign, ordered, intelligent, and wise. Nature can be trusted.
This can be contrasted with the standard medical approach, which has a different set of fundamental assumptions. Standard medicine is not based upon the study of health, but upon the study of disease. If nature cure is based upon the restoration of health, standard medicine is based upon the diagnosis and treatment of disease. The standard physician determines the specific nature and name of the disease process, which ails the patient, and then brings to bear the various tools or weapons which science and experience have provided to eliminate the disease from the body. The fundamental assumptions of standard medicine seem to be these:
1. There are distinct disease entities, which exist separately from the individuality of the patient. Disease entities can be studied. Prognosis is one of the results of this study. Pathologic mechanism is another result. Disease pathology can be studied and understood without reference to the specific person.
2. Disease entities can be identified, thereby understanding the cause of a person’s suffering.
3. Disease entities can be removed from the ill person through treatment, or moderated or ameliorated, thereby restoring them to a state of health, or relative health.
4. Effective treatment is accomplished through evidence-based use of drugs or surgery.
These assumptions are generally unquestioned in the practice of standard medicine. Applied within the context of modern analytical science they form an elegant paradigm, which has proven quite effective in easing suffering and prolonging life in the 20th, and now the 21st, century. However, it has also revealed a significant weakness in the latter part of this period, which is its failure to heal chronic disease as easily as it once obliterated certain serious infections with the introduction of antibiotics. As we consider the paradigm of nature cure, we may understand the basis of this failure.
THE NATURE CURE PARADIGM
Nature cure has a different paradigm, based upon a different set of assumptions. Nature cure is based upon health restoration rather than disease treatment. We can characterize nature cure with two simple graphic models of illness. Acute illness can generally be characterized like this:
The nature cure physician does not do battle with the disease entity. Instead, we rely upon the healing wisdom, vital energies, and intelligence of the organism to restore normal and healthy function. Using this diagram, we can follow this process. If we begin with a state of normal health, we can see that disturbing factors may occur which can disrupt normal function, causing the body to react in an attempt to bring itself back to a state of normal health. One of the assumptions of nature cure is that health is the normal state of the body, given that the elements for healthy existence are present. The body is constantly striving to maintain itself in a normal state of healthy function, and that what we call disease occurs when various factors disturb this state. Disease is the reaction of the body to the disturbing factors. The work of the nature cure physician is to help the patient create the conditions for health to exist within them, and, if necessary, to stimulate, support, or enhance the restorative, self-healing mechanisms, through a system of therapeutic interventions, rationally applied, in the appropriate order.
When normal function is sufficiently disturbed, the body will react in ways to set itself right. Inflammation is the most basic of these reaction-states. Four observable aspects characterize inflammation: redness, heat, pain, and swelling. When tissues are injured or irritated, the cells will secrete chemicals such as histamine, trienes, kinens, etc. These chemicals cause local blood vessels to dilate, bringing more blood into a disturbed area. They cause the blood vessels to become more porous so that nutrient-rich blood fluids, oxygen, white blood cells and other immune factors move into the disturbed area. The dilated blood vessels cause the increased redness. The increased blood flow brings more heat. The movement of fluids into the area causes the swelling. Some of these chemicals irritate the local nerves, alerting the consciousness to the presence of the disturbance. Since these phenomenons are specifically manifested by the body to restore health to disturbed tissues, the inflammation is not the problem, but is the body’s solution to the problem. Using an anti-inflammatory to treat the inflammation contravenes the body’s attempt to heal, replacing it with the physician’s “wisdom”.
Fever is a more generalized reactive state, which brings into play the entire organism’s capacities for self-defense and restoration. In a state of fever, of higher than normal temperature, all of the body’s mechanisms will be operating at a higher or faster rate. White blood cells will be more active. There will be a faster blood flow. All of the enzymatic activity of the body will occur at a faster rate. This is, again, an obvious attempt by the body to activate healing. There may be times when fever is excessive or damaging, but these are rare, and there are ways if necessary to reduce fever in these instances. But under normal circumstances, to disrupt fever with suppressive measures will weaken the body’s ability to heal and restore itself, and should be avoided. Generally, these restorative measures, fever, inflammation, and so forth, are followed by a period of discharge, which resolves the disturbance, removing the products of the process from the body.
