10 Tips for Recovering From Illnesses From Hippocrates


Now known as the father of medicine, Hippocrates is credited with writing many manuals advising readers on how to deal with a variety of illnesses and ailments. One of his texts, On Regimen In Acute Diseases (400 BCE), contains a plethora of medical recommendations. The next time you’re battling dysentery, fighting pneumonia, or simply trying to get rid of a headache, consider these time-honored tips.


According to Hippocrates, to get the best diagnosis and treatment plan you need to find a real doctor whose practice is rooted in science and the observations of anatomy. Avoid posers who have simply memorized the names of common treatments and try to pass themselves off as true, knowledgeable physicians. But note that even real doctors might not agree on how to treat acute diseases, which include pneumonia, fever, lethargy, and inflammation of the lungs and brain.

“Persons who are not physicians pass for physicians owing most especially to these [acute] diseases, for it is an easy matter to learn the names of those things which are applicable to persons laboring under such complaints … in acute diseases, practitioners differ so much among themselves, that those things which one administers as thinking it the best that can be given, another holds to be bad.”


You probably have prescription drugs, pain relievers, and ointments in your medicine cabinet, but what about food? Hippocrates recommends that you keep raisins, grapes, saffron, and pomegranates on hand. You can put these ingredients in healing drinks, and even press fig juice on a vein to stop bleeding. Roasted cumin, white sesame seeds, and almonds with honey can also help patients with lung infections. But be aware that although food can be curative, it can also cause health problems. Hippocrates warns that garlic and cheese, for example, can cause flatulence, nausea, and constipation.

“With respect to all the others, such as barley-water, the drinks made from green shoots, those from raisins, and the skins of grapes and wheat, and bastard saffron, and myrtles, pomegranates, and the others, when the proper time for using them is come, they will be treated of along with the disease in question, in like manner as the other compound medicines.”


Different types of wines abound, so you have to pick the right one to treat your particular symptoms. Consult your doctor to choose wisely between sweet, strong, dark, light, and diluted versus undiluted wines. Be aware that drinking the wrong wine can cause long-term flatulence, artery throbbing, thirst, heaviness of the head, and spleen swelling. Even the right wine for your affliction can have some negative effects on your health, so keep in mind that no wine will be perfect.

“One must determine by such marks as these, when sweet, strong, and dark wine, hydromel, water and oxymel, should be given in acute diseases. Wherefore the sweet affects the head less than the strong, attacks the brain less, evacuates the bowels more than the other, but induces swelling of the spleen and liver; it does not agree with bilious persons, for it causes them to thirst; it creates flatulence in the upper part of the intestinal canal, but does not disagree with the lower part, as far as regards flatulence; and yet flatulence engendered by sweet wine is not of a transient nature.”


Today, we think of washing our hands with soap as a preventative method to remove germs and prevent colds. But Hippocrates recommends soap as a treatment. He notes that when bathing, you should ideally be gentle on your skin, but if you must scrub yourself, use hot soap. Keep in mind that you should use more soap than you normally would, and pour lots of water over yourself to wash the soap off.

“It is better that no friction should be applied, but if so, a hot soap must be used in greater abundance than is common, and an affusion of a considerable quantity of water is to be made at the same time and afterwards repeated.”


It’s healthy to stay hydrated, but Hippocrates urges readers not to bother with drinking water. Although he admits that drinking a small quantity of water (in between other drinks of honey and vinegar) can help you cough up phlegm, water can do a lot more harm than good. It can create bile, increase the swelling of the spleen and liver, and produce unpleasant stomach gurgling. And if you have cold feet, definitely stay away from water:

“[Water] neither soothes the cough in pneumonia, nor promotes expectoration … it creates bile in a bilious temperament, and is injurious to the hypochondrium; and it does the most harm, engenders most bile, and does the least good when the bowels are empty; and it increases the swelling of the spleen and liver when they are in an inflamed state; it produces a gurgling noise in the intestines and swims on the stomach…and, if it be drunk while the feet are cold, its injurious effects will be greatly aggravated.”


