Western Herbal Energetics and the Four Humors System

By Lisa Ganora, CSCH Director

Just as traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda have systems of energetics, Western herbalism was originally based on a recognition of the energies and balance of elements, humors, and constitution (temperament) in both herbs and people. Today we use an evolution of this system as the basis for Vitalist herbalism and nutrition.

As far as we know, the ancient Egyptians were among the first to record the idea of what we might today call the Four Elements: Fire, Air, Water, Earth. Egyptian knowledge passed on to the Classical Greeks, where Empedocles (~ 450 BC) called them “The Four Roots” and Plato is credited with naming them “The Four Elements.” As descended to Unani Tibb (Arabic for ‘Medicine of the Greeks’), these Four Basics are called the Arkan: Fire is Naar or Aag; Air is Hawa; Water is Ma or Pani; Earth is Mitti or Arz. This basic four-elements concept is practically universal; it’s just the way life on our planet works. Those contemporary pragmatists among us might say Energy, Gas, Liquid, Solid.

It has been understood by way of these traditions that the Four Elements are the most basic, simple principles of which all matter (and Life) is composed; that human constitutions (temperaments) are rooted in varying balances of these elements; and that the properties of herbal medicines are based on them as well. The essence and power of remedies is based on the interaction among the elements, as combined in human temperament and in the personalities (energetics) of the medicine plants.

Empedocles wrote that a change in anything was brought about by a shift of the balance of the Roots. This shift was the work of the “Moving Powers” – of which there were but two: Love (Attraction) and

Strife (Repulsion). Life was understood to occur when there was a working contention between the two; pure Strife was Chaos, without Life; pure Love was Harmony without Life.

These Four Elements were considered to be the Roots of the Four Primary Qualities or Forces of Nature: Hot, Cold, Moist, and Dry.

  • Air: Hot and Wet
  • Fire: Hot and Dry
  • Earth: Cold and Dry
  • Water: Cold and Wet

Elements transmute into one another by changes in primary qualities; for example, air becomes water if its Hot changes to Cold, while Wet remains the same. Dry Earth, by leaving Cold and becoming Hot, turns into Dry Fire.

This is all well and good, but how can we experience these Primary Qualities?

It was understood that each Primary Quality has a set of Secondary Qualities, or characteristics, that manifest in all matter:

  • Hot: light, rare/thin, subtle, penetrating, dispersive
  • Cold: heavy, dense, solid, aggregative
  • Wet: soft, slippery, smooth, clammy, receptive, adaptive
  • Dry: hard, rough, brittle, fragile, resistant

And finally, all of this comes together:

  • Earth: dry, cold, heavy, dense, compact, firm, rough, stable, lasting
  • Water: wet, cold, intermediate weight and density, soft, slippery, changeable
  • Air: moist, warm, light, thin, subtle, soft, smooth, very mutable
  • Fire: dry, hot, rare/thin, penetrating, very light, agent of transformation

Health was seen as a dynamic and harmonious balance of contrary elements and qualities:

  • Heat and Dryness of Fire contrary to Cold & Moisture of Water
  • Heat & Moisture of Air contrary to Cold & Dryness of Earth

Where do ‘humors’ come in? I find myself wishing people wouldn’t call this the “Four Humors” system, as the idea of a ‘humor’ seems to me to be more difficult to grasp. In the somewhat degenerate state of Western medicine in later centuries, a humor was sometimes thought of quite literally as a fluid or substance. And later when no obvious system of humors was found by the anatomists, the whole system was eventually dismissed as a folly.

So are humors real? And if so, what are they, and how do they relate to the Four Roots/Elements and the Four Primary Qualities? David Osborn, L.Ac., eloquently and succinctly put this into contemporary language:

“The four humors are the metabolic agents of the four elements in the human body.”

Simple, succinct, profound. It’s like E = mc2. Cogitate on that one for a while.

