The human organism can live for a few days without water, and for several days without food. But deny it air and its lifegiving pneuma, and the body will die within minutes.
Because the air we breathe is so vitally and immediately important to the health of the entire organism, Ambient Air is the first of the Six Hygienic Factors to consider. Air and its pneuma are the essential food for the Vital Faculty, which gives life to the whole organism. Because the Vital Faculty supports and underlies the health and functioning of the entire organism, our overall health and vitality can only be as good as the quality and quantity of the air we breathe.
The air we breathe is all around us. And so, the hygienic factor of Ambient Air includes many other factors and considerations - climactic, seasonal, geographic and environmental. It forms the basis of classical Greek environmental medicine and public health.
Because the air we breathe is free and invisible, it's so often taken for granted. But the discerning physician, in assessing the patient's health, will always inquire about his/her living environment and the air he/she breathes.
Dwelling Place and Living Environment
The site or location of one's house or dwelling is an important factor in considerations of ambient air. Above all, balance and the Golden Mean between extremes is desired.
The home or dwelling should be well ventillated and not stuffy, but neither should it be exposed to wind, drafts, or chills. It shouldn't be on a high, windy ridge, but neither should it be totally enclosed or surrounded by high walls that shut out all light and fresh air.
The ideal dwelling place should receive a moderate amount of sunlight, not too glaring or direct, and tempered by an adequate amount of refreshing shade for contrast. There should be sufficient light, and not too much shadow and gloom.
The temperature of one's dwelling should be moiderate. There should be adequate heating and warmth during the winter months, and protection from cold drafts and chills. In the summer, it shouldn't be too hot, and should be exposed to fresh, cool breezes.
The ancient Greeks and Romans realized that the stale, foul air around swamps and marshes breeds disease and pestilence, so they had swamps and marshes drained, especially around major cities and population centers. The word malaria literally means, "bad air" in Latin. Above all, one's home or dwelling should be free from foul, noxious odors and vapors.
Climate and Country
The Greek physician always considers or makes concessions for the patient's country and its prevailing climactic conditions in assessing the patient's health. If possible, adjustments should be made to compensate for extremes in climate.
The ancient Greeks and Romans considered themselves to be blessed to live in a country with a temperate, sunny climate that wasn't too hot in the summer nor too cold in the winter. They recognized that extremes of heat, cold, moisture or dryness placed added stresses and burdens on the individual and his/her health.
Environments that are extremely hot and sunny also tend to be excessively dry; such are arrid desert environments. Over the long term, they tend to wither, dry and emaciate the individual. However, they may be therapeutic or remedial for those suffering from cold, wet afflictions like chronic bronchitis, weeping eczema, or rheumatism.
Environments that are hot and humid, often in tropical climates, tend to be heavy and oppressive, and the air hard to breathe. They tend to breed infectious diseases and pestilence. Otherwise, they are not particularly conducive to energy and vitality. Proper cleanliness and hygiene are imperative in such climes and seasons.
Environments that are cold, dark and moist tend to be depressing, and will aggravate chronic Phlegmatic conditions like rheumatism, bronchitis and asthma. The excessive cold and dampness puts a great strain on the immune system to protect against colds and flu.
Environments that are cold and dry aggravate Melancholic conditions like chapped, dry skin, arthritis, rheumatism, and nervous, spasmodic afflictions. Often, these are high altitude mountainous or high desert environments, which are also frequently plagued by strong winds, which also aggravate nervous, spasmodic afflictions. Since the evaporation rate is higher in high altitude environments, proper and adequate hydration is extremely important.
Greek Medicine also recognizes the beneficial effect that the air of mountainous alpine environments, as well as seaside environments, has upon the health. In particular, such airs tend to promote good digestion and sound sleep.
There are various spa resorts located throughout Europe, and in other countries and regions, whose climate has long been recognized as being especially beneficial to health. Many of these resorts date back to Greco-Roman times. Climatotherapy is a subspecialty of Greek Medicine.
Seasonal Influences on Health
The physiology and functioning of the human organism cannot remain constant, but must adapt to seasonal changes and variations in the weather. An important part of being healthy is having the necessary flexibility and adaptability to adjust to seasonal changes in the weather.
