Donate books to help fund our work. Learn more→

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

Health and Illness I
GA 348

IX. Why do We Become Sick? Influenza; Hayfever; Mental Illness

27 December 1922, Dornach

Question: For many years I have suffered from hayfever. Now I have heard that it must be treated early in the year. If injections are administered as early as January or February before a person begins to suffer, they are supposed to be more effective. Should I go along with this remedy?

Dr. Steiner: What you have said is correct, but there is one small catch. You see, the remedy that is in use here is meant to be applied prophylactically; that is, it is meant to work ahead of time. In fact, it should be used weeks before the symptoms of hayfever arise. The problem, however, is that patients come in only when they are already afflicted with the malady. Just today we received an interesting letter about another hayfever remedy. The inventor of this other remedy writes that his medication brings only a little relief to individual hayfever attacks. He believes that our remedy can permanently cure hayfever, especially if it is taken twice at wide intervals. Naturally, we would much prefer patients to be treated in January or February rather than in May or June. Understandably, however, people generally see a doctor only after an illness has been contracted.

Yet, our hayfever remedy works in such a way that if given to the patient even during the external appearance of the illness, which is only the final result of an inner affliction, it protects him from a renewed attack. It is particularly effective if applied again a year later. After that, the application need not always be repeated. Even though the illness affects only one organ, this remedy treats its basis in the whole bodily organization. To explain this, I would like to go into more detail concerning the causes of internal illnesses and how they arise in the first place.

Of course, it is quite simple to comprehend why one becomes indisposed if one breaks a leg or sustains a concussion due to a fall. In these cases the injury is external and the cause easily understood; the cause is externally visible. In the case of internal illnesses, however, one usually does not really consider where they come from and how they suddenly assert themselves. This pertains to another question raised earlier of why one may become infected when in contact with certain people. An external cause also seems to be present here.

Ordinary science offers a simple explanation for this. Bacilli are transmitted from an ill person who has influenza, for example, and then these are inhaled and bring about the disease in another. It is like someone injuring a man by hitting him with a mattock. In this case the injury is caused by a patient bombarding another person with a multitude of bacilli. Matters are not at all that simple, however; they are much more complicated. You will understand this when you realize that in everyday life a man constantly becomes a bit indisposed and then must cure himself. The point is that all of us are really a bit sick when thirsty or hungry, and we cure ourselves by drinking and eating. Hunger is the beginning of an illness, and if it is allowed to continue we can die from it. After all, we can die of starvation and even sooner of thirst. So you see that even in our everyday lives we bear something like the beginning of a disease. Every act of drinking or eating is in truth an act of healing.

We must make clear to ourselves now what in fact happens when we become hungry or thirsty. You see, our body is inwardly always active. Through the intake of food, the body receives nutrients. External substances are absorbed through the mouth and the intestinal passages into some part of the body. Now, you must understand that the human organization immediately rebels against these nutritional substances; it does not tolerate them in their original forms and destroys them. Food substances must actually be disintegrated. In fact, they are annihilated, and this begins in the mouth. The reason for this is that there is continuous, never-ceasing activity in our body. This activity must be observed in the same way as fingers or hands are. Ordinary science simply records how a piece of bread is eaten, dissolved in the mouth, and then distributed in the body, but we must also take into consideration that the human body is continually active. Even if nothing is put into it, if nothing goes into the body for five hours, say, still its activity does not cease. You may even be like an empty sack, but things have not quieted within. You remain in constant inward activity, and things are still bustling around. Only when this internal activity can become occupied with something is it content. That is especially the case after a meal when it can dissolve and disintegrate the food substances; then it is content.

