What is homeopathy? Is homeopathy safe? What is homeopathy used for?
Homeopathy, or homeopathic medicine, is a medical philosophy and practice based on the idea that the body has the ability to heal itself. Homeopathy was founded in the late 1700s in Germany and has been widely practiced throughout Europe. Homeopathic medicine views symptoms of illness as normal responses of the body as it attempts to regain health.
Homeopathy is based on the idea that “like cures like.” That is, if a substance causes a symptom in a healthy person, giving the person a very small amount of the same substance may cure the illness. In theory, a homeopathic dose enhances the body’s normal healing and self-regulatory processes.
A homeopathic health practitioner (homeopath) uses pills or liquid mixtures (solutions) containing only a little of an active ingredient (usually a plant or mineral) for treatment of disease. These are known as highly diluted or “potentiated” substances. There is some evidence to show that homeopathic medicines may have helpful effects.
Historically, people have used homeopathy to maintain health and treat a wide range of long-term illnesses, such as allergies, atopic dermatitis, rheumatoid arthritis, and irritable bowel syndrome. They have also used it to treat minor injuries, such as cuts and scrapes and muscle strains or sprains. Homeopathic treatment is not considered appropriate for illnesses, such as cancer, heart disease, major infections, or emergencies.
Homeopathy has been widely used in India, England, and other European countries.
Homeopathic remedies have been regulated in the United States since 1938 and are considered to be safe.
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Some critics of homeopathy believe that there is so little active substance in a solution that any benefits from treatment are likely not because of the substance but because you are thinking it is effective.
Supporters of homeopathy believe that although homeopathic solutions are highly diluted, they contain a “memory” of the substance in water. The body recognizes the substance and reacts to it. Studies have tried to determine whether effects from homeopathic treatments are placebo or whether some other action occurs. Although these studies could not identify how homeopathic solutions work, there was evidence that homeopathic dilutions differ from placebos. It is important to tell your medical doctor if you decide to use homeopathic remedies. He or she should have full knowledge of your health to help you make wise decisions about where to purchase homeopathic dilutions and what homeopathic practitioner to see. Homeopathic remedies should not replace conventional treatments for serious health concerns.
You can buy some homeopathic medicines at health food stores without a doctor’s prescription. But preparations from different suppliers and practitioners may vary.
Always tell your doctor if you are using an alternative therapy or if you are thinking about combining an alternative therapy with your conventional medical treatment. It may not be safe to forgo your conventional medical treatment and rely only on an alternative therapy.
It is believed that the underlying causes of disease were phenomena that was termed miasms, and that homeopathic remedies addressed these. The remedies are prepared by repeatedly diluting a chosen substance in alcohol or distilled water, followed by forceful striking on an elastic body. Dilution usually continues well past the point where no molecules of the original substance remain. Homeopaths select remedies by consulting reference books known as repertories, and by considering the totality of the patient’s symptoms, personal traits, physical and psychological state, and life history.
The scientific community regards homeopathy as nonsense, quackery, or a sham, and homeopathic practice has been criticized as unethical. The axioms of homeopathy are long refuted and lack any biological plausibility. Although some clinical trials produce positive results, systemic reviews reveal that this is because of chance, flawed research methods, and reporting bias. The postulated mechanisms of action of homeopathic remedies are both scientifically implausible and physically impossible.
Homeopaths have asserted that Hippocrates, in about 400 BC, “perhaps originated homeopathy” when he prescribed a small dose of mandrake root – which in larger doses produced mania – to treat mania itself; in the 16th century the pioneer of pharmacology Paracelsus declared that small doses of “what makes a man ill also cures him.” Samuel Hahnemann (1755–1843) gave homeopathy its name and expanded its principles in the late 18th century. At that time, mainstream medicine used methods like bloodletting and purging, and administered complex mixtures, such as Venice treacle, which was made from 64 substances including opium, myrrh, and viper’s flesh. These treatments often worsened symptoms and sometimes proved fatal. Hahnemann rejected these practices – which had been extolled for centuries – as irrational and inadvisable; instead, he advocated the use of single drugs at lower doses and promoted an immaterial, vitalistic view of how living organisms function, believing that diseases have spiritual, as well as physical causes.
