The nutrition and fitness industry is chalked full of nonsense, heretics, and fanatical dogmatists, so much so that the author is forced to use academic language to describe them. There has been a growing movement to try and overcome that nonsense with evidence-based information but there is still a ways to go before the truth becomes mainstream.
This blog post brings to light a similar situation that happened way back when, 300 years ago, in the world of medicine. It was the Age of Enlightenment and the foundations of modern medicine were about to be formed. At the center of it, was a man who would face great strife yet found the several disciplines of medicine that we owe our health and wellness to. A guy by the name of Paracelsus.
Who was Paracelsus?
Paracelsus, also known by his more epic name, Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, is considered the father of modern toxicology. A Swiss German, Paracelsus had a laundry list of occupations: he was a physician, a botanist, an alchemist, an astrologer, and a general occultist.
He questioned prior teachings that relied on past written works and focused on using what was in nature to create cures to ailments. He was often accused of doing magic, but Paracelsus did not believe this of himself. He simply felt that natural treatments were truly healing and that real experience and practicality were supreme.
In a world where supplements are toted as magic pills and potions necessary to get the job done, Paracelsus’ wisdom pushes the fitness-inclined to stick with the basics: good food and good sleep. Quality food and quality rest should make up the best of ones training, regardless of their level of competition. Even the elite athlete needs to optimize their nutrition to seek the best in performance. If they take magic pills, they take magic pills. The foundation however, should not be things that are questionable and superfluous.
What did Paracelsus do?
His main contribution to the field was the idea of focusing on the primary toxic agent as a chemical entity, or “toxicon.” He held experimentation to be essential in examining responses to chemicals, stating that there should be a distinction made between the therapeutic and toxic properties of chemicals. These properties, he noted, could only be distinguishable by dose.
“The Dose Makes the Poison” – Paracelsus
More important, are the lengths that he went to form these ideas. For Paracelsus was not exalted for his discoveries. No, he was criticized for his revolutionary ideas, even being accused of heresy among his Catholic colleagues.
The toxicon concept can be taken to the disease of over-eating. Every food, in its own quantity is harmful to us. When it comes to quantity of food, over-eating the healthy kind of food can still lead to illness. In this way, food (something nourishing) can be poisonous to the human body.
How did he do it?
So how exactly did Paracelsus make such groundbreaking discoveries? Through questioning the basic foundations of medicine at the time.
Paracelsus moved from university to university, challenging well-educated academic scholars. In fact, he was quoted as saying that he wondered how “the high colleges managed to produce so many high asses.” He held the knowledge of common people like innkeepers, barbers, and old wives, to be more important than what he found in academic works.
After completing his baccalaureate in medicine at the University of Vienna in 1510, Paracelsus set about wandering through Europe, taking on many occupations and roles to gain well-rounded and practical medical experience. Here are some of his exciting experiences:
- He was an army surgeon in the Netherlandish wars of 1515 and in Italy in 1521.
- He was captured in Russia by Tartars and then escaped to Lithuania.
- He traveled through Egypt, Arabia, the Holy Land, and Constantinople.
In all these places he looked for the best alchemists, adding to his knowledge base and expanding the ways that medicine could help people.
Taking an appointment as a lecturer and physician at the University of Basel in 1524, Paracelsus became a popular teacher. Students from all over the continent came to learn from this physician who had traveled and learned from the most educated people in the world as they knew it.
Here, we can take the lesson of practical experience triumphing over reading. Reading is absolutely important, don’t get this wrong.
Strategizing, building a rough idea of the big picture, and preparation are all aspects of pursuing a task that the theoretical allows us to take part in. At the end of the day, its challenging those theoretical concepts with practical experience that will ultimately lead to progress. You can read as many diet books or training modalities as you want. You can examine Paleo, low carb, high carb, ketogenic, Atkins, Sheiko, 5/3/1, Westside, or DUP. It doesn’t matter unless you see for yourself, through experience, the impact that these programs/diet protocols will entail on you.
Paracelsus was so adamant in his desire to forgo the old and outdated that he was reported to have publicly burned textbooks written by then-hugely-studied physicians like Avicenna/Ibn Sina (980-1037 C.E.) and Galen (129-200 C.E.).
Likely sick of seeing outdated treatments still being used, he figured that burning these texts would send a message that other methods that were available and should be taught. He went on to attack major malpractices in medicine of the age, such as the use of salves, infusions, and balsams.
Now, book burning seems a little extreme, Genghis Khan-esque even. However, it shows a point as to how stubborn people were against the ideas for development and innovation that Paracelsus posed.
Paracelsus sought to refine what was previously posed in the medical profession through greater practical experience. However, the findings of his experiences were rebuked by everyone including the Church. Truth be told, Paracelsus’ ideas and his fame came after his death, centuries later.
Absorb what is useful, discard what is not, add what is uniquely your own. – Bruce Lee
This example hopefully does not motivate you, the reader, to jump out and go on a library burning spree, showing up on the six o’clock news, and charged with arson. However, it brings a point as to the propagation of misinformation, especially in the fitness industry.
There could not be enough songs or sonnets that would adequately summarize how much nonsense there exists in the world of fitness information. Paracelsus’ example should bring to light that you can’t just present well-supported information. You have to promote the beneficial and condone the detrimental.
The wide-ranging influence of Paracelsus
So great a pioneer was Paracelsus that even the famous Carl Jung commented that Paracelsus’ breakthroughs impacted the world of “empirical psychological healing science.”
The great lengths that Paracelsus went to understand his craft, through becoming more well-rounded in his education and seeking practical experience, shows how powerful real-world experience is. It allowed Paracelsus to become a founding father in a discipline that has wide-ranging applications and is relevant to this day.
Paracelsus was like the fighter of medieval times. He added upon the works of Galen of Rome and Avicenna (Ibn Sina) taking medicine and toxicology to the next level. Paracelsus’ research would springboard a variety of sub-disciplines that the modern world continues to expand upon. A true combination of East meets West, Paracelsus traveled and experience the world, challenging ideas, and formulating grandiose conclusions that are the cornerstone of modern day medicine and toxicology.
Guggenheim, Karl Y. “Paracelsus and the science of nutrition in the renaissance. On occasion of the 500th anniversary of his birth.” The Journal of nutrition 123.7 (1993): 1189-1194.
Pagel, Walter. Paracelsus: An Introduction to Philosophical Medicine in the Era of the Renaissance. Basel: New York, 1984. Print.