Figure 1

This internal activity that we possess is quite different from man in general, for the human being can become lazy. The internal activity is never lazy, it never ceases. If I don't eat anything, it is as if I had an empty flour sack in which there is activity even if I avoid all tangible substance. This activity—for reasons that I shall tell you later on—is identified in spiritual science as the astral body. It is never lazy, and if it can stay active destroying and dissolving the food substances, it is filled with inward comfort; it then has a feeling of inner well-being. But if I take in no food substances, then the astral body is not satisfied, and this dissatisfaction is expressed as hunger. Hunger is not something at rest within us; it is an activity, a soul-spiritual activity that cannot be stilled. We can truly say that this inner activity is in love with the food substances, and if it does not receive them it is just as dissatisfied as any jilted lover. This dissatisfaction is the hunger, and it is by all means something spiritual.

So the activity that is executed internally consists of disintegrating food substances. What is useful is transmitted into the blood vessels, and the rest is eliminated through urine or feces. This is the healthy, normal and regular activity of the human being in which the astral body works properly to dissolve the food substances. It absorbs into the body what is useful and discharges what is not.

We must assume, gentlemen, that this activity of man is no ordinary activity; rather, it contains something immensely wise. Now, dissolved and transformed food substances are constantly being transmitted through blood vessels to the inner organs, and the nourishment that goes into the lungs is completely different from what goes to the spleen. The astral body is much smarter than the human being. Man can only stuff the provisions into his mouth, but the astral body can distinguish them. It is like sorting two substances, throwing one in one direction to be used there and the other in another direction. This is what the astral body accomplishes. It selects certain substances to dispatch to the lungs, spleen, larynx and other organs. A wise distribution is at work within. The astral body is immensely wise, much wiser than we. The most educated person today would not know how to send the proper substances into the lungs, larynx or spleen; he would not even know what to say about it. But internally man can do this through his astral body.

The astral body, however, can become stupid—not as stupid as the human being can become, but stupid in comparison to its own cleverness. Let us assume that it thus becomes stupid. Man is born with a certain predisposition and is inwardly endowed with certain forces. The activity that the astral body develops for food substances occurs even if somebody sits down all day, immobile like an Oriental idol. His astral body still remains active, but that is not enough. We must also do something externally, and if we have no work to do we must go for a stroll; the astral body demands that we at least walk around. This differs with each individual. One person needs more physical activity, another less.

Let us suppose now that someone has certain predispositions from birth that make him into a sedentary person. It pleases his stupid head—or we could say his stupid ego—to sit around a lot. Now, if he is predisposed to sit around, but the astral body is predisposed to walk about, then his astral body will become stupid. This will also happen if somebody overexerts himself walking. In both cases the astral body will become stupid and will no longer accomplish things correctly. It will no longer properly sort out the food substances and transmit them to the appropriate organs; it will do all this clumsily instead. The astral body becomes too disorganized to send the right substances to the heart or larynx. Substances improperly transmitted to the heart, for example, will remain somewhere else in the body. They are not put in the organ where they belong but, since they are basically useful, neither are they eliminated with the feces. Instead, they are deposited somewhere else in the body. But a man cannot tolerate having something deposited in his body that is not part of its proper activity; he cannot stand that.

So what happens with these improper deposits due to the malfunctioning astral body? What happens to us on account of that? Well, suppose we have in our body certain deposits that should have been directed to the larynx. Because someone's astral body does not function properly, “larynx refuse” is secreted everywhere in his body. The first thing that happens is that his larynx becomes weak. The organ does not receive sufficient sustenance, and thus the person suffers from a weakened larynx. But apart from that, his body contains larynx refuse, which is dispersed everywhere. As I have already told you, the human body is ninety percent water, and the refuse dissolves in this whole fluid organization. The pure, animated fluid that a man requires within him is now polluted. This is what happens so often within ourselves. Deposits meant for certain parts of the body dissolve in our fluid organization, contaminating it.

