Popular Science Monthly/Volume 24/February 1884/The Remedies of Nature IX
By FELIX L. OSWALD, M. D.
HYGIENIC pathology, or the plan of curing the disorders of the human organism by the aid of the remedial agencies of Nature, is founded on the fact that disease is not only a wholly abnormal condition, but that, within the years allotted to the individuals of our species, there is a strong healthward tendency in the constitution of the human system, which tendency does not fail to assert itself as soon as the predisposing cause of the disorder has been removed. In the treatment of consumption and scrofula, the principles of this theory have been generally recognized; but I believe that their application to the nervous diseases (asthenia, neurosis, chlorosis, hysteria, nervous debility) is destined to effect a still greater reform in the present system of therapeutics.
The study of biology is largely a study of hereditary influences. In the form and structure, in all the peculiar life-habits of each organic being, we can trace the outcome of ancestral transmissions, and, as a general rule, the persistence of such peculiarities corresponds to the length of time during which the influence of their causes was impressed upon the character of the species. The period of artificial civilization, even if considered as coeval with the era of recorded history, is but a moment compared with the ages during which man-like creatures, the ancestors of our domestic animals and the prototypes of our cultivated plants, existed in the warmer zones of our planet. After six thousand years of cultivation on parched hill-sides, the vine is still by preference a tree-shade plant. After many thousand generations of cats have been fed and petted in daytime and neglected after dark, puss is still a night-prowler. Barnyard fowl have still a predilection for thorny jungles, and in the plains of Russia the descendants of the mountain-goat climb wood-piles and cottage-roofs. In the constitution of all organic beings there is a tendency to revert to the original life-habits of the species. Biologists have long recognized the significance of that law, but its hygienic importance has hardly begun to be understood. For it implies not less than this: That the vital functions of every living being are performed more easily and more vigorously under the conditions to which the constitution of its organism was originally adapted. A swamp-boa may subsist for years in a dry board cage; eagles have been chained to a post for a quarter of a century, and lost the gloss of their feathers, their vigor, their courage, though not their lives. No drugs would cure the ailments of such captives; but restore them to their native haunts, and see how fast they will regain their native vigor! Their infirmities could not have been traced to any single cause, but were due to the combined influence of numerous unnatural conditions.
A similar combination of abnormal circumstances causes thousands of the perplexing complaints known as nervous diseases—nervous debility, languor, want of vital vigor. The introduction of narcotic drinks is no sufficient explanation for the present increase of such disorders. Prince Pückler-Muskau describes an iron-fisted Arab chieftain of Southern Tunis who, in his eightieth year, could manipulate a bow that would have nonplused the champions of our archery clubs, who undertook an expedition that kept him in the saddle for three days and two nights, and who could abstain from food for the same length of time, but always traveled with a skinful of moist coffee-paste, which he sucked and chewed like tobacco. West China mountaineers, able to contest the prize of any weight-lifting match or wrestling-bout, and of otherwise most abstemious habits, can not subsist without a daily dose of the national beverage. No sensible person would maintain that such people owe their vigor to their narcotic tipples; no pathologist would deny that it deprives them of part of their strength, but that its use alone could cause the premature decrepitude of millions of Indo-Germanic invalids would be an equally untenable assertion. It is merely an additional factor in the multitude of unnatural habits that make up the misery of our modern modes of life.
That our primogenitors passed their days among trees is one of the few points on which Moses and Darwin agree; whether four handers or frugivorous two-handers, they certainly were forest-creatures, and breathed an air saturated with elements of which the atmosphere of our tenement barracks is more devoid than the briny breeze of the ocean. Our lungs suffer for it; but not our lungs alone. Besides being the best pulmonary pabulum, oxygen is a nerve-tonic; a forester, a hunter, a Swiss shepherd-boy, in a state of tubercular consumption, would be less exceptional phenomena than in a state of nervous fretfulness. A constitutional kind of good-humor sweetens the hardships of the overtaxed peasantry of Southern Europe, as its absence certainly aggravates the misery of our factory-slaves. And it would be a mistake to suppose that only summer air can exercise this nerve-soothing influence. Let a chlorotic girl take a sleigh-ride on a cold, clear winter day, or through a snow-storm; let her skate; give her a chance to get an hour's out-door exercise even on drizzly or frosty days. The north wind may white-freeze her ear-tips, but it will restore the color of her cheeks, it will restore her appetite, her energy, and her buoyant spirits. Those whom necessity compels to limit their out-door rambles to the half-mile between home and shop, should let the night make up for the shortcomings of the day, and sleep—in dry weather, at least—in the draught of a wide-open window. Only a first experiment of that sort will necessitate the addition of a night-cap to one's bedclothing; and even nervous ladies will resist the temptation to cover up their faces, if they find how soon the wonted morning languor gives way to the influence of Nature's restorative. Those who dislike to risk the discomfort of initiation before ascertaining the value of the remedy can make another test-experiment: After a summer excursion, when fatigue and early rising enable anybody to sleep soundly in an open tent, the first few nights after returning home will be a favorable time for defying the night air superstition and sleeping, perhaps with slight qualms of the old prejudice, but without the least bodily discomfort, on a balcony or in an open hall, with open windows on all sides. After a week, transfer the couch to the old airtight bedroom, and note the result: All the next forenoon a queer feeling of discomfort, as after a prolonged exposure to the fumes of a smoky kitchen, will illustrate the difference between natural and unnatural modes of life. To persons who have thus emancipated themselves from the delusions of the night-air dread, the atmosphere of a close bedroom is oppressive enough to spoil the night's rest and bring on a relapse of many of the distressing concomitants of nervous insomnia. A slight elevation of the window-sash will remedy the evil, and we might expatiate upon the correlation between the nerve-centers and the respiratory apparatus of the human body, but the plain ultimate reason is that the organism has been restored to an essential element of its original existence.
Jacob Engel has a story of a splenetic student who composed his own funeral dirge, with a lugubrious list of the sorrows from which he anticipated demise would liberate his soul. On discovering the lyric, his father ordered him to excavate a gravel-bank for a family vault, as none of his relatives could be expected to survive his untimely fate. The prescription proved a success, and a few weeks later Heraclitus Junior was caught writing sonnets to the hired girl. Want of exercise is, indeed, a most fruitful cause of nervous maladies. Our Darwinian relatives, creatures so similar to us in the structure of every muscle, every joint and sinew of their bodies, are the most restless habitants of the woods. "It makes one dizzy to watch the evolutions of the long-armed gibbons," Victor Jacquemont writes from the Nerbudda; "the first one I saw made me think that he was suffering from an acute attack of St. Vitus's fits, but I have found out that it is a chronic disease. They keep moving while the sun is in sight." Savages alternate their wigwam holiday with periods of prodigious exertion, and an occasional mountain tour would atone for a good many days of city life, but hardly for weeks of sedentary occupation. Without at least one hour per day of active out-door exercise, no native strength of constitution can resist the morbific influences of stagnant humors. Of the immortal soul's dependence upon the conditions of the body there are few stranger illustrations than the psychic influence of narcotic drugs. A mere indigestion can temporarily metamorphose the character of the patient, and all manner of symptoms ascribed to "heart-disease," aneurism, intestinal parasites, spinal or cerebral affections, are often simply due to depraved humors and their reaction on the nervous system. By increasing the action of the circulatory system, physical exercise promotes the elimination of such humors, with their whole train of morbid consequences—chlorosis, tantrums, troubled dreams, and the nervous affections proper; restlessness and want of vital energy. What amounts of "tonic" nostrums—keeping their promise of restoring the vigor of the system by producing a fever-energy—would be thrown in the gutter, if the patient could be persuaded to try the receipt of Jacob Engel! "When I reflect on the immunity of hard-working people from the effects of wrong and over feeding," says Dr. Boerhaave, "I can not help thinking that most of our fashionable diseases might be cured mechanically instead of chemically, by climbing a bitterwood-tree, or chopping it down, if you like, rather than swallowing a decoction of its disgusting leaves." For male patients, gardening, in all its branches, is about as fashionable as the said diseases, and no liberal man would shrink from the expense of a board fence, if it would induce his drug-poisoned wife to try her hand at turf-spading, or, as a last resort, at hoeing, or even a bit of wheelbarrow-work. Lawn-tennis will not answer the occasion. There is no need of going to extremes and exhausting the little remaining strength of the patient, but without a certain amount of fatigue the specific fails to operate, and experience will show that labor with a practical purpose—gardening, boat-rowing, or amateur carpentering—enables people to beguile themselves into a far greater amount of hard work than the drill-master of a gymnasium could get them to undergo. Besides the potential energy that turns hardships into play-work, athletes have the further advantage of a greater disease-resisting capacity. Their constitution does not yield to every trifling accident; their nerves can stand the wear and tear of ordinary excitements; a little change in the weather does not disturb their sleep; they can digest more than other people. Any kind of exercise that tends to strengthen—not a special set cf muscles, but the muscular system in general—has a proportionate influence on the general vigor of the nervous organism, and thereby on its pathological power of resistance.
For nervous children my first prescription would be—the open woods and a merry playmate; for the chlorotic affections of their elder comrades—some diverting, but withal fatiguing, form of manual labor. In the minds of too many parents there is a vague notion that rough work brutalizes the character. The truth is, that it regulates its defects: it calms the temper, it affords an outlet to things that would otherwise vent themselves in fretfulness and ugly passions. Most school-teachers know that city children are more fidgety, more irritable and mischievous than their village comrades; and the most placid females of the genus homo are found among the well-fed but hard-working housewives of German Pennsylvania.
That hard work in the factory does not lead to the same result is due to the contrast between fresh and foul air; but also to the difference between sunshine and artificial twilight. Light is a chief source of vital energy, and every deduction from the proper share of that natural stimulus of the organic process is sure to tell upon the well-being of every living organism. See the difference between the vegetation of the south side and the north side of the same mountain-range, the gradations in the stunted appearance of hot-house plants, house-plants, and cellar-plants, the achromatism and strange deformities of animals inhabiting the waters of underground rivers. The direct rays of the sun seem to exercise many of the effects which the manufacturers of "electric brushes" ascribe to the use of their contrivances. In ancient Rome special sun-bathing houses were used as a specific for a form of asthenia, which was then more frequent than premature debility—the infirmity of extreme old age. In winter-time white-haired invalids, stripped to the waist, basked for hours under the glass-roof of a solarium which excluded the chill winds, but admitted the light from all sides, and the same remedy would prove even more effective in the treatment of chlorosis—properly a twilight-disease, and due to the same causes that rob a cellar-plant of its color and vigor. A board fence may fail to remove the fear of peeping Toms, but on sequestered mountain-meadows, warmed by a July sun, or better yet on the beach of a lonely sea-shore, the patient may while away an hour in the costume of the Nereids; or, after the manner of the sensible Brazilians, children may at safe hours be permitted to turn a leafy garden into paradise. Persons of highly limited means can utilize the elevation of their garrets, and use a half-screened window-corner as a solarium, for hours together. The expectation of disastrous consequences will be as surely disappointed as the dread of the night air. "Colds" are not taken in that way. The hairy coat which may, or may not, have covered the bodies of our prehistoric forefathers, did not interfere with the beneficial action of the solar rays, and it is not the least among the disadvantages of our artificial modes of life, that this benefit is now limited to one tenth, or, in the case of a muffled-up lady of fashion, to one per cent, of the cutaneous surface.