Are you a lazy bather? According to Hippocrates, that’s ok. Taking a bath can be useful in many diseases such as pneumonia and back pain, and sick bathers should treat their bath as a relaxing experience. Just don’t get in a bath if you have loose bowels or are vomiting. As you soak, do nothing for yourself, letting other people pour water on you, rub your body, and sponge you off.

“But the person who takes the bath should be orderly and reserved in his manner, should do nothing for himself, but others should pour the water upon him and rub him, and plenty of waters, of various temperatures, should be in readiness for the douche, and the affusions quickly made; and sponges should be used instead of the comb, and the body should be anointed when not quite dry.”


Hippocrates would not be a fan of The Biggest Loser and other TV shows that encourage people to quickly and drastically change their diet and exercise routines. According to the ancient Greek physician, it’s actually better to continue a faulty diet rather than suddenly change it. So if you’re used to eating two meals a day, don’t abruptly cut down to one, or you risk becoming weak, suffering from heartburn, and having diarrhea. Not to mention potentially developing hot green urine and throbbing temples:

“But it is well ascertained that even a faulty diet of food and drink steadily persevered in, is safer in the main as regards health than if one suddenly change it to another … And, moreover, those who have been in the habit of eating twice a day, if they omit dinner, become feeble and powerless, averse to all work, and have heartburn; their bowels seem, as it were, to hang loose, their urine is hot and green, and the excrement is parched; in some the mouth is bitter, the eyes are hollow, the temples throb, and the extremities are cold.”


Hippocrates loves ptisan, a boiled drink made from barley and water. Ptisan is better than other medicinal drinks made from alternate grains, and it nourishes the body and tastes pleasant, he says. Consult your doctor to determine whether you should drink unstrained ptisan or just the juice. If you’re used to eating two meals a day, drink ptisan twice with your food, and make sure to never run out of it!

“Ptisan, then, appears to me to be justly preferred before all the other preparations from grain in these diseases, and I commend those who made this choice, for the mucilage of it is smooth, consistent, pleasant, lubricant, moderately diluent, quenches thirst if this be required, and has no astringency; gives no trouble nor swells up in the bowels … Those, then, who make use of ptisan in such diseases, should never for a day allow their vessels to be empty of it, if I may say so, but should use it and not intermit, unless it be necessary to stop for a time, in order to administer medicine or a clyster.”


Heating pads may be easy to find in drugstores today, but people in the ancient world had to make their own. Hippocrates explains that hot applications can dissolve pain, making you feel better. The father of medicine advises putting hot water in a bottle, bladder, or vessel, but making sure to put a soft barrier between your skin and the hot water so you don’t get burned (still good advice).

“When pain seizes the side, either at the commencement or at a later stage, it will not be improper to try to dissolve the pain by hot applications. Of hot applications the most powerful is hot water in a bottle, or bladder, or in a brazen vessel, or in an earthen one; but one must first apply something soft to the side, to prevent pain. A soft large sponge, squeezed out of hot water and applied, forms a good application; but it should be covered up above, for thus the heat will remain the longer, and at the same time the vapor will be prevented from being carried up to the patient's breath, unless when this is thought of use, for sometimes it is the case.”


Hippocrates discusses the many uses of oxymel, a mixture of honey and vinegar, as well as hydromel, a mixture of honey and water. Drink oxymel to breathe better, cough up phlegm, and clear your windpipe. But keep in mind that in some patients, oxymel can have nasty side effects such as flatulent and watery discharges from the bowels. Also, women should be cautious when drinking too much vinegar, for it can cause uterus pain.

“[Oxymel] promotes expectoration and freedom of breathing … It also promotes flatulent discharges from the bowels, and is diuretic, but it occasions watery discharges and those resembling scrapings, from the lower part of the intestine, which is sometimes a bad thing in acute diseases, more especially when the flatulence cannot be passed, but rolls backwards; and otherwise it diminishes the strength and makes the extremities cold.”

All photos via iStock unless otherwise noted.