Say that the refuse of the larynx is dissolved in us and comes into contact with the stomach. It cannot cause damage there, because the stomach has what it needs and was not deprived of anything. But the bodily fluids flow everywhere in the human organism and penetrate into the area of the larynx, which is already weakened. It receives this polluted fluid, this water in which the larynx refuse is dissolved, and specifically from this the organ becomes diseased. The larynx refuse does not affect the other organs, but it does cause the larynx to become afflicted.

Let us now consider a simple phenomenon. A sensitive person finds it pleasant to listen to another person speak beautifully. But if someone crows like a rooster or grunts like a pig, he will not find this so pleasant to hear, even if he understands what is being said. It is not at all pleasant to listen to a person crowing or grunting. Listening to someone who is hoarse is a particularly uncomfortable and constricting experience. Why do we experience such sensations while listening to another? It is based on the fact that in reality we always inaudibly repeat whatever the other is saying. Listening consists not only in hearing but also in speaking faintly. We not only hear what another says but also imitate it with our speech organs. We always imitate everything that someone else does.

Now imagine that you are near a person who is sick with flu, and though you may not be listening to him and inwardly imitating his speech, you feel sorry for him. This makes you quite susceptible and sensitive to him. The flu patient's fluid organization contains many dissolved substances, which contaminate the pure, living fluid I told you about and make it instead unhealthy for him. I even describe the nature of such a contaminated fluid organization.

Imagine that you have a piece of ground where you plant various things. Not everything thrives in every kind of earth, but suppose you want to plant onions and garlic in this particular spot. Should the earth be unsuitable, the onions would be small and the garlic buds still smaller, so you should also add to this soil something that contains sulphur and phosphorus. Then you would have the healthiest onions and garlic buds, and they would smell strong, too!

Now, when a man has influenza refuse within his body, the same substances are dissolved in his fluid organization that had to be added to the ground in order to produce the finest onion and garlic plants, and before long, the sick person begins to smell like these plants. Now, I associate with this, though I may not even be aware that I am sitting in this odour of onion or garlic, because it need not be strong. The odour exuded by a person who is sick with the flu causes the patient's head to feel dull, because a certain organ in the head, the “sensorium,” is not properly supplied with the substance it needs. As a result of having flu refuse within us, an organ in the mid-section of the head is not properly supplied. This odour is always like that of onions or garlic and can be detected by one with a sensitive nose. Just as we tune in on and imitate a shrill and rasping voice, so do we join in with what an ill person evaporates. As a consequence, our own astral body, our own activity, becomes disorganized. This disorder causes a chemical basis that in turn makes us contract the flu. It is like making soil suitable for onions and garlic. At first, then, the illness has nothing to do with bacteria but simply with the relation of one person to another.

If you want to plant predominantly onions and garlic in a garden, and you add to the earth substances containing phosphorus and sulphur, you can now wait and say, “Well, I've done my duty. I want to harvest onions and garlic, and so with some kind of organic fertilizer I have added sulphur and phosphorus to the garden.” But it would be foolish to think that this is all it would take to grow the onions. You would first have to plant the bulbs! Likewise, it would be foolish to maintain that in man's interior, bacteria are already growing in the environment that is being prepared.

They first have to be introduced into it. Just as the onion bulb thrives in soil rich in phosphorus and sulphur, so do the bacilli thrive within a sulphuric environment in the body. Bacilli are not even necessary for one person to catch the flu from another. Instead, by imitating with my fluid organization what is happening in the patient's fluid organism, I myself produce a favourable environment for the bacilli; I myself acquire them. The sick person need not bombard me with them at all.

When we look at the whole matter, we must reply in quite a specific way to the question, “What is it that causes us to be stricken with a certain disease?” We become sick when something injures us, and even in the case of internal illnesses something is actually injuring us. The impure fluid, in which substances are dissolved that should have been digested, injures us; it injures us internally.

Now we can turn our attention to illnesses like hayfever. The incidence of hayfever depends much more on the time of year than on the pollen in the air. More than anything else, what makes a man susceptible to catching hayfever is the fact that his astral body is not properly excreting; it is not properly executing its activity that is directed more to the external surface. As a result, when spring approaches and everything begins to thrive in water, a person makes his whole fluid organization more sensitive and thus susceptible to this illness by dissolving certain substances in it. By dissolving various substances in this fluid organization, the fluids in a man's body always become a little diluted. The fluid organization in a man who has a tendency toward hayfever is always somewhat too large. The fluids are being pushed aside in all directions by what is dissolved in them. That is how a person becomes sensitive to everything that makes its appearance in spring, especially to pollen, those particles from plants that are now particularly irritating.

If the nose were not enclosed, hayfever could be induced by many other irritants. Pollen does enter the nose, however, and it cannot be well tolerated if one already has hayfever. Pollen does not cause hayfever but it aggravates it.

Figure 2

Our hayfever remedy is based on drawing the extended fluid organization in the body together again so that it becomes a bit cloudy and once again secretes what it had initially dissolved. It is really quite simple and based on nothing more than contracting the fluid organism to its normal size. It first becomes a little cloudy, and you have to watch that what is secreted from the fluidity is not later retained in the body. That is why it is beneficial for a person to perspire somewhat after having been inoculated with the remedy; it is good if he can move about and do something that induces perspiration right after the inoculation. The inoculation is always somewhat problematic when given to a person who is suffering from constipation, and the patient should first be asked if he is constipated. Otherwise, if the fluid organization is contracted, things accumulate too much and are not eliminated right away. This, of course, is not good. A person who is constipated should be given a laxative along with the inoculation.

Healing entails not only applying a medication but also adjusting life accordingly, so that the human body reacts in an appropriate manner to what has been given it. This naturally is of tremendous significance; otherwise, the person can be made even sicker. If you inoculate somebody with a remedy that is quite effective, even exceptionally good, but you do not see to it that the patient's digestion functions properly and that everything the remedy brings about is eliminated, you naturally drive him further into the illness.

With truly effective remedies it is important that the doctor know not only what medicine cures what disease but also what questions to ask the patient. The greatest medical art lies in asking the right questions and in being familiar with the patient. This is extremely important. Yet it is strange, for example, that we meet doctors who frequently have not even asked the patient his age, though this is significant. While he may use the same remedies, a doctor can treat a fifty-year old in a manner completely different from the way he treats one who is forty, for example. They should not be so schematic as to say, “This medication is right for this illness.” For instance, it makes a great difference if you want to cure someone who is constantly afflicted with diarrhoea or someone who has chronic constipation. Such remedies could be tested, and here experiments with animals would be much less objectionable than they are in other areas. Regarding constipation or diarrhoea, you can easily learn how some remedy reacts in the general physical organism that men have in common with the animals by giving the same medicine to both a dog and a cat. The dog regularly suffers from constipation, and the cat from diarrhoea. You can acquire a wonderful knowledge by observing the degree of difference in the medication's effect in the dog or the cat. Scientific knowledge really is not attained by university training in how to do this or that with certain instruments. True science results, rather, when common sense is aroused a little; then people know how they must conduct their experiments.

In sum, it is of prime importance to realize that an illness has its basis in the whole human organization. The individual organ becomes afflicted because the activity of the astral body directs substances to it that have been precipitated from within. The development of certain inner diseases like influenza, hayfever and even typhoid fever becomes comprehensible when we understand how substances improperly deposited in our bodies are dispersed in our fluid organism.

We are not only a “material man” but also a “water man,” and, as I have already explained to you, we are also an “air man,” whose form changes every moment. One moment the air is outside, and the next it is within.

Just as the solid substances that we contain within our bodies as refuse dissolve in the water, so does that water itself constantly evaporate within us. Within the muscles of your little finger, for example, are minute evaporations of water. Water constantly evaporates throughout your whole body. Furthermore, what is evaporating in the fluid organism penetrates into what you inhale as oxygen, which is also a vapor or gas. When water on the ground evaporates, it rises up into the atmosphere, and when water constantly evaporates in delicate processes within the fluid man, it penetrates into the air that we inhale. We cannot tolerate solid substances being dispersed in the fluids, and neither can we tolerate fluids evaporating into the air organism.