The diet should be sparing, but not to the degree of being astringent, for chronic constipation and nervousness are almost invariable concomitants. There are many appetizing vegetable articles of diet of which a liberal quantum can be eaten without exceeding the needs of the organism; but here, more than elsewhere, it is of paramount importance to remember the chief rule of the peptic catechism: not to eat till we have leisure to digest. Vertigo, myopsis (visions of floating specks clouding the eye-sight), palpitation of the heart, and the indescribable irritations and discomforts of the sufferers from nervous disorders, can frequently be traced to the influence of after-dinner work—work, perhaps, requiring severe mental application, though the brain aches for rest—while about a million of American school-teachers and counting-house drudges still aggravate their misery by the use of tonic bitters in the United States, and of ginger-drops and chilé colorado in South America. Narcotic drinks are an equally fruitful source of nervous affections, and tea, the chief culprit, is too often mistaken for a liberator. A cup of "good, strong tea" relieves a nervous headache in exactly the same manner that medicated whiskey relieves the distress of a torpid liver, and the fact that the abnormal excitement is regularly followed by a depressing reaction would not undeceive the victim of the stimulant-delusion, if the repetition of the stimulation-process were not sure to impair the efficacy of the tonic, unless the dose is steadily increased. Only after that increase has in vain been carried to an alarming extent, the patient is apt to look for a less delusive remedy. And yet the sudden discontinuance of a long-wonted tonic will at first aggravate the distress to a degree that would overtax the endurance of most persons, and the trials of the transition period should therefore be mitigated by the influence of some healthy stimulus—the diversion of a journey, or of an exciting and very pleasant occupation. Indigestible made dishes should also be carefully avoided, and the gratitude of suffering thousands—both nurses and patients—awaits the philanthropist who shall give us a treatise on the art of preparing an appetizing dinner without the use of the frying-pan. Nervous people are extremely fastidious, especially in the choice of their solid food, and doubly so after the interdict of their favorite liquids, yet a single plateful of fried and spiced viands may bring on a relapse of the unhappiest symptoms, with the attendant mental affections of the poor followers of Epicurus who "would be perfect gentlemen if it were not for their tantrums." Spleen is a disorder of the nerves, rather than of the brain, and a large complexus of nerve-organs is situated in the close proximity of the stomach. The eel-stews of Mohammed II kept the whole empire in a state of nervous excitement, and one of the meat-pies which King Philip failed to digest caused the revolt of the Netherlands. If hired girls had a vote in the matter, ladies of a certain temper would be restricted to a diet of attractive vegetables.
Everything that tends to exhaust the vital resources of the body disposes it to nervous disorders. Sexual excesses, therefore, contribute a large share to the debilitating influences of civilized life. Hysterical affections may sometimes result from the unsatisfied cravings of the sexual passion, but chiefly because the suppression of that instinct often leads to its perversion. There is such a thing as mental incontinence; the writings of hysterical nuns, for instance, abound with erotic effusions. And, while spinsters and widows are often strong minded to an unsexing degree, the most pitifully nervous women are found among the wives of the wretches who consider a marriage-contract a license for illimited venery. For girls of a chlorotic disposition, a prurient literature does what sewer-gas would do for a consumptive—though idleness will find other means to supply the want of dime-novels. In such cases, out-door work is worth all the medicines of the drug-market.
A quiet country home is the best refuge from the sufferings of that dreary form of nervous disorders that result from the reaction of deep mental wounds—disappointed hope, reverses of fortune, or the loss of a favorite child. Seasons make no difference; the very hardships of rustic life often act as a balm in such afflictions. After the death of his only son, Goethe sought solace among the pines of the Thuringian forest, like Shenstone in his Ainsford solitude, and Petrarch in his hermitage of Vaucluse. "A sick man," says old Burton, "sits upon a green bank, and, when the dog-star parcheth the plains and dries up the rivers, he lies in a shady bower, fronde sub arborea ferventia tempered astra, and feeds his eyes with a variety of objects, herbs, trees, to comfort his misery—or takes a boat on a pleasant evening, and rows upon the waters, which Plutarch so much applauds, Ælian admires, upon the river Pineus—in those Thessalian fields, beset with green bays, where birds so sweetly sing that passengers, enchanted, as it were, with their heavenly music, omnium laborum et curarum obliviscantur, forget forthwith all labors, care, and grief." Especially if the passenger can be persuaded to row his own boat, and to dismiss the delusion that the night-mists of his Pineus have to be counteracted with a bottle of alcoholic bitters.In the homes of the poor, nervous afflictions are sometimes the result of insufficient sleep. After a sleepless night, the attempt to engage in labor of an exacting kind will lead to a fever of fidgets and nervous twitchings, and the same consequences may result from the habit of rising every morning before Nature admits that the gain of the night has quite equalized the expenses of the foregoing day. But it is a true saying that we are not nourished by what we eat, but by what we digest, and that an indigestible meal is as bad as a fast-day. Nervous people should remember that unquiet sleep is not much better than sleeplessness, and that the blessing of a good night's rest can be enjoyed only in a well-ventilated bedroom. With the largest possible supply of fresh air by day and by night, with sunshine, out-door exercise, and healthy food, the most obstinate nervous disorders can be gradually overcome; the impediments yield, till the river of life flows with an unobstructed current: the body has been restored to the conditions of existence for which its organism was originally adapted.