In ancient times, healers didn’t have the work of laboratory scientists to guide their actions. Their labs were real life settings where observation, interpretation and experience informed their judgments.

Evaluating some of their traditional remedies with a critical eye, scientists are discovering that in some cases, healers of long ago possessed medical wisdom that was way ahead of its time.

Dr. Andreas Michalsen, a successful young German cardiologist, is among the doctors who’s become interested in ancient healing therapies. Disillusioned with poor success rates in conventional cardiology — and despite derision from his colleagues– Dr. Michalsen trained in natural medicine. Today, he’s professor of clinical naturopathy at the Charité University Hospital in Berlin, the largest university hospital in Europe.

Recently, Dr. Michalsen and his colleagues tested three ancient therapies, and their findings are eye-opening.

Leech Therapy: Does it Really Work?

2000 years ago, leading doctors Pliny the Elder of Rome and Galen of Greece regularly used leeches to treat fever, chronic headaches and even arthritis.

While you might shudder to think of a leech biting into your flesh as any type of health treatment, if you can get over the “yuck” factor then you might find relief from what ails you.

Dr. Michalsen and his colleagues discovered that the bite of a leech releases a “miniature pharmacy” containing locally numbing and pain-relieving substances, anti-inflammatory compounds, and a very powerful anticoagulant.

Dr. Michalsen reports that he first saw leeches in action during his naturopathy training. He witnessed leeches relieving pain within minutes for many patients with osteoarthritis of the knees.

But his scientific training urged him to seek evidence beyond patient stories of success, so he and his team carried out two trials into the ability of leeches to relieve pain. In addition, a separate research group, also in Germany, conducted a large study of their own.

“Exceeds the Effectiveness” of all known Pain Relievers

Results in all trials were extraordinary, demonstrating benefits that went well beyond the placebo effect. For example, just three days after a one-time therapy using four to six leeches on the knees for up to an hour, pain was reduced by 60 percent on average, and for most patients this persisted for more than three months.

That’s an amazing result, in my opinion.

Dr. Michalsen was likewise impressed: “Ultimately this means the effect leeches have — and this should be said quite plainly here — exceeds the effectiveness of all traditional pain-relieving therapies for osteoarthritis of the knees known today by far.”

In fact, leeches are so effective and safe at relieving pain, they’re making a remarkable comeback today as doctors use them in plastic, reconstructive and orthopedic surgeries.

Cupping Stimulates Healing

After the success of the leech studies, Dr. Michalsen decided to move on to cupping, another “archaic” treatment. Cupping treats pain, dizziness and joint inflammation. Its use can be found in all traditional healing systems.

Dr. Michalsen studied wet cupping, where the skin is punctured before cupping glasses are placed on it. The practitioner then creates suction in the cups, which pulls up the top layer of the skin, filling the cups with blood and lymph.

This increases local blood flow, stimulates lymph flow and, through certain neural pathways, can positively affect distant parts of the body.

Dr. Michalsen’s group used cupping on the shoulder area to test its effect on 26 patients with carpal tunnel syndrome — nerve compression in the wrist that causes pain, tingling, and numbness. A control group was treated with a heat pack on the shoulder.

The results a week later were, he writes, “unambiguous. Cupping led to a very clear relief of the symptoms — not only did the pain diminish, but the sensory dysfunction had diminished as well.”

Other research groups have also demonstrated the effectiveness of cupping in neck and back pain, and knee osteoarthritis.

Bloodletting For Heart Problems

Perhaps the most unappealing treatment of all the ones Dr. Michalsen examined is bloodletting. In Galen’s time, Greek doctors drained blood from people who were overweight and red-faced to improve their health.

Unappealing it may be, but bloodletting makes good medical sense when options are limited. You see, people who donate blood lower their red blood cell count. This makes the blood thinner, reducing risk of heart attack and stroke.

Bloodletting also reduces high levels of ferritin, a protein that stores iron. High iron levels increase the oxidation of blood fats and raise the risk of diabetes. This may explain why women who menstruate are less prone to vascular disease and have better blood sugar control than women who’ve reached menopause.

Research shows bloodletting can also reduce blood pressure. Since Dr. Michalsen was trained as a cardiologist and has seen many patients on blood pressure medication, he and his team designed a study to test the benefits of bloodletting.

Half of 64 patients had 13.5 ounces of blood removed, with the same procedure repeated again four weeks later.

After six weeks, the control group was little changed but the members of the bloodletting group saw their systolic (top) reading fall on average from 148.5 to 130.5. A later study of 292 blood donors confirmed these impressive results.

The Ancients Were Right After All

“When I look at studies,” Dr. Michalsen writes, “on ‘the big three’ traditional healing methods — leech therapy, cupping and bloodletting — it becomes clear that hundreds of years ago, physicians were already using highly effective methods.”

He laments that “the past is often dismissed as old-fashioned or outdated” and that scientists lack the curiosity (and funding) to really explore naturopathy.

With the public it’s different. According to the former cardiologist, they respond “in an entirely different fashion” and are open to trying many traditional healing methods.

I think these findings are fascinating, but I would want to know a few more things about these treatments. For example, I’m concerned about the risk of infection from leech bites. And while bloodletting may be effective to treat high blood pressure, that’s not what the ancients used it for. In fact, they weren’t even aware of the condition.

They used bloodletting to treat fevers, infections and a range of other conditions, and I don’t know that it was effective. It seems doubtful. It also seems like a drastically invasive way to treat high blood pressure. How about trying exercise and meditation first?


  1. The Natural Prescription by Andreas Michalsen, Yellow Kite, 2019