Subsequent scientific work shows that cinchona cures malaria because it contains quinine, which kills the Plasmodium falciparum parasite that causes the disease; the mechanism of action is unrelated to the symptoms of cinchonism.
Hahnemann began to test what effects substances produced in humans, a procedure that would later become known as “homeopathic proving”. These tests required subjects to test the effects of ingesting substances by clearly recording all of their symptoms as well as the ancillary conditions under which they appeared. A collection of proving’s was published in 1805, and a second collection of 65 remedies appeared in his book, Materia Medica Pura, in 1810.
In The Organon of the Healing Art, the concept of “miasms” was introduce as “infectious principles” underlying chronic disease. Hahnemann associated each miasm with specific diseases, and thought that initial exposure to miasms causes local symptoms, such as skin or venereal diseases; if however these symptoms were suppressed by medication, the cause went deeper and began to manifest itself as diseases of the internal organs. Homeopathy maintains that treating diseases by directly opposing their symptoms, as is sometimes done in conventional medicine, is ineffective because all “disease can generally be traced to some latent, deep-seated, underlying chronic, or inherited tendency”. The underlying imputed miasm still remains and deep-seated ailments can be corrected only by removing the deeper disturbance of the vital force.
Hahnemann originally presented only three miasms, of which the most important was psora (Greek for “itch”), described as being related to any itching diseases of the skin, supposed to be derived from suppressed scabies, and claimed to be the foundation of many further disease conditions. Hahnemann believed psora to be the cause of such diseases as epilepsy, cancer, jaundice, deafness and cataracts. Since Hahnemann’s time, other miasms have been proposed, some replacing one or more of psora’s proposed functions, including tuberculosis and cancer miasms.
The law of susceptibility implies that a negative state of mind can attract hypothetical disease entities called “miasms” to invade the body and produce symptoms of diseases. Hahnemann rejected the notion of a disease as a separate thing or invading entity, and insisted it was always part of the “living whole”. Hahnemann coined the expression “allopathic medicine,” which was used to pejoratively refer to traditional Western medicine.
The theory of miasms has been criticized as an explanation developed by Hahnemann to preserve the system of homeopathy in the face of treatment failures, and for being inadequate to cover the many hundreds of sorts of diseases, as well as for failing to explain disease predispositions, as well as genetics, environmental factors, and the unique disease history of each patient.
Homeopathy achieved its greatest popularity in the 19th century. Dr. John Franklin Gray (1804–1882) was the first practitioner of homeopathy in the United States, beginning in 1828 in New York City. The first homeopathic schools opened in 1830, and throughout the 19th century dozens of homeopathic institutions appeared in Europe and the United States. By 1900, there were 22 homeopathic colleges and 15,000 practitioners in the United States. Because medical practice of the time relied on ineffective and often dangerous treatments, patients of homeopaths often had better outcomes than those of the doctors of the time. Homeopathic remedies, even if ineffective, would almost surely cause no harm, making the users of homeopathic remedies less likely to be killed by the treatment that was supposed to be helping them. The relative success of homeopathy in the 19th century may have led to the abandonment of the ineffective and harmful treatments of bloodletting and purging and to have begun the move towards more effective, science-based medicine. One reason for the growing popularity of homeopathy was its apparent success in treating people suffering from infectious disease epidemics. During 19th century epidemics of diseases such as cholera, death rates in homeopathic hospitals were often lower than in conventional hospitals, where the treatments used at the time were often harmful and did little or nothing to combat the diseases.
From its inception, however, homeopathy was criticized by mainstream science. The members of the French Homeopathic Society observed in 1867 that some of the leading homeopathists of Europe not only were abandoning the practice of administering infinitesimal doses but were also no longer defending it. The last school in the U.S. exclusively teaching homeopathy closed in 1920.
In the United States the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938 recognized homeopathic remedies as drugs. In the 1950s, there were only 75 pure homeopaths practicing in the U.S. However, by the mid to late 1970s, homeopathy made a significant comeback and sales of some homeopathic companies increased tenfold. Greek homeopath George Vithoulkas performed a “great deal of research to update the scenarios and refine the theories and practice of homeopathy” beginning in the 1970s, and it was revived worldwide; in Brazil during the 1970s and in Germany during the 1980s, and mainstream pharmacy chains recognized the business potential of selling homeopathic remedies.
