Hippocrates and Aromatherapy

Hippocrates and Aromatherapy

Last month, I explored how, by applying the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine, essential oils may be chosen to restore energy within the body.  This month, I thought it would be interesting to explore the early Greek model of medicine and whether it is relevant nowadays especially in relation to Aromatherapy.  In ancient times, it was believed the world was composed of four elements (Earth, Air, Fire and Water).  These elements were related to the four seasons (Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter), to four fundamental qualities (Hot, Cold, Dry, Damp) and to four temperaments, also known as humours (Sanguine, Choleric, Melancholic and Phlegmatic).

Ancient Greek physician, Hippocrates, born 460 BC and considered the father of medicine, categorized all foods and herbs by fundamental quality believing that disease resulted from an imbalance of the four humours, as opposed to the then widely held belief that it was a punishment inflicted by the Gods, and that by correcting this imbalance and restoring harmony, good health would be restored.  Furthermore, Hippocrates, believed that such imbalances were caused by environmental factors, diet and living habits, and that the body contains within itself the power to re-balance the four humours and heal itself.

There is reference in the bible to ‘fruit for food and leaves for healing’ (Ezekiel 47:12) and the Hippocratic approach was very much focused on the healing power of nature and indeed this continues in Unani medicine today. While Hippocratic medicine and its philosophy is seen to be far removed from modern medicine, I think it is interesting how a plethora of scientific research now exists proving how many diseases and disorders may be preventable by eating healthily, resting and exercising regularly, and how lifestyle choices promoting good health are supported by healthcare experts.

Hippocrates used a wide range of medicinal plants to restore health and, of course, we know that scientists have been able to identify and isolate many active chemicals in plant material from which modern medicine has evolved. Some of Hippocrates' quotes relating to medicinal plants are shown below (1), and I believe they will resonate amongst Aromatherapists and Herbalists alike.


Soak Rosemary sprigs together with Nettle roots and Galium Aparine in alcohol and you will have a medicine to rub the hairy part of the head causing hair growth".


Place Leaves of Mint in the Head with a compress to relief the headache".


Boil in some water with oregano. Put a towel on your head and keep it over the steam for 5 minutes. Try to take big breaths".

St John’s Wort

Put hypericum tincture to burns and cuts to heal".

Hippocrates' gentle approach included the healing and restorative power of adequate rest and relaxation.  Another of his quotes was:

"Healing begins with an aromatic bath and daily massage".

I think that bathing with aromatic essential oils is a particularly lovely way to rest, helping to reduce tension in the body and mind. I recommend using three drops of Bergamot, and two drops of Rose ottoin 10ml of Rosehip Seed oilInhaling the delightful aroma of both these essential oils will undoubtedly facilitate rest, while Rosehip Seed oil provides a luxurious way in which to moisturise and nourish dry, mature or sun-burned skin.

Massage has been used throughout the ages to aid relaxation.  As I’ve said before and will, I am sure, say again, what can be more indulgent than having a relaxing massage with your favourite aromatherapy oils! A relaxing blend could include, for example, 8 drops of Clary Sage, 4 drops of Lavender and two drops of Frankincense, all of which are relaxing and reputed to restore a sense of wellbeing.

Hippocrates also recommended boiling water and oregano for a steam inhalation. These old-fashioned remedies are making a come-back with pharmacists often recommending inhalation for easing the discomfort caused by catarrh. To ease the discomfort of blocked sinuses or congestion, I recommend boiling two pints of water and pouring into a bowl.  Add ten drops of Eucalpytus globulus, agitate the water, put a towel over your head, close your eyes and inhale the vapours for up to ten minutes.  Repeat this process several times a day. Eucalyptus oil may also be put onto a paper tissue, and inhaled throughout the day; this method being ideal for asthmatics for whom steam inhalation is not recommended.

Modern medicine is, without doubt, invaluable in fighting deadly disease and restoring health with many people owing their lives to modern treatments.  I believe, however, that we should not dismiss aspects of Hippocrates approach to maintaining and restoring good health.  Making the right dietary choices, exercising regularly, resting often and using medicinal plants and essential oils all help maintain harmony for mind, body and soul.

Christine Fisk
Consultant Aromatherapist

Disclaimer & Safety Advice


  1. Author unknown, Hippocrates Medicine, Herbal Medicine used by Hippocrates, http://www.hippocratesmedicine.com/home, accessed 18 April

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