Here’s another pearl from Hakim Chishti, Unani doctor/teacher and ND:

“A humor exists in a kinetic state, at all times adjusting and interspersing with the body fluids, tissues, and parts.” – The Traditional Healer’s Handbook

The Four Humors

  • Blood
    • Element: Air
    • Qualities: Hot, Moist
  • Phlegm
    • Element: Water
    • Qualities: Cold, Moist
  • Yellow Bile
    • Element: Fire
    • Qualities: Hot, Dry
  • Black Bile
    • Element: Earth
    • Qualities: Cold, Dry


Temperament: Constitutional Balance of the Humors, Qualities, Elements

What we now call ‘constitution’ used to be called ‘temperament.’ Which is the origin of words such as ‘temperamental’ – meaning volatile, emotional, excitable; and the infamous ‘temper’ as in, so-and-so as a bad temper. Or temper tantrum. Anyone heard of the ‘well-tempered clavier’? Google it. Well-tuned, well-balanced. What is tuned, what is balanced? Within a person, that would be the Four Humors, the Secondary Qualities, the Primary Qualities, the Elements, the Roots, the Moving Powers.

Any individual might have a prominence of some of these, and a quietude of others. Or a tendency to express an excess of some and a deficiency of their opposites.

Which leads us to:

The Four Temperaments

  • Sanguine
    • Dominant Humor: Blood
    • Dominant Element: Air
    • Primary Qualities: Hot, Moist
  • Phlegmatic
    • Dominant Humor: Phlegm
    • Dominant Element: Water
    • Primary Qualities: Cold, Moist
  • Melancholic
    • Dominant Humor: Black Bile
    • Dominant Element: Earth
    • Primary Qualities: Cold, Dry
  • Choleric
    • Dominant Humor: Yellow Bile
    • Dominant Element: Fire
    • Primary Qualities: Hot, Dry

And now to tie this all in with herbal energetics – by way of examples.

  • When a Choleric type eats a lot of fresh Garlic (a dramatically hot and dry herb), you might expect to see overheating and over-drying sooner than if a Phlegmatic type does so. The heat and dryness of the Garlic is generally experienced as balancing and corrective to a cold, moist constitution; whereas it can generally have an aggravating effect on a hot, dry constitution.
  • A cold, drying, tonic/astringent, bitter digestive herb, such as Yellow Dock, might be nicely balancing to a Sanguine type with hot, moist tendencies in the GI. But too much Rumex might lead to inhibition of digestive fire in a Melancholic type who is already cold and dry; or might be balancing for the heat of the Choleric type, as long as the dryness is counterbalanced by adding a moist herb to the formulation and including plenty of hydration.
  • A pure relaxant nervine herb, like Lobelia, could have an exaggerated effect on an already relaxed, sluggish, or sunken person, process, or tissue; while it could be just the ticket for a tense, overstimulated, hypertonic person, process, or tissue. In any case, you can balance Lobelia’s energetics in formulation. To quote Cook: “In the majority of instances, the nervine relaxants are the most powerful antispasmodics … Lobelia is altogether the most direct and powerful … that action itself must be sustained by diffusive stimulants, such as … Zingiber with Capsicum.”
  • A tonic/astringent herb, such as Uva-Ursi, might be aggravating to a tense, hypertonic, irritable, hot condition, process, tissue or person; whereas a cooling, moistening, relaxant demulcent herb like Cornsilk might be just the ticket or might act as a counterbalance to the Uva Ursi in formulation – in case you wanted to use the Uva Ursi for its urinary tract antiseptic action but needed to correct for the potential constitutional aggravation.

Temperament or constitution influences several things:

  • An individual’s perception of the energetics of an herb is experienced relative to their own temperament/constitution. A hot herb might be even hotter and possibly aggravating to a hot person, tissue, or process; a cold herb can over-chill a cold person, tissue, or process; same deal with wet and dry.
  • The ‘energetic dosage’ of the herb for a given constitutional type. A Phlegmatic person may tolerate and positively respond to a higher dose of Ginger; a Choleric might do well with a lower dose. It’s not that hot people can’t benefit from hot herbs; adjust the dosage and consider …
  • How a clinician formulates for an individual. If your hot, moist client really needs a hot, moist herb for some reason, you can counterbalance the energetics by adding other cooler, dryer herbs to their formula.

When we practice contemporary herbalism and nutrition based in this system, we consistently see deep and long-lasting changes in a person’s health and vitality. By working with both the individual’s temperament and the energetics of the herbs and foods, we can craft our herbal therapeutics to treat the individual situation. This is a much more effective approach than allopathic substitution herbalism, which takes a more superficial “this-herb-for-that-disease” approach. Herbs are not substitutes for drugs; rather, they supply the body with the tools and qualities that the intelligence of Life needs to rebalance and correct its dysfunction.


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