Take the case of a person whose lungs have become afflicted because something has occurred like the process that I have just described. This person can become afflicted with a lung disease, which can be cured if it arose from the wrong substances being deposited in the water man. But let us assume that the lung's affliction is not pronounced enough to become apparent. After all, the human organs are sensitive. The condition does not reach the point where the lungs become so strongly afflicted that they are inflamed, but they do become a little indisposed. The person can tolerate this slight indisposition, but substances now enter into his fluid organism that really should penetrate the lungs. In this case, the fluids within the lungs have the wrong kinds of substances dissolved in them; and these substances evaporate, especially if the lungs are not completely well.

Thus, in the case of the quite obvious internal diseases, the water man receives something inappropriate from the solid substances, and in this case something inappropriate reaches the point of evaporation and mingles with the oxygen that is inhaled. The fact that water evaporates inappropriately and unites with oxygen damages the nervous system in particular, because the nerves require healthy oxygen, not oxygen that has evaporations in it from the contaminated fluid of the water man. Contaminated fluid evaporates into the lungs, and this fluid may be responsible for their slight indisposition. Something that should not evaporate does, and this is damaging to the nervous system. The person does not become radically ill, but he does become insane.

It can be said that internal physical illnesses are based on something in man that causes improper substances to be dispersed in his fluid organism. But so-called mental illnesses are in reality not mental at all, because the mind or spirit does not become ill. Mental illnesses are based on body fluids evaporating improperly into oxygen and thereby disturbing the nervous system. This can happen when some organ is so slightly impaired or indisposed that it cannot be detected externally. You see, then, that man must continually process substances correctly so that nothing inappropriate disperses in his fluids and that his fluids in turn do not improperly evaporate. But even in everyday life there is a process that causes improper evaporation of water, and this becomes noticeable when we are thirsty. We cure the thirst by drinking; we free our water, so to speak, from what is inappropriately evaporating within it and wash away what is incorrect.

So we can say that in hunger there is actually the tendency to physical illness, and in thirst there is the predisposition to mental illness. If a man does not properly nourish himself, he forms the basis for organic diseases, and if he does not quench his thirst rightly, he may bring about some form of mental illness. In some circumstances, the improper quenching of thirst is difficult to detect, especially if it occurs in infancy. At this stage one cannot clearly distinguish between assuaging thirst and hunger since both are satisfied by milk. Therefore, if through the mother's milk or that of a wet nurse something harmful comes into the organism, this can much later cause the fluid organism to evaporate incorrectly and thus lead to some mental disorder. Or let us say a person is wrongly inoculated. An ill-chosen inoculation with one or another cow lymph or diseased human lymph can afflict the organs that work upon the water, even though the water itself does not become directly diseased. As a result of an inappropriate inoculation, a person's evaporation processes may not function correctly, and later he may be disposed to some kind of mental illness.

You will have noticed, gentlemen, that nowadays a great many people become afflicted with dementia praecox, so-called “youthful insanity,” which extends, however, quite far beyond the years of youth. This illness, in which people begin mentally to deteriorate in their youth, originates in great part from the wrong kind of feeding during the earliest years of childhood. It is not enough merely to examine chemically the baby's milk; one must look into completely different aspects. Because people have ceased to pay attention to feeding in our age, this illness arises with such vehemence.

You will have realized from all this that it does not suffice simply to train doctors to know that a certain remedy is good for a certain illness. One must rather seek to make the totality of life healthier, and for that one must first discover all that is related to a healthy life. Anthroposophy can provide this understanding. It aims at being effective in the field of hygiene and seeks to comprehend correctly questions of health.