What are the origins of homeopathy?
In the 1790s German physician Samuel Hahnemann developed the ancient Greek medic Hippocrates’ idea of curing ‘like with like’. He rejected the purgings and leeches that were common the medicine of the day and when he experimented on himself with quinine (found in Peruvian bark, just to qualify for the benefit of one critical email correspondent) – used to treat ‘ague’, now known as malaria – he found that he could induce the symptoms of the disease by increasing the dose.
Hahnemann concluded that it was Peruvian bark’s ability to trigger malaria symptoms (it causes fever) that made it a cure for the disease and he began to test other substances on patients to ‘prove’ them. He called the practice homeopathy from the Greek homoios (the same) and pathos (suffering). He observed that a smaller and smaller dose, of say the deadly plant belladonna used to treat scarlet fever, or even the poison arsenic, seemed to have a more specific effect on his patients. Bizarrely, to prepare his purported remedies, he had to shake them by bashing his vials against his Bible…and apparently at least one homeopathic research centre has a copy of the Bible on its prep benches.
Hahnemann’s ideas spread throughout Europe and North America and by 1844 there was an American Institute of Homeopathy. However, by the twentieth century scientific modern medicine was flourishing and the practice of homeopathy had all but disappeared in the Western world.
In the last few decades or so more and more people have been turning to complementary medicine in general and homeopathy has become one of the most common practices.
What happens during a “treatment”?
As with other complementary health practices when you visit a homeopath they will usually ask you about your lifestyle, eating habits, medical history and state of mind and not simply look for symptoms. the mainstream medical profession, with its time-limited consultations, could do well to adopt this more holistic approach, as it does have the benefit of not only improving doctor-patient relations but may enhance any placebo aspect of conventional treatments prescribed.
With homeopathy, the consultation allows the practitioner to tailor to the remedy to your illness and your personality. After a diagnostic session a ‘classical’ homeopath would prescribe a unique remedy, for you based on your symptoms and your personality and medical history. If that’s the case, then how can any over the counter remedies one might buy in a health store work? Well, to put it bluntly, they can’t.
There are also those who practice ‘complex homeopathy‘ [link added for benefit of email correspondent 2009-10-20] in which prescriptions are based more on the overall disease. Two patients with similar illnesses might therefore be given the same prescription but rather than being a uniquely selected medicine this would usually be a mixture of substances. Again, more pseudoscientific claptrap.
The remedy may be given in the form of tablets, powders, tinctures, creams and ointments or solutions together with advice on diet and lifestyle. Homeopaths will usually suggest you avoid strong-smelling substances and coffee, while taking homeopathic remedies. They may also advise you not to use certain aromatherapy oils or take herbal remedies while undergoing treatment. A fully qualified and registered homeopath will never recommend that you stop taking a prescribed medicine and would refer you back to your GP first if they think you should. Suddenly stopping a prescribed medicine might cause severe problems.
What disorders might be treated with homeopathy?
Homeopaths claim to be able to treat many illnesses including the following, but none of these actually works in the way claimed any benefits of the treatment can only be ascribed to the placebo effect.
- Anxiety and panic attacks
- Back pain and neuralgia
- Coughs and colds and croup
- Insect bites and stings
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Leg cramp
- Menstrual and menopausal problems
- Morning sickness
- Teething pains
Some practitioners even offer homeopathic alternatives to antimalarials and vaccines for serious diseases. This practice is very, very dangerous. If you visit a homeopath and they offer a preventative for malaria instead of you taking proper antimalarials, then you run the risk of catching the disease if exposed to malaria-carrying insects. Not a good idea, at all. I’ve seen spam email recently for homeopathic alternatives to bird flu and swine (H1N1) drugs and vaccines. The World Health Organization recently warned against turning to homeopathy for treating serious diseases.
Where’s the evidence?
There have been lots of tests carried out to see whether homeopathy works, including trials with animals. (Critique of veterinarian homeopathy claims). None of these stand up to scrutiny and those that are more scientific fail to show anything but a placebo effect. The majority of studies cited by homeopaths to support their claims are simply not scientifically rigorous enough to prove anything. The British Medical Journal and the Lancet, two well-respected medical journals, have published reviews of several trials into homeopathy but it seems have found no substantial support for its effects beyond a placebo.