The response of the orgasnism to seasonal weather changes is coordinated by the Vital Faculty through the respiratory, circulatory and immune systems. However, the humors and the Natural Faculty, as well as the other faculties and systems of the organism, are also affected.
In winter, the cold, wet weather aggravates phlegm, and makes us vulnerable to coughs, colds and lung congestion. Since our bodies consume more energy to keep us warm, our caloric needs are higher in winter. And so, we must eat a heavier, richer, heartier diet. The cold weather also shunts the majority of the blood circulation into the interior to warm the vital organs of the body's core. Similarly, humoral superfluities and imbalances are driven deep into the body's interior, and remain latent during the winter. The colder winter temperatures make the maturation and ripening of the humors slower, and humoral disorders take longer to manifest.
In spring, the warmer weather brings the formerly latent or dormant humoral excesses of winter up to the surface. The excessive phlegm accumulated during the winter months starts to decongeal and resurface to be passed off. This surfacing of phlegm can aggravate or manifest spring pollen allergies and hay fever. Because all the accumulated excesses and superfluities of winter are being passed off, spring is a good season for fasting and cleansing regimes, which shouldn't be undertaken until the last cold snaps of winter are over. Blood also gets more exuberant and rises to the surface, making bleeding disorders like nosebleeds a problem in the spring. Wind is also strong and abundant in the spring, so one must take care to protect oneself against drafts and chills.
In summer, the hot weather shunts blood out to the exterior of the organism and the superficial capillaries in order to disperse excess heat from the body's interior. If more cooling and heat dispersal are needed, the body breaks a sweat. The hot, dry summer weather provokes aggravations of heat and choler, or yellow bile. These may produce giddiness, vomiting or nausea, as well as fevers, infections, putrefactions, heat rashes and inflammatory conditions. Because more blood is shunted out towards the exterior of the organism, the digestive organs in the body's core don't receive as much blood. This, plus the lower caloric needs of summer, often tend to depress the appetite; in summer, we should eat light, easy to digest foods. Also, since the intense summer heat leads to a lot of fluid loss through sweating, we must drink a lot of fluids to keep ourselves well-hydrated. Since the humors ripen more quickly in hot weather, humoral diseases are more active in summer, and run their course in a shorter period of time.
As summer moves into fall, the days remain hot, but the nights grow colder. These widening temperature fluctuations put a strain on the organism to adapt. The pores may open and sweat during the heat of the day, and allow evening chills to enter. Excess cold foods and drinks consumed in summer may have generated superfluous cold, damp Phlegmatic humors that may increase one's vulnerability to chills when the weather starts changing in the fall. One should take care not to drink too many cold drinks nor eat too many cooling foods when the weather starts changing. The cold, dry weather of mid-fall can produce dry, chapped skin, coryza and sore throats, coughs and hoarseness, and can aggravate Melancholic complaints. Wetter autumns are better than dryer ones, because the moisture in the air will help to liquefy the excess phlegm accumulated through dietary indiscretions in the summer, whereas dryness will only dry up and thicken this excess phlegm, making it more difficult to expel.
As the weather becomes colder again towards winter, the caloric needs of the organism increase, and the diet becomes heavier and heartier. Cold, wet winter weather produces coughs, colds and lung congestion, and the blood circulation starts to interiorize to warm the body's core. The wheel of the seasons has again come full circle.
Air pollution is one problem that's pervasive in the modern world, which was virtually unknown in antiquity. Although it may have posed a problem in some urban locales at certain times in the past, it surely wasn't nearly as widespread and pervasive as it is today.
If you pollute the air, you compromise the quantity and quality of the pneuma it contains. This will then compromise the quantity and purity of the Vital Force and Thymos generated therefrom, which will in turn affect all the vital and bodily functions.
The brain is a big consumer of oxygen and pneuma. If its supply of these is compromised by polluted air, the brain will suffer greatly, and mental clarity and thinking will be impaired.
Polluted air also becomes an irritant to the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, throat, lungs and respiratory tract. The eyes will burn and tear, the nose will get irritated, stuffy or congested, and the breathing can get difficult and labored.