Asthma Through the Ages

SRxA’s Word on Health prides itself on bringing you the latest, cutting edge health and medical new stories. Today, however we’re going back in time and looking at an issue close to our heart (and lungs) – asthma.

The earliest recorded reference to wheezing and respiratory distress was recorded in China around 2,600 B.C.  Huang Ti, legendary leader of China wrote: “Man is afflicted he cannot rest and when his breathing has a sound.”  At the time, it was believed that asthma was caused by an imbalance of the yin and yang.

A thousand or so years later, the Babylonian “Code of Hammurabi” (1792-1750 B.C.) recorded symptoms of breathlessness: “If a man’s lungs pant with his work … When the breath of a man’s mouth is difficult.”

Around 300 B.C. Hippocrates first used the word “Asthma” (Greek for “wind” or “to blow”) for panting and respiratory distress. He is believed to be the first physician to understand the relationship between the environment and respiratory ailments, correlating illness with climate and location.

When Alexander the Great invaded India in 321 B.C. , he found locals smoking the herb stramonium, which they claimed relaxed the lungs. Today, a number of similar atropine-based compounds are still  used in asthma treatment.

The Greco-Roman doctor Galen ( 201-130 B.C.), identified asthma symptoms and established that asthma was caused by bronchial obstruction.  His treatment for the condition was owl’s wine.

Around the same time, other Roman physicians described asthma as “gasping” and the “inability to breathe without making noise.”  They also claimed: “If from running, gymnastic exercises or any other work, the breath becomes difficult, it is called asthma.” Today the American Lung Association calls this “silent asthma”.

A little later, another Roman, Gaius Plinius Secundus (23 A.D.) better known as Pliny the Elder noted that pollen was a source of respiratory distress and recommended use of ephedra (better known today as an FDA banned diet drug) and red wine as asthma remedies.   He also suggested that drinking the blood of wild horses and eating 21 millipedes soaked in honey could help!

Approximately  400 years later, the Jewish Talmud describes “drinking three weights of hiltith,” a resin of the carrot family, as a remedy for asthma.   While seven hundred or so years later, the philosopher and physician Maimonides published his “Treatise on Asthma.” In this he recommended comprehensive treatment including rest, good personal hygiene and environment, avoidance of opium, a small quantity of wine and special diet. Nuts, fowl, milk, cool vegetables and legumes were forbidden, while the soup of fat hens was considered beneficial.

Chicken noodle soup anyone?

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