Anthroposophical medicine

Anthroposophical medicine is an extension of the medical thinking and practice based on, and inspired by, the work of the Austrian Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). Its aim is to be an extension of orthodox medicine, to complement and develop it rather than to set up an alternative. It is practised exclusively by conventionally qualified doctors who often work with the help of specially trained therapists. The word anthroposophy is derived from the Greek words anthropos meaning man, and Sophia meaning wisdom, and anthroposophical medicine looks at individual illnesses not as isolated physical or psychological disturbances but in the context of the whole life and function of the human being. It further includes the concept of integrating man with the cosmos and adopting an all-embracing way of life, an idea also found in oriental medicine.

Steiner’s ‘spiritual science’

Steiner referred to himself as a ‘spiritual scientist’. He was educated in Vienna where he studied mathematics, natural sciences and philosophy. He maintained a scientific attitude to everything, including the spiritual world to which he attached great significance. He devoted his life to the investigation and teaching of spiritual development and founded the Anthroposophical Society. He was not a doctor of medicine and for that reason he worked in close association with Ita Wegman (1876-1943), a Dutch doctor, who later founded in Switzerland one of the first clinics to use Steiner’s suggestions, the ‘Klinisch

Therapeutisch Instituut’ at Arlesheim. Steiner began his lectures to doctors in 1920 and since then many have been so inspired by his ideas that apart from hundreds of independent practices, there are now some ten specialist hospitals and two general hospitals, including a university teaching hospital, working with an anthroposophical approach to medicine. This branch of medicine has been developed most extensively in The Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland.

Fourfold and threefold pictures of man

Steiner offers a fourfold picture of man; his description of the human being adds three qualities or levels of being to the one normally studied by conventional science. In addition to the physical body, which can be weighed, measured and studied in the same way as any object, even an inanimate one, he describes the qualities of life which include growth and healing as possessing entirely different laws to non-living things. A simple example of this is that the physical law of gravity pulls substances towards the centre of the earth but the laws of life, or ‘etheric forces’ as he calls them, tend to lift substances upwards; a plant, for example, grows towards the sky. Thus, to the concept of the human being as a physical body, he adds the concept of the human as a living organism possessing a body of formative forces (termed the ‘etheric body’); humans as sentient, or responsive beings capable of experiencing an inner life of emotions and drives (possessing what Steiner calls an ‘astral body’); and as possessing a self-consciousness (an Ego or T). These four aspects are portrayed as distinct, although interrelated, and none as reducible to the laws of another. It is in terms of these four sets of activities and their particular modes of interrelation in a sick person that the anthroposophical doctor seeks to understand an illness. Treatment is to be understood as acting on these different levels in order to restore the balance of health. Life depends on maintaining a dynamic balance within a polarity of the contrasting metabolic processes of catabolism (breaking down) and anabolism (building up). Anatomically, this polarity is manifest in the contrast of nerves and blood, and psychologically, in the contrast of waking and sleeping. Such contrasts can be understood as revealing different kinds of relationships.

Thus the T and ‘sentient body’ are to be conceived as working from ‘outside’ the physical and life bodies in sleep, and from ‘inside’ when we are awake. (The words ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ call for an idea of space not limited to the familiar Euclidean model). The fact that we become ‘worn out’ when awake, and are restored through sleep, points to the fact that the conscious forces of the T and the sentient body bring about a preponderance of catabolic processes when active within the physical and life bodies. In sleep they work ‘unconsciously’ with the anabolic forces of the etheric and physical bodies to restore the balance. The interaction between these four aspects is the basis for understanding health and illness in anthroposophical medicine. In addition to this four-part organization of the human being, anthroposophists also use a division of the human organism in three spheres. Both systems complement each other. The three-part system consists of the nerve-sense-organs system, concentrated in the head (the upper pole); the metabolism-reproduction-limbs system, centered under the diaphragm (lower pole); and the rhythmic system, formed by the circulation and respiration system (middle pole). Each of these three systems again contains the fourfold picture of man and exist over the whole body, for which life and consciousness (lower and upper pole) are and have to be in continuous balance.

Continuity of life

Anthroposophy also includes the concept of reincarnation. In this way we share directly in the history and evolution of mankind. Our own inner development in our present life is a continuation of earlier lives and will be continued further in subsequent earth lives. Such a concept enables a particular illness andor a person’s general constitution to be explained as having their origins in previous lives as well as in their present life. It also means that even ‘inner’ development should be encouraged throughout the whole of life – even that taking place during a terminal illness may still bear fruit in life, in a future incarnation.

Anthroposophical medicine does not, then, see illness as merely an unfortunate accident or mechanical breakdown. It sees illness as intimately connected to the whole of the person affected and as something potentially positive if met and treated in an appropriate way. Someone in their thirties who gets chest pains, is aware of their heart beating quickly, gets headaches, sleeps poorly and feels generally exhausted but does not have heart disease in the normal sense, may, instead of being prescribed a tranquillizer, be helped by curative eurythmics and anthroposophical medicines. In addition he or she gradually learns a great deal about the needs of his or her body and the one-sidedness of his or her lifestyle and how it may be made more balanced.

Medicines in the anthroposophical approach

Most medicines used in the practice of anthroposophical medicine are derived from natural sources -mineral, plant and animal. The way in which a substance is prepared and selected for medicinal use does not depend just on how a sick human being is understood, but also on an understanding of the nature of the medical substances that could be used to treat the illness. For example, if the source of medication is a plant, the usual way to investigate the nature of a potentially medicinal substance is to reduce it to its ‘active constituents’ by separating the plant into its chemical components. When isolated and purified, their physical and chemical properties are studied and their individual pharmacological actions and toxicities investigated.

In contrast, the anthroposophical approach sees the essential nature of a potential medicinal substance in terms of the forces and processes which have produced it. In order to derive a medicine from a plant source, for example, the plant itself must first be studied in connection to its unique form, its particular life cycle, the way it relates to its environment and its life in time as well as its form in space. The influence of medicine on the human organism is not seen as being limited to chemical processes and reactions, but may directly stimulate life processes and bring about changes in the etheric body.

New medicines have been developed, such as Iscador, a mistletoe preparation for the treatment of cancer, which has been shown to stimulate the production of white blood cells, antibodies, and causes a light fever -all aspects of the body’s defence system against disease. Another is Bidor, specially prepared iron sulphate, for the treatment of migraine. Pharmaceutical companies were founded to prepare the medicines required by the new approach. A wide variety of anthroposophically developed medicines are now available, many but not all prepared in homoeopathic dosages.

Medicinal substances are chosen for use in the treatment of a particular illness by relating the qualitative nature of the substance and its formative processes to the sick patient, seen in terms of his or her own formative processes and their activity and manifestation in the physical body, in addition to their relationship with the patient’s emotional life and his or her individuality or Ego.

Other therapies

In addition to medicines, some of the following may be prescribed: special diets, massage, hydrotherapy, therapeutic eurythmics and art-based therapies such as painting, drawing, modelling, music and speech formation. These treatments are normally given by anthroposophically-trained specialists. Personal counselling may also be offered. Following the suggestions of Dr. Ita Wegman, a special form of rhythmical massage was developed to harmonize the pattern of muscle tone and to stimulate the vitality of the tissues. Methods of stimulating the circulation or bringing about relaxation have been developed using aromatic plant oils such as rosemary and lavender in ‘oil dispersion baths’. Eurythmics, an art of movement created by Steiner, has been used in specific ways for therapy. It has been called ‘visible speech’, for it uses for therapeutic purposes movements which relate to the activity, feeling and gestures of speech. By making such movements, the conscious relationship of the individual to his or her body goes through a variety of changes. The pattern of these changes is felt to alter the relationship between the patient’s conscious life and the formative life processes in his or her body. Particular eurythmic exercises are prescribed for specific illnesses. Other art-based therapies have been developed which have a direct effect on a patient’s emotional life, such as painting and music therapy, in which there is less emphasis on catharsis and interpretation than in other forms of art therapy. Instead, the art therapist helps the patient to create and experience a harmony in the mixing and painting of the colours. The painting is not rushed and the patient is encouraged to aim not i so much at producing a fine work of art as at enjoying the process itself. The therapy aims to enable the patient to experience for him or herself the process of making harmonious changes in the colours as a result of the way he or she handles them, which encourages corresponding changes in the patient’s inner state.

Anthroposophical diagnosis

Diagnostic procedures usually include taking a conventional medical history, physical examination and appropriate laboratory and radiographic investigations. In addition, special attention may be given to forming a picture of the patient’s biography and social context, including a search for underlying patterns which may be seen in the light of an anthroposophical understanding of the phases of spiritual development. It may also be important to observe some or all of the following signs: characteristic body shape and formation, tissue and fluid distribution in skin and soft tissue, muscle tension, distribution of body warmth (the special field of observation for the masseur); posture, movements and gestures (the special province of the eurythmist); modes of artistic expression (for example too much or too little form), awareness of colour (the preserve of the art therapist); social behaviour (for example, is the patient outgoing or isolated). A central factor underlying these phenomena is then sought. This represents a ‘qualitative diagnosis’ which includes but exceeds the conventional medical diagnosis. It may be described in terms of the fourfold picture of the human being as discussed above.

Thus, to summarize, Steiner’s approach gives the doctor a much wider and deeper picture of the patient than is normally obtained from ordinary medicine. A patient, for him, is a being of body, soul and spirit who has the potential for fighting his illness and even growing through it. He explores the part played by the emotional life in illness and offers practical artistic forms of therapy for treating this aspect of a patient’s problems. In contrast to the attempts to understand the phenomena of life in terms of the laws found in inanimate nature, life processes are understood as being associated with a body of formative forces which are an active component of all living organisms.