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The Mistakes of Natural Hygiene: Part 1: Drugs and the Germ Theory

The Mistakes of Natural Hygiene, Part 1

Natural Hygiene is one of the health philosophies that influenced me the most. I first discovered the raw food diet through the writings of Albert Mosséri, who was a disciple of Herbert Shelton, who’s considered the grand-father of the modern Natural Hygiene movement.

When I first got into Natural Hygiene, I viewed it as quasi religion. It was such a paradigm shift that completely changed my world. I ended up accepting it completely after studying it carefully.

In my first few years as a raw foodist, I became extremely sick and it was only the Natural Hygiene concepts that saved me and helped me regain my health. (I told the full story of what happened in my book Raw Food Controversies.)

I consider Natural Hygiene a great health philosophy that can have a tremendous, positive influence in your life. But because this health philosophy has been created by doctors and researchers that lived 50 to 150 years ago, it’s no longer fully up-to-date with modern science and research, and what we’ve discovered about the human body.

In this series of articles, I’ll be looking at the concepts of Natural Hygiene and dissecting them, one-by-one. Some of these concepts are still very accurate and healthful. Others are incorrect but still lead to positive results when applied. And finally, some concepts of Natural Hygiene are downright wrong.

What Is Natural Hygiene?

To understand Natural Hygiene, we must look at its history and how it came about. Natural Hygiene is essentially a health system that was developed in the last part of the 19th century by medical doctors who became disillusioned with the practice of medicine at the time.

Although Natural Hygiene had inspiration from European writers, it’s essentially an American system developed in the United States.

Natural Hygiene was known at the time as “Nature Cure” and later as “Orthopathy.”

Around the year 1850, medicine had made some great progress but was still very primitive compared to what it is today.

Doctors at the time had very little clue about what causes disease. Many harmful practices were common, such as:

1) Bathing infrequently due to the false belief promoted by some doctors that bathing too often was bad for health. (http://orthopathy.net/history.html)

2) Recommending sick patients to eat a rich diet of meat, butter and other rich foods to “regain their strength.”

3) Bleeding and blood letting as a cure to disease remained popular (http://rosemelnickmuseum.wordpress.com/2009/03/11/19th-century-doctors-in-the-us/)

4) Heroin was routinely prescribed for the common cough (http://www.cracked.com/article_15669_the-10-most-insane-medical-practices-in-history.html)

5) Many doctors did not wash their hands before performing surgery

The first doctors that formulated the ideas behind Natural Hygiene were all very disillusioned with the practice of medicine in their times. Many had been sick themselves and unable to cure themselves through the “science” they had learned.

Those doctors included:

Dr. Issac Jennings (1788-1874)

Jennings is considered to be the father of Natural Hygiene. His trick was simple. He started giving his patients sugar pills as “placebos” and discovered that all of them recovered much faster than usual! He then developped the theory of “orthopathy” or “letting the body heal itself” through fasting. It also says something about the dangers of medicines at the time, when the word “placebo” wasn’t even well known.

Silvester Graham (1794-1851)

Graham was one of the most influential early hygienists. He was one of the first public figures to advocate vegetarianism and what he called “temperance.” We may remember him as the inventor of the graham cracker, but his contribution was much greater. His followers practiced the brushing of teeth, vegetarianism, sobriety, and eating whole foods (such as whole wheat bread instead of white flour)… all practices that we take for granted today, but were very controversial at the time.

Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943)

You may remember this guy for inventing the “Kellogg Corn Flakes.” He was a devout Seventh Day Adventist who advocated a strict, sober, healthy life and fasting, which was called “water cure” at the time.

Herbert Shelton (1895-1985)

There were many more early natural hygienists part of that Nature Cure movement in the 19th century. But the movement was not unified until Herbert Shelton came along.

Shelton was born in 1895. In his youth, he became a passionate student of the writings of early Hygienists, and proceeded to consolidate all their theory into a unified philosophy he called “Natural Hygiene.” In his thirties, he wrote his giant book “Human Life, Its Philosophy and Laws.”

He then operated a health center in Texas where he practiced fasting and a clean, mostly raw food diet.

All of the modern Natural Hygiene movement stems from Shelton, although it gained even more popularity when T.C. Fry came along and later, when the book “Fit For Life” was released in the 1980s. All serious promoters of Natural Hygiene today are students of Shelton, who wrote more than 50 books.

The Natural Hygiene System

The basic principle of Natural Hygiene is self-healing.

Although Natural Hygiene has later been hijacked by authors such as Harvey Diamond who cherry-picked some ideas such as food combining, the basic principle of Hygiene has nothing to do with diet.

Here are the main concepts of Natural Hygiene, followed by some practical example.

1) Self-Healing: The body has the ability to heal itself, when you get out of the way and provide it with what it needs. Suppressing symptoms is not treating the body. For example, while traditional doctors may provide a special “immunity enhancing diet” during a flu, or some drugs to suppress the symptoms, a Natural Hygienist will probably advise to simply rest as much as possible, don’t take drugs, eat as little as possible, possibly fast, and let the body recover naturally.

