No one really understands how or why homeopathy works. No doubt this is what troubles the skeptics most, many of whom casually dismiss homeopathy as utter nonsense. Unlike Traditional Chinese Medicine and acupuncture, where the scientific basis does not conflict with conventional Western medical beliefs but rather suggests a drastically different understanding of disease and healing, the theories underlying homeopathic medicine clash rather daringly with a pharmaceutical approach.
In a brief online discussion of homeopathy, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) at NIH states: “Several key concepts of homeopathy are inconsistent with fundamental concepts of chemistry and physics.” NCCAM goes on to acknowledge that “there are significant challenges in carrying out rigorous clinical research on homeopathic remedies.” In other words, because the basis of homeopathy differs from the basis of Western medical science, and because our accepted research methodology in the U.S. has not been an appropriate vehicle with which to study it, homeopathy continues to be dismissed by the medical establishment. Is it reasonable to totally dismiss something that we don’t understand simply because we don’t understand it? Or because we don’t yet know how to study it? Despite NCCAM’s views, homeopathic remedies sold in the U.S. have been deemed harmless enough to warrant approval by the federal Food and Drug Administration.
In my reading, I learned that “Homeopathy” was invented by a German physician named Samuel Hahnemann in the early 19th century. After a number of years of medical practice, Dr. Hahnemann grew disenchanted with the medical profession and its usage of what he felt were unacceptably primitive treatments, such as blood-letting. He eventually closed down his medical practice, and combined his linguistic abilities with his medical knowledge to launch a new profession as translator of medical texts into German. At one point, one of the texts he was translating for a professor in London described the use of quinine, an organic substance extracted from the bark of the cinchona bush, to treat malaria. (Quinine’s medicinal properties were originally discovered by the Quechua people living in the Andes Mountains of South America.) Dr. Hahnemann suspected that the professor’s explanation of why quinine was effective in treating malaria was inaccurate, and he took it upon himself to explore the matter further.
Dr. Hahnemann’s unlikely investigation began with a series of experiments on himself. He observed that when he took quinine without malaria being present, it actually induced malarial-like symptoms. This strange observation compelled him to experiment further with quinine and other plants (and eventually with minerals as well), using himself and medical colleagues who volunteered to serve as guinea pigs. His ongoing observations led to his belief that curative properties worked because they contained the capacity to cause the very symptoms that they were used to treat—a like cures like theory that became the foundation of homeopathic medicine.
Ignoring the fact that his newfound beliefs had no basis in the conventional medical theory of the day, Dr. Hahnemann was inspired to continue his experiments for a period of years. Doctors throughout Europe who heard about Dr. Hahnemann and his experiments streamed into Germany to disprove