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What are the Four Humours?

Niki Acker
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The four humours are the basis of ancient medicine. Essentially, according to the four humours model, general health is held to be reliant on the balance of four major body fluids: blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. The concept arose in Ancient Greece, but persisted into the 19th century. Though the idea of the four humours and their effect on general health and temperament has been discarded in the field of medicine, many modern theories of psychology are based upon the four personality types associated with the four humours.

Ancient Greek and Roman thinkers and physicians theorized that physical and mental disorders were the result of an imbalance in one of the four humours. An excess of any of the four was thought to correspond a certain temperament in the patient. A large quantity of blood made the patient sanguine or cheerful, perhaps with too much energy. Too much phlegm made him or her phlegmatic, or cool and apathetic. An excess of black bile, also called spleen or melancholy and thought to be excreted by the spleen, would make a person melancholic or depressive. Finally, too much yellow bile, or choler, made for a choleric or easily angered temperament.

Medical treatments in the past were often attempts to rebalance the four humours. Bloodletting was common in the medieval era, and in the Elizabethan period, certain foods were thought to address complaints caused by an excess or deficit of certain humours. Each of the four humours was believed to be either hot or cold and either dry or wet, so that each corresponded to one of the four possible combinations of these attributes. To treat an excess of phlegm, then, which was considered warm and wet, the patient would be given foods considered cold and dry. This system is the basis behind current classifications of foods and wines using these terms, such as a "hot" pepper or a "dry" white wine.

The four humours system became a thing of the past with more modern and accurate understandings of human physiology. For example, it is now known that there is no such thing as "black bile" secreted by the spleen. However, the four temperaments associated with the humours are still considered useful in psychology, where they are considered the four basic categories of human personality, and personality disorders are grouped according to them.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Niki Acker
By Niki Acker , Writer
"In addition to her role as a The Health Board editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of interesting and unusual topics to gather ideas for her own articles. A graduate of UCLA with a double major in Linguistics and Anthropology, Niki's diverse academic background and curiosity make her well-suited to create engaging content for WiseGeekreaders. "

Discussion Comments

By EchoRoll — On Dec 16, 2013
@Forterdom: This reminds me of the Steve Martin parody from the old Saturday Night Live: Theodoric of York; Medieval Barber. Nowadays we know there are other causes of disease. Except, of course, for what we do not know.
By Forterdom — On Dec 15, 2013
Whether the 4 humours were actual conditions or not, the healers of the past were attempting to understand the world around them and to relate that world to the condition of the human body. Like today, they were creating theories to explain what they did not yet understand.
Niki Acker

Niki Acker


"In addition to her role as a The Health Board editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range...
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