2) Less Intervention. Although Natural Hygiene would not claim that it’s always wrong to intervene (for example, if someone breaks his leg), in general, for most diseases, they recommend to avoid giving drugs or natural treatments that are meant to suppress symptoms.

3) Fasting. Fasting is a key component of Natural Hygiene because it is the ultimate physiological rest. The purpose behind fasting is to let the body heal itself by shutting down all the energy that goes into digestion and redirecting it towards healing. During a fever, or other acute diseases, Natural Hygienists would probably advise fasting as opposed to interventions or medicine, even if body temperature is high.

4) Simplicity in eating. Natural Hygienists recommend a diet that’s as simple as possible. While not all agree on the details (such as eating 100% raw or not), most recommend simple vegetarian meals devoid of salt, condiments and spices.

5) Fruitarianism. Almost all Natural Hygienists recommend fruit as the most pure, biologically-appropriate food one can eat.

How Do You Know If You’re a Natural Hygienist?

Some people call themselves Natural Hygienists, but in reality they are naturopaths. How do you know the difference?

This goes back to the principle of self-healing and non-intervention.

If you suffer from a common cold, a naturopath will probably recommend some kind of herb or tincture to “boost your immune system.”

A Natural Hygienist will instead recommend that you fast if you can, get as much rest as possible, drink water, and not take any particular remedy, whether natural or not.

A key principle of Natural Hygiene is to look for the cause and remove it, instead of suppressing symptoms with medicines, even if those come from natural sources.

Modern Natural Hygienists

As a movement, Natural Hygiene has essentially disintegrated. Hygiene saw a resurgence of interest after the publication of the book Fit For Life in the 80s, and many doctors at the time became modern Natural Hygienists. These doctors, such as Dr. Alan Goldhamer from the True North Health Center in California, still practice fasting but don’t necessarily identify themselves as “Natural Hygienists.”

The raw food movement, especially the 80/10/10 Diet by Dr. Douglas Graham, is also strongly influenced by Natural Hygiene. But now, there is no longer a true Natural Hygiene movement that is clearly identifiable. Many authors, myself included, have been influenced by Natural Hygiene, but don’t accept all of its philosophy blindly without question.

Where Natural Hygiene May Be Wrong

It would take a lot of time to go through the philosophy of Natural Hygiene. This was just a brief overview to attack the more specific issues.

Natural Hygiene, as a basic health philosophy, is very appealing and in my experience, works a lot of the time.

Where I think Natural Hygiene is wrong is in applying these principles no matter what, and never consider the state of science in 2012.

Natural Hygiene Mistake #1: Drugs

One principle of Natural Hygiene, as explained by Dr. Shelton in his book Natural Hygiene: Man’s Pristine Way of Life, is the idea that all drugs are toxic, and that’s why they work.

The classic example is that of the constipation drugs, even their herbal equivalent.

Shelton’s reasoning was as follows: drugs don’t really have an effect on the body. Why? Because if you’d give them to a dead person, nothing would happen.

It’s the BODY that has an effect on drugs. The body reacts to the drug given, and the result is our own interpretation of this principle in action.

Let’s say someone suffers from constipation. The drug given will actually provoke a mild form of diarrhea. Is it the drug that’s acting on the body? The drug in itself, Shelton explained, does nothing. You have to give it to a living organism.

However, because it’s a drug and it’s toxic, the body cannot use it as nutrition. It wants to get rid of it. In the process, several things can happen.

In the case of the constipation drug, the body wants to eliminate it through stools, and that’s why users of this drug find relief.

Did the drug cure them of their constipation? No. Instead, it was a toxic substance that the body wanted to eliminate. In the process, it caused diarrhea and eliminated it along with the stools.

That’s a simplistic explanation, but you get the idea.

Shelton believed that ALL drugs were toxic and did not have a specific effect, chemical or other, on the body. In fact, it was always the body reacting to the drug, and in the process eliminating a symptom or another.

Although Shelton was right to say that all drugs are toxic to some degree, he was wrong in his simplistic explanation of their action on the body.

Many drugs actually work through complex chemical and hormonal reactions in the body. Here are some examples:

1) Aspirin. Pain is something that is felt in the brain. Aspirin works by inhibiting an enzyme that produces prostaglandins, substances similar to hormones that trigger inflammation in the body. Aspirin binds itself to the enzyme, changing its chemical structure and blocking the reaction that produces the prostaglandins.

2) Prozac. Many anti-depressants like prozac will work due to their effects on serotonin levels. Low serotonin is associated with depression and anxiety. Due to a complex process, Prozac works by increasing the amount of serotonin that can be delivered to the cells. That’s why Prozac is part of a class of drugs called “Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (or SSRIs).