This does not mean that the nature cure physician does not treat acute illness. We would seek to treat the illness in such a way that respects the body’s wisdom, using methods, which stimulate the self-healing processes such as hydrotherapy, homeopathy, acupuncture, or non-suppressive botanicals. Certainly, there are times when inflammation presents a significant and immediate problem, when intense intervention is called for, such as in the inflammation of meningitis, or appendicitis. Even in these instances, the nature cure physician will seek to treat the problem in such a way that suppression does not occur, but one always places the safety of the patient first. These kinds of problems can be treated without antibiotics or surgery, but generally these treatments will be reserved to times or places in which antibiotics or surgery are not available.
The best example of this process of acute illness is the common cold. From a healthy state, several factors develop which disturb the body economy, including a viral factor perhaps, and one begins to perceive some degree of disturbed function. First, one doesn’t feel right. Perhaps one feels tired or irritable. Then one begins to develop a sore throat, or other symptoms of inflammation. This is followed by a runny nose or a cough, and mucous is expelled. The usual process takes from seven to ten days, and then the body returns to a state of normalcy. This is why there is no cure for the common cold; the cold is the cure. Suppressing it merely makes it more difficult for the body to process and remove that which is disturbing it. For colds, as for any acute disturbance, the nature cure physician would treat this not by suppressing the reaction, but by enhancing the self healing mechanisms, thorough methods such as constitutional hydrotherapy, which will enhance immune activity, botanicals such as yarrow and elder to enhance the removal of toxins, hydrastis or Echinacea to enhance immune activity, and so forth.
The natural history of a cold does not begin with a viral exposure. If this were true, then most people would become ill when exposed to the new virus. But this is not what happens. The virus must enter a system in which the economy is already disturbed, usually by such factors as fatigue, accumulated toxins (such as from inappropriate diet or disturbed digestion), the affects of emotional or other stress and trauma, etc.
Let us examine a list of the kinds of things, which disturb health. At the top of my list would be inappropriate diet, weakened digestion, and lack of sufficient rest, then an excess of devitalizing nourishment, such as coffee, alcohol, and various drugs, including prescription and over-the counter, as well as illegal “recreational” drugs, the presence of certain chronic diseases, such as diabetes, medical interventions either current or historical, lack of sufficient and appropriate exercise, unhappiness, and the difficulties of trying to survive in modern times.
Humans are creatures of families and tribes. Deprived of such support, we tend to feel anxious and insecure. We live in a society increasingly based upon the accumulation of money at the expense of family. It is difficult to generate the money needed to live here, and many of us exist in a constant state of stress over making ends meet. Add to this the increasing danger of modern life. It is no longer prudent to allow one’s children to walk to school, there is too much risk and danger. This may serve as a metaphor for these times. When I was five, I walked a mile to kindergarten. My parents had no fear for my safety, for good reason. But it is different now. Predators exist who would snatch up a five-year-old walking to school. Children kill children in school. We live in stressful times.
So our bodies are bathed in a constant soup of stress moderating chemicals such as cortisol and adrenaline, which negatively impact digestion. Proper digestions can only occur in a parasympathetic environment of relaxation and peace. These sympathetic chemicals cause the blood vessels to the digestive system to constrict, as they increase the flow to the peripheral muscles. The digestion requires a significant blood flow to function, and denied this, maldigestion is fostered. This is an adaptive mechanism to situations of acute stress, but becomes dysfunctional in situations of chronic stress. Add to this a difficult family history, which damages the spirit, including the epidemic of childhood abuse of various kinds, and the various physical and emotional traumas and exposures of everyday life. These factors which disturb health can, inversely, help us understand that which determines health. In the study of health and its causes, the nature cure physician can know what to look for in a situation of disturbed health, and what to do to correct it.
Inappropriate diet or disturbed digestion results in an increase of metabolic toxins generated in the gut. These toxins are absorbed into the blood stream and become a basis of chronic irritation and disturbance of function throughout the body. Add to this the plethora of ingested toxins from the variety of environmental contaminants. Our bodies are increasingly offended by toxic accumulations.
The basis of modern medicine, with all of its miracles, is suppression. Drugs suppress and control the reactions, which are commonly interpreted as disease. The fever and inflammation are treated with suppressive medication as if these states were the problem, rather than the natural solution. The suppression of acute reactive states not only weakens the body’s capacity to mount such reactions, but by doing so allows the disturbing factors and toxic substances to further accumulate, until we exist in chronic reactive states, which we call chronic disease. Then we are given more potent suppressive medication, which further burden the body systems. Though these treatments may preserve life or ease suffering, what this amounts to is that these disease states are “managed” by our doctors, rather than cured.
Chronic disease occurs as the disturbing factors accumulate, and the attempts by the body to get rid of these disturbances are suppressed, allowing the disturbance to penetrate deeper and deeper into the vital structures and functions of the body. We can illustrate this with a second diagram.
In this diagram, we can see how chronic disease is a continuation of the process of disturbance and reaction. We can also see how to bring about cure from chronic disease. Healing is brought about by reducing the presence of disturbing factors, and stimulating, enhancing and supporting the self-healing reactions. This can return the system to an acute, enhanced reactive state, followed by discharge and return to normalcy.
To accomplish this, in general, one begins at the beginning. First, identify disturbing factors. Again, this is usually found most dramatically in diet. One need not make absolute or perfect improvements in the diet; incremental improvements will prove effective. Make positive changes, with a focus upon three things. First, insure dietary adequacy: insure that all the necessary nutrients for health and healing are present in the diet, that there is enough of everything. Second, insure a more healthful balance of nutrients, that there is not too much of something. Third, identify and remove reactive foods if they are present.
Then identify the stressful elements in the person’s life and advise the person about their moderation, or act to reduce the effects of stress upon the body. This includes the suppressive effects of drugs and other medical interventions, toxic and traumatic exposures, as well as what might be called toxic relationships, and the whole host of that which we have identified as potentially disturbing factors.
Simultaneously, one can begin to stimulate the self-healing mechanisms, by means which are not in themselves suppressive or weakening. First, one should apply general stimulation to the healing processes. The single best way to do this is through constitutional hydrotherapy. Such a treatment is non-suppressive, counteracts the effects of stress upon the digestive system, aids in detoxification of the blood by pumping more blood through the liver and the kidneys, as well as the stomach and intestines, is relaxing and tonifying at the same time. It is a profoundly healing treatment. It is used to treat all manner of acute and chronic disease, from infection to cancer. This treatment is used with infants and old people alike.
In my experience, appropriate dietary change, coupled with a simple stomach tonic and constitutional hydrotherapy will generate improvement in almost any disease condition. In many cases, this alone will bring about cure. To facilitate healing in any particular case, however, one might want to add specific stimulation of the healing potential. Whereas constitutional hydrotherapy is done the same way in all cases, and provides a general stimulation, homeopathy and acupuncture are applied specifically and differently in any case.
Neither hydrotherapy, homeopathy, nor acupuncture adds anything of substance to a person. All they can do is stimulate what is intrinsically there, the innate healing potential.
The next task is to evaluate the functional status of the various systems and organs, and, if necessary, to support their specific recovery. This is the area where I find the greatest use for botanicals. One can identify botanical medicines, which will improve function in any system of the body. I most commonly use the following:
- Gentiana and Scutellaria to improve the function of the stomach.
- Chelidonium and Silymarin for the liver.
- Ceanothus for the spleen and pancreas.
- Crataegus and Cereus for the heart.
- Lobelia and Quebracho for the lung.
- Chimaphila for the kidney.
- Avena and Hypericum for the nervous system.
- Mahonia for the skin.
- Cimicifuga for the uterus.
- Serenoa and Pygeum for the prostate.
- Glycerrhza and Eluthrococcus for the adrenals.
- Hydrastis for the mucosa.
- And there are others.
One can add to these a variety of other botanicals for more specific purposes. There are, of course, many hundreds of botanicals which can be combined in many ways to effect specific changes in any system of the body.
It is important to contrast two ways to prescribe these medicines. The method I refer to here is primarily one of enhancing function, through increased blood flow, stimulation of secretion, or in some other way to “tonify” or nourish function or structure. One can also use botanicals suppressively, in the same way that most drugs are used, such as using the salicylate content of Salix to suppress a fever. In general, I would avoid the use of botanicals as drugs in favor of their use to enhance function, as an adjunct to the process of removing disturbance.
A THERAPEUTIC ORDER
A key concept in nature cure is the order of intervention. The first order of intervention is to identify and moderate the causative factors, which disturb function, and to help create a more healthful regimen. Secondly, to stimulate the self healing mechanisms. Third, to use the botanicals or other substances to support tissue function or repair. Fourth, to work to correct structural integrity. Fifth, one may need to specifically address pathology. Sixth, it may be necessary to suppress pathology with drugs or surgery. The greatest mistake commonly made in this medicine is to intervene at a lower level, principally to use botanicals or nutritional factors to treat specific tissues or lesions without attention to the first and second order tasks. If these first steps are not done, improvement is usually incomplete or transitory. I cannot over-emphasize this problem.
It is this problem which confounds the attempts by standard research to validate these methods. The application of single botanicals or nutrients to double blinded studies focused against pathology, without the comprehensive approach described above, will often not demonstrate the true effectiveness of this approach to healing. If you give the stomach tonics without first correcting dietary errors, and dietary elements are causative problems, you will not see profound or permanent improvement. Similarly, if you apply hydrotherapy or other stimulating treatments into a system, which has not been prepared by removing causative factors, you will see a heightened reaction to the disturbing elements without the possibility of a resolution.
This is somewhat like removing the thistles from the disturbed ground. If one does not repair the ground, the thistles will just grow back. The analogy is not perfect, but if you apply second or third order healing activity without preparing the body, removing the disturbing factors, the disease process will recur. A better example is the treatment of ear infections with antibiotics. The ear infections will tend to recur as long as the susceptibility of the body remains the same. Treatment of the ear infections with botanicals or homeopathic methods will similarly clear up the acute infection, but the infections will tend to recur unless the dietary causes are also eliminated.
When one is in a chronic or degenerated state, and this methodology is followed, I expect to see improvement. By removing or moderating disturbing factors, stimulating the self- healing mechanisms, and tonifying or supporting the normal functions of body, one can only improve. But one is in a chronic state because of accumulated disturbance or the suppression of the body’s healing reactions. As one becomes increasingly healthy, suppressed reactions will often reappear. The reappearance of previous illness is fascinating to witness. When this occurs, we can treat these recurrences with nonsuppressive methods.
As one improves, and the body become stronger, one will at some point reenter an acute reactive state. This is usually characterized by fever and a discharge. The arrival of an acute febrile state means that the body is mounting a curative reaction. This is referred to as a healing crisis or healing reaction. As one moves through this, and healing is completed with a discharge, ultimate cure is attained. The patient must be prepared for these events, or they will assume that the treatment is not working or things are getting worse, and often return to suppressive medication, defeating the possibility of healing. One can apply many non-suppressive treatments if needed to moderate the discomfort of a healing reaction. This is a part of the honoring of the wisdom of the body.
These are the principles of nature cure methodology. In their application, I expect to see rapid, gentle, and permanent restoration of health. There is no perfect system of healing, but what we have in this method is a set of instructions based upon the observation of how healing occurs in nature. It is an earth based system of medicine, making use of the simple remedies presented by nature. It is a comprehensive system, which honors the wisdom of the body.
copyright: Jared L. Zeff, ND 2001