Well-being or wellness are the buzzwords of the 21st century and there are millions of sites, apps and social media pages dedicated to sharing tips on incorporating wellness into our lifestyle to improve our mental, emotional, physical and spiritual being. Simple things such as taking walks through parks, a relaxing bubble bath or having reflective time are all recommended to help us cope with the stresses and strains of daily life.
Although the definitions may have changed, throughout history men and women have sought wellness in their lives, whether that is through religious or spiritual practices, food, physical activities or beauty regimes. However some of the well-being practices used throughout history may not make it to the top of your #selfcaresunday list.
Many of us have had times where we’ve felt a bit sluggish or just lacking energy. One of the remedies for this in 1930’s Germany was a radium chocolate bar. Yes, radium the radioactive chemical discovered by Marie Curie (which eventually killed her), and is now used in cancer treatments. Radium Schokolade was advertised for its rejuvenation power and thankfully was eventually discontinued in 1936.
Radium was also used in other products such as face creams, toothpaste and infused water because it was believed to give the skin a healthy glow, promote health and kill germs. For example, the Scrotal Radiendocrinator was invented to 'invigorate sexual virility’ in men. Its inventor, William J. Bailey who regularly used the device and drank large quantities of radium water, died of bladder cancer in 1949.
Hysteria was a Western medical condition mostly associated with women. The symptoms could include fainting, lack of sex drive, anxiety, insomnia, shortness of breath, a tendency to cause trouble, a lack of appetite and I would guess we could probably also throw being hangry in there. Hysteria was popularly diagnosed (or misdiagnosed) in the Victorian era however, similar ‘conditions’ were recognized in earlier Western societies. In Ancient Greece it was believed that hysteria (from the Greek hystera, meaning uterus), was caused by a wandering womb that travelled throughout the body and presented the disturbing symptoms. The “cure” for such afflictions was to guide the uterus into its proper place by rocking the pelvis on a swing, vigorous horseback riding, massage of the vulva by a physician or midwife and lots of sex with your husband.
The methods of treatment didn’t change much over time. In his ‘A Treatise of the Hypochondriack and Hysterick Diseases of 1711’, the Dutch doctor Bernard Mandeville recommend that women should engage in three hours of massage daily – who has the time?! In the 19th century, with the womb back in its correct anatomical position, treatments for hysteria included orgasm-inducing hydrotherapy devices and electromechanical vibrators.
Insomnia or a difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep, can be caused by a range physical, mental, emotional or environmental factors. Ancient treatments for insomnia went above and beyond the common burning relaxing essential oils or drinking sedative herbal teas. Remedies included massaging the soles of the feet with dormouse fat, rubbing a combination of rose water, vinegar and breast milk onto the brows, and last but no means least disturbing, rubbing dog ear wax onto the teeth.
At the end of 2016 as part of their global ad campaign, Spotify placed a billboard reading “Dear person in London who listened to the ‘Forever Alone’ playlist for 5 hours on Valentine’s Day, you OK?” Witty but also slightly sad.
Relationships are a vital part of our well-being and when these relationships break down, how do we cope? The modern day remedy may include the numbing qualities of Spotify playlists or box sets on Netflix, but for the ancients the cure for a broken heart was much more complex.
In the late 11th century, the monk Constantine the African translated ancient medical text from Arabic into Latin and Greek. His work, the Viaticum, describes lovesickness or eros as a disease that could be identified by hollow eyes, great longing, and intense sexual desire. This condition was originally associated with aristocratic men who idiolised a woman who rejected his advances. (Poor people were too busy tending the fields to develop real feelings of love).
In the Middle Ages, the cause of lovesickness was believed to be an affliction of the mind and imagination, or due to an imbalance of the four bodily humours: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. Love sickness, like melancholy was due to an excess of black bile (secreted by the kidneys and spleen). The treatment for which was to release the excess humours through blood-letting, baths, sleep, eating well, or sex. We may have found the origin of the phrase ‘the best way to get over someone is to get under someone’.
During the Renaissance, lovesickness was no longer seen as a mental condition or a form of melancholy but was associated with impulsivity and shame, and the majority of cases began to involve female patients. Uterine fury was often cited as the cause for lovesickness in women, with more invasive treatments such as female genital mutilation or drug therapy.
Diets are probably one of the few things in our modern well-being practices that may be just as strange now as they were centuries ago. For example, the Cabbage Soup Diet, the hCG Diet and the Lemonade Diet have all gained popularity in the past few years but also carry health (and flatulence) risks and do not provide a long-term, sustainable approach to weight management and health.
The word diet comes from the Greek word, diaita meaning ‘a way of life’, and this was the custom for many ancient systems, particularly in Ancient African civilisations and in the East, where eating well and exercise were part of everyday life. For Hippocrates the key to health weight loss could be achieved by eating immediately after exercise and while still panting from fatigue, wrestling, avoiding sex, sleeping on a hard bed and walking around naked for as long as possible.
In the 19th century, the American health and social reformer Sylvester Graham was a key advocate of the degeneracy theory which stated that too much sex (even with your spouse), masturbation and an unhealthy diet were the cause of disease and the general fall of society. He proposed a regime of clean living, pure thoughts, a vegetarian diet and regular exercise. His most popular solution was to create a cracker, the Graham Cracker, which was free from chemicals and essentially flavour to reduce people’s sexual desires. Another prominent supporter of the degeneracy theory was John Harvey Kellogg who created cornflakes with the belief that such bland foods would prevent masturbation. The recipe for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes has obviously changed since the late 1800’s and I can safely say that the only thing it puts me off of is eating more Kellogg’s Corn Flakes.