Homeopathic practitioners rely on two types of reference when prescribing remedies: materia medica and repertories. A homeopathic materia medica is a collection of “drug pictures”, organized alphabetically by “remedy,” that describes the symptom patterns associated with individual remedies. A homeopathic repertory is an index of disease symptoms that lists remedies associated with specific symptoms. Homeopathy uses many animal, plants, mineral, and synthetic substances in its remedies. Examples include arsenic oxide, table salt, and the venom of the bushmaster snake, opium, and thyroid hormone. Homeopaths also use treatments called “nosodes” (from the Greek nosos, disease) made from diseased or pathological products such as fecal, urinary, and respiratory discharges, blood, and tissue. Homeopathic remedies prepared from healthy specimens are called “sarcodes”.
Some modern homeopaths have considered more esoteric bases for remedies, known as “imponderables” because they do not originate from a substance, but from electromagnetic energy presumed to have been “captured” by alcohol or lactose. Examples include X-rays and sunlight. Today, about 3,000 different remedies are commonly used in homeopathy. Some homeopaths also use techniques that are regarded by other practitioners as controversial. These include “paper remedies”, where the substance and dilution are written on pieces of paper and either pinned to the patients’ clothing, put in their pockets, or placed under glasses of water that are then given to the patients, as well as the use of radionics to prepare remedies. Such practices have been strongly criticized by classical homeopaths as unfounded, speculative, and verging upon magic and superstition.
Provings have been described as important in the development of the clinical trial, due to their early use of simple control groups, systematic and quantitative procedures, and some of the first application of statistics in medicine. The lengthy records of self-experimentation by homeopaths have occasionally proven useful in the development of modern drugs: For example, evidence that nitroglycerin might be useful as a treatment for angina was discovered by looking through homeopathic proving’s, though homeopaths themselves never used it for that purpose at that time.
Homeopaths generally begin with detailed examinations of their patients’ histories, including questions regarding their physical, mental and emotional states, their life circumstances and any physical or emotional illnesses. The homeopath then attempts to translate this information into a complex formula of mental and physical symptoms, including likes, dislikes, innate predispositions and even body type.
From these symptoms, the homeopath chooses how to treat the patient. A compilation of reports of many homeopathic proving’s, supplemented with clinical data, and is known as a “homeopathic materia medica“. But because a practitioner first needs to explore the remedies for a particular symptom rather than looking up the symptoms for a particular remedy, the “homeopathic repertory”, which is an index of symptoms, lists after each symptom those remedies that are associated with it. Repertories are often very extensive and may include data extracted from multiple sources of materia medica. There is often lively debate among compilers of repertories and practitioners over the veracity of a particular inclusion.
Some diversity in approaches to treatments exists among homeopaths. “Classical homeopathy” generally involves detailed examinations of a patient’s history and infrequent doses of a single remedy as the patient is monitored for improvements in symptoms, while “clinical homeopathy” involves combinations of remedies to address the various symptoms of an illness. Homeopathic pills are made from an inert substance (often sugars, typically lactose), upon which a drop of liquid homeopathic preparation is placed. The list of ingredients seen on remedies may confuse consumers into believing the product actually contains those ingredients. According to normal homeopathic practice, remedies are prepared starting with active ingredients that are often serially diluted to the point where the finished product no longer contains any biologically “active ingredients” as that term is normally defined.
While the lack of active compounds is noted in most homeopathic products, there are some exceptions such as Zicam Cold Remedy, which is marketed as an “unapproved homeopathic” product. It contains a number of highly diluted ingredients that are listed as “inactive ingredients” on the label. Some of the homeopathic ingredients used in the preparation of Zicam are galphimia glauca, histamine dihydrochloride, luffa operculata and sulfur. Although the product is marked “homeopathic”, it does contain two ingredients that are only “slightly” diluted: zinc acetate and zinc gluconate, which means both are present in a concentration that contains biologically active ingredients. In fact, they are strong enough to have caused some people to lose their sense of smell, a condition termed anosmia. This illustrates why taking a product marked “homeopathic”, especially an overdose, can still be dangerous because it may contain biologically active ingredients, though as discussed previously, most homeopathic preparations contain no active ingredients. Because the manufacturers of Zicam label it as a homeopathic product (despite the relatively high concentrations of active ingredients), it is exempted from FDA regulation by the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA).