One of the lesser-observed illnesses affecting the human body and mind is the “windy vapors”. It is unclear why this ailment has not been given more attention recently, however this may be attributed to the fact that modern Western medicine is generally not conducive to examining invisible physical conditions.
Tumors, clogs, blockages, chemical imbalances and muscular deficiencies can all be identified, yet the issue of windy vapors poses an unusual test for medical professionals.
I’m obviously prejudiced in my opinion, since I’m not a physician. I’m grateful for the fact that my body usually functions well and I’m in good health, but at the same time I can’t see it as a smoothly running system.
Too many hidden areas, too many peculiar activities and convoluted pathways make it anything but rational.
However, as I mentioned, I’m biased. Two times, something unexpected has occurred inside me, somewhere deep in those depths–without explanation, without warning, just the unfortunate event of some unknown internal power.
And when your own body acts randomly, it’s unmistakably obvious that we’re all just attempting to make our way through a baffling puzzle.
The concept that mind and body are linked is accepted in the idea of believing in windy vapors. It follows that one’s passions must have an existence, if not a tangible form, that can be affected by the body.
To explore further, an exploration of the old-fashioned medical practice of humoral medicine is necessary. This medical form is ancient, and its odorous nature provides the starting point for a journey into the realm of windy vapors.
Since the ancient times of Hippocrates, the body has been assumed to have four fluids known as the humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and melancholy, which is also referred to as black bile.
Every person is said to possess all four in different amounts and this distinct equilibrium is thought to shape an individual’s distinct constitution. Moreover, humoral medicine contended that the body and mind are linked. Every humor had its own particular “complexion” which was responsible for allocating people with different physical, emotional, and intellectual tendencies.
For example, the corrosive properties of black bile gave rise to a melancholic’s thin body and despondent look whereas a sanguine (blood-predominant) character was symbolized by rosy cheeks and a joyful, hopeful radiance. Choleric people’s violent tempers and frenzied, impulsive fury were caused by the heated and dry humor of yellow bile, and the sluggish and languid qualities of phlegmatics were attributed to an abundance of heavy, sticky mucus.
It was believed that health was achieved via a balance of the body’s humors, and that any disruption of this equilibrium could lead to disease.
The human body was thought to be composed of the same four elements as the environment itself: hot, wet, cold, and dry. It was assumed that too much heat in the atmosphere could cause someone to become angry and bitter, and that damp conditions could lead to apathy and an abundance of phlegm.
This idea of climatic determinism lasted until the eighteenth century, and it was thought that the scorching Spanish environment led to their fiery temperaments, while the Dutch were said to be perpetually phlegmatic due to their humid climate. This notion of the body having a dynamic balance of temperature and moisture that needed to be maintained was prevalent for some time.
It was essential to be vigilant when it came to food and drink. Diet and medicine were practically inseparable as far as health and healing were concerned: “For a good cook is halfe a physycyon,” according to a Renaissance herbalist.
All edibles—in fact, all natural substances—were made up of four elements: hot, wet, cold, and dry. The only difference between food and medicines was their purpose: food to sustain well-being, medicine to restore the humoral balance. Barley, for instance, produced cold humors. Salad, wine, beer, cheese, garlic, and red meat all created hot, heavy blood. Capers, nettles, and wild hops purged phlegm.
Quails augmented melancholic humors, and melancholic individuals were advised to not consume hot wines and fried or burnt meat. Young turtledoves generated good blood while cranes, difficult to digest, provoked risky intestinal winds. Intestinal winds were always deemed hazardous.
In the eighteenth century, digestion was thought to occur in a similar fashion to a cauldron, where foods were turned into a semi-fermented mixture called chyle. This then progressed to the liver, where it was cooked further and the four humors were created.
The third transformation happened in the heart, where blood was changed into the vital spirits, which were distributed throughout the body by the arteries.
The vital spirits were then converted into animal spirits in the brain, giving the body its sensations and agility. If the digestion process was hindered or slowed down, the entire system could become chaotic.