We could go on an on with more examples, but you get the idea.

Yes, drugs are toxic.

But no, they don’t ALWAYS work through the simplistic idea that the body is working in some manner to “eliminate” or “reject” them. In some cases, they can literally alter complex chemical reactions taking place in the body.

Natural Hygiene Mistake #2: The Germ Theory

Another area where Natural Hygiene is dead wrong is the belief that contagion of disease is essentially a myth.

Even though Shelton and others always claimed that diseases like the flu were essentially the body’s efforts to detoxify itself, I was never fully convinced.

Even T.C. Fry had some interesting discussion on viruses and why he believed that they could not cause disease and were essentially “a scam.”

I was never fully convinced because my own experience, like that of most people, contradicted with this teaching of Natural Hygiene.

Everybody has had the experience of coming in contact with someone with a common cold and then contracting the disease or ailment shortly after.

Typically the pattern is always the same:

– You haven’t been sick for a while
– People around you may be sick, but you’re not.
– After spending time in a crowded area where lots of people are sick, someone around you, like your wife/husband or roommate, comes down with the cold
– A day after, you get the cold yourself.

I remember when I was living in Costa Rica in 2006, working at retreat center I had tried to purchase. We had a little community of people living onsite, and one day people started getting sick with the stomach flu. It was amazing to see everyone get sick, one after the other, with the exact same symptoms.

I naively thought I would be immune from this, but I also ended up being bed-ridden for 2-3 days. Granted, at the time I was under tremendous stress and my immune system was probably greatly compromised, but there was no doubt that the disease was contagious and of viral nature. In fact, during that time, a significant percentage of the town where I lived got sick with the same stomach flu.

Generally, I agree with Natural Hygiene in their treatment of viral diseases. It’s much better to recover while fasting, resting and drinking plenty of water, than the usual treatments.

However, their explanation of disease as always being an attempt for the body to “heal itself” through some sort of crisis is flawed, to say the least.

I don’t think I want to go into a big debate about the Germ Theory, since viral science is quite complex. Times have evolved since Shelton’s days, and we now know more about viruses and their action on the body.

A Personal Experience

A great book to read on the topic of immunity is Dr. Fuhrman’s recent Super Immunity. In this book, you’ll discover exactly what you can do to increase your immunity natural.

After reading Fuhrman’s book, I realized that I had not gotten sick for a long time. I could not even remember the last time I had a cold!

When I was traveling around the world, there were a time or two that I felt I was almost coming down with symptoms of the cold, but after a day or so it was over, and I did not even get a runny nose or anything.

So recently I started bragging about the fact that I could not remember the last time I had a cold. Then one of my friends made an interesting observation. He said:

“Fred, you work at home. You don’t come in contact with large crowds of people. You mostly work at home or in an office downtown where you don’t shake hands with anybody. When most people get sick, during the winter, you stay in the tropics. You rarely take public transportation and you don’t touch communal areas. Maybe that’s part of the reason why you never get the cold.”

I thought that was interesting, but I didn’t think about it too much.

Then recently I attended a health conference in California with 250 people in the room. I should have paid attention when I heard lots of people coughing in the room. But because I felt fine and I was with supposedly “healthy” people, I didn’t think about it twice.

I shook hands with lots of people that weekend. And guess what? As soon as I got back home, I started feeling symptoms of the cold myself! I got a sore throat and felt tired. Typical common cold, except that I got almost no mucus compared to most people.

This was over quickly, but I’m quite certain that coming in contact with this many people and getting the cold was no coincidence.

Let me just go through some practical tips and ideas.

1) You Can Increase Your Immunity Naturally. Natural Hygiene is not totally wrong on viral diseases. You can certainly increase your immunity naturally by eating a diet composed mostly of fruits and vegetables and avoiding processed foods.

2) If You’re Healthy, Symptoms Will Be Milder. If you do get sick, you’ll likely experienced a much more suppressed form of the disease than most people. And it will likely be over sooner.

3) You Don’t Need Drugs to Recover. To recover from most viral illnesses, you don’t need drugs. Natural Hygiene is right to recommend for the disease to “follow its course” and for you to simply provide the right environment to allow for maximum healthful recovery.

4) Fasting May Help. In some cases, fasting may help you recover from viral illnesses.

This is the first part in a series of articles on Natural Hygiene. Stay tuned and please post your comments below!

Frederic Patenaude
Frederic Patenaude

Frederic Patenaude has been an important influence in the raw food and natural health movement since he started writing and publishing in 1998, first by being the editor of Just Eat an Apple magazine. He is the author of over 20 books, including The Raw Secrets, the Sunfood Cuisine and Raw Food Controversies. Since 2013 he’s been the Editor-in-Chief of Renegade Health.


Frederic loves to relentlessly debunk nutritional myths. He advocates a low-fat, plant-based diet and has had over 10 years of experience with raw vegan diets. He lives in Montreal, Canada.