UPDATE: 2009-10-20 – An email correspondent claims that these two old papers (1991 and 1997)
Linde, K., Clausius, N., Ramirez, G., et al., “Are the Clinical Effects of Homoeopathy Placebo Effects? A Meta-analysis of Placebo-Controlled Trials,” Lancet, September 20, 1997, 350:834-843 and J. Kleijnen, P. Knipschild, G. ter Riet, “Clinical Trials of Homoeopathy,” British Medical Journal, February 9, 1991, 302:316-323 contradict my statement, although in their email they misquote my post.
Fundamentally, preparing a homeopathic treatment involves diluting the supposed active ingredient over and over again to the point where there will be not one single molecule of the ingredient in the final remedy given to the patient.
In the late 1980s, French scientist, Jacques Benveniste, tried to show that although the original drug might not be present it does leave a ‘memory’ in the water in which it was first dissolved and it is this ‘memory’ that causes the effects of homeopathic remedies. Of course, no scientist has succeeded in duplicating his experiments and the consensus now is that he was wrong.
What do doctors think about homeopathy?
Homeopathy does not work. Physicians know this and will not morally prescribe homeopathy to their patients. It is an ethical minefield to consider homeopathy except as a deliberate exercise in placebo of last resort either for hypochondriacs who are actually not ill or for cases for which conventional medicine has no further answers.
Does homeopathy work?
It is difficult to separate out the marginally positive results that have been seen in some spurious clinical trials from the placebo effect. Practitioners use vanishingly low doses of a compound or drug that if given in large enough quantities would cause the symptoms of the disease they are trying to cure. The homeopathic remedy Allium cepa, for instance, is made from an extract of onions. Onions, of course, make your eyes sting and water and your nose run when you peel and chop them. The homeopathic ‘like for like’ principle says that a disorder with these symptoms would be cured by a small dose of onion. So, homeopaths may use Allium cepa to treat hayfever. But any effect will be purely placebo, as there is not even a single molecule from the extract left in the solution after homeopathic dilution.
The underlying idea is that the symptom-causing remedy kick-starts our body to begin the self-healing process. There are a wide variety of homeopathic preparations, common ones might be made from the deadly nightshade, belladonna, arnica, chamomile, mercury and sulfur, sepia (extracted from squid ink), snake venom and even compounds extracted from bodily fluids. But, again, none of these so-called remedies contain any active component, despite claims about water having a memory of the molecules that were once dissolved in it. If that were the case, then surely we’d all be cured of everything just by drinking a glass of tap water.
For more on why homeopathy is nothing but snake oil, quackery and seriously bad medicine, check out Singh and Ernst’s – Trick or Treatment and accompanying website, which at the time of updating this page (June 6, 2008) is still under construction. Skeptic’s dictionary definition of homeopathy and UK skeptics.
UPDATE: 2009-10-20 An email correspondent sent me a rather insulting and sarcastic message regarding this post, hence the various updates. In the email, which was from someone represent homeopaths, needless to say, I was accused at once of being a “super-smart man” and “clearly not living up to your own high expectations of yourself”. Apparently, “a combination of arrogance and ignorance is a deadly duo” and that I could cure this state but first, I have to “recognize that a dis-ease exists.”
The correspondent, who could just as easily have left a comment on this post instead of emailing concludes: “I hope that I am lighting a fire underneath so that you can get better, even if we may not be in agreement on all subjects…”
Hmmm…well…I think I have pretty much the whole of science-based medicine on my side when I reiterate that homeopathy is pseudoscience based on the ludicrous notion of the infinite dilution of “remedies”.
There are many small studies which show it works, although they tend to be poorly designed and conducted by homeopaths themselves.
Even if science has missed something fundamental about the nature of atoms, molecules, and chemical bonds, the idea that removing absolutely all traces of an active substance from a “remedy” and expecting it to have anything but a placebo effect is surely nonsense. If homeopaths are not using infinite dilution, and instead are actually using herbal remedies diluted only a little then I’d have no truck with that. Herbal medicine is valid. Indeed, approximately 30% of modern pharmaceutical products have a herbal origin. No modern pharmaceutical products have a homeopathic origin.