Unprocessed food would become putrid and the humors would sour, and these resulting odours and vapours would curdle the vital spirits and cause disorder in the brain, such as delusions, frightful dreams, and depression.
In 1668, William Rowland’s A New and Needful Treatise of Wind Offending Mans Body asserted that the build-up of gas beneath the surface of the earth could lead to an earthquake if not released.
Similarly, when gas is trapped in the body, it can cause trembling. If the bowels become constipated and the humors start to decay, the wind can cause greater harm than just corporeal tremblings.
It can force its way into the body’s membranes, stretching, tearing, biting, and damaging the pipes and passages or even enlarging the ventricles of the brain until they swell painfully, like a bladder. The recommended remedy? Belching, passing gas, and the generous use of laxatives.
Rowland noted that burping and croaking of the oral variety had a distinct, sour and smoky flavor.
Farting, however, had a greater range of sound, so much so that an “ingenious person” could interpret the blockage of excrement based on the timbre.
This could manifest as a shrill whistle, a low-sounding fizzle, a humming sound similar to pipes, or a loud “Bombus”. The general rule is that the more stool within the bowels, and the more moist it is, the more rumbling and booming the farting will be, indicating an urgent need for laxatives.
The practice of curing or preventing the winds was mainly about expelling stagnant matter. Different methods for this included colon cleansers, vomitories, sternutators that induced sneezing, sudorifics, diaphoretics to bring on sweating, alexipharmics to draw away poison, masticatories, emmenagogues to trigger menstruation, melanagogues to release black bile, choleretics to stimulate the secretion of bile, phlemagogics to purge phlegm, and, of course, diuretics, expectorants, and vesicants, the latter being terrible treatments which caused blisters in order to expel toxins through the skin.
No surprise Francis Bacon, the seventeenth-century inventor of experimental science, included “less unpleasant purgings” as part of the research conducted by his fictive cult of utopian science.
The humoral theory of medicine proposed that organic substances and processes, including sedimentation, fermentation, and the accumulation of crude compounds, could become noxious if not removed in a timely manner.
This included semen, which was thought to be formulated from blood, making it especially susceptible to spoilage. Dutch physician Johan van Beverwijck wrote in 1636 that failing to release semen regularly could lead to “shortness of breath, melancholy, languor, yawning, sighing, tightness of chest, vertigo and similar symptoms.” Rowland added that having much semen and not releasing it could lead to priapism, which is an uncomfortable swelling of the penis without arousal.
Mercury, leeches, and scarification were recommended as cures, as well as avoiding sexual imagery and language. The old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure is a wise one to follow.
When it comes to the physical side of the turbulent vapors, it could come from ill-assimilated chyle, unevacuated semen, sedimented humors and densified phlegm or bile that could fester, ferment and provoke the winds.
But, it can also be generated by passions, which are the bridge between body and mind. Emotional outbursts and disruptive mental states, such as love and anger, have the potential to whip up the internal body to a fever pitch, escalating the bodily temperature to a hazardous point.
The fumes ascend towards the brain, resulting in a confused reason and chaotic imagination. This makes sense considering hot liquids produce steam and hot air always rises, which is something frequent travelers are aware of since rising air generally causes turbulence.
In his article “Vapors and Fumes, Damps and Qualms: Windy Passion in the Early Modern Age (1600-1800),” Wolter Seuntjens posits that the heat generated by love, particularly the unrequited kind, is what inflames the humors.
This is why love is often seen as a disease or a form of temporary madness: the fumes and vapors from the seething humors rise up to the brain and have the power to scorch the entrails as well. The ancient philosopher Empedocles attested to this when he observed the autopsy of a man who died of frustrated love and saw that “his heart was combust, his liver smoky, his lungs dried up, insomuch as he verily believed his soul was either sod or roasted through the vehemency of love’s fire.”
Cited in Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy , this observation is believed to have been passed down from Abraham Hoffmannus, Plato and finally Empedocles (who died two years before Plato was born).
As heat consumes water, so too does the heat of love consume the vital moisture of the body. Seuntjens claims that “by sighing, fumes are expelled, love is cooled and a crisis, quite literally, expires.”
Though we no longer regard love as something that consumes us, the imagery of a burning passion remains in our language. We still use terms like “enflamed”, “kindled” and “ignited” to describe lust and view intense emotions as if they were champagne: bottled pressure and potentially hazardous if not managed appropriately.
Furthermore, we know the symptoms of lovesickness: from the sweating, elevated heart rate and body temperature, to the sighing, languor and daydreams.
It is somewhat sorrowful that we have lost the ancient potency of love-speak, yet it is likely preferable, as no one desires a smoky liver or the clogged spleen of a hypochondriac.
Before delving into the topic of hypochondriacal men, let us first discuss the idea of hysterical women. Ancient Egyptians believed that the womb of a woman could become disgruntled due to a lack of sexual pleasure, exercise, or too much knowledge, and thus, travel around the body, causing a variety of issues.
If the womb became particularly mischievous, it would heat up, press against the essential organs, and strangle the person, leading to shortness of breath, fear, and other signs of hysteria.
The term “hysteria” is derived from the Greek word for “uterus”, which is “hystera”. Despite some medical experts denying the ability of the womb to move around, many still believed that an agitated uterus was able to contaminate the female mind with noxious vapors.
Laurinda S. Dixon’s article “Some Penetrating Insights: The Imagery of Enemas in Art” discusses how physicians in the seventeenth century prescribed daily enemas for hysterical women with the intention of cooling and moistening their wombs or luring them back into place. Rose water or oil of violet were used in combination with a large syringe, and the treatments were intended to rid the body of putrefying waste and also cool and entice the uterus. Dixon also makes the point that these treatments were not without an erotic charge, and she has images to support her argument. Men also had to contend with these issues, as the fermentation of menses created vapors that could affect the nervous system in the same way that excrement impacted hypochondriacal men.
The underlying issue for men was not excrement but the spleen, which was viewed as the body’s purification system.
This organ was thought to draw black bile and other impurities from the blood, making it thick and unclean. Scientists were mystified by how the spleen got rid of the waste, leading some to believe it was the source of unhappiness, anger, and irritability – hence the expression “venting one’s spleen in spite.”
On the other hand, some also believed that the spleen, in taking away impurities from the body, could increase joy and wit. But such theories did not have as much support as the perception that the spleen caused misery.
Sir Richard Blackmore wrote A Treatise of the Spleen and Vapors: or, Hypocondriacal and Hysterical Affections in 1725. He noted that male hypocondriacal individuals were usually thin and pale, with dark and suspicious behaviors.
They often experienced an impeded digestive function, as well as an eagerness to eat, which left undigested food in the stomach and caused violent intestinal storms. The “Hypocondriacal Winds,” so-called by Blackmore, were described as loud belching and eructation.
They could lead to the hardening and drying of the brain, leading to a range of other symptoms. This included sinking spirits, an imagined feeling of death’s nearness, twitching, dizziness, great sadness, ringing in the ears, difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much, nightmares, heavy breathing, irregular heartbeat, scattered thoughts, irrationality, powerful emotions, and irritability.
Blackmore’s title might be misleading, as he spends a lot of time discussing the spleen and even attaches a published essay on the same to the end of the work.
His argument is that hypochondria is not caused by the spleen, but rather by the “ill-concerted Scheme of those Physicians” who thought it was a receptacle of impurities.
He was a staunch defender of the spleen’s innocence, but he was also willing to stand by his belief that the spleen was not a necessary organ.
All that is left to mention is some advice. Let go of stress and worries, and don’t forget to consume fiber.
Don’t repress your feelings or dwell on bad memories. Make sure to eat a lot of lettuce, abstain from alcoholic drinks and fatty foods, especially on hot days. Women, be sure to exercise regularly.
Gentlemen, don’t let your passions become too extreme–but if it happens, take control of it immediately. Is this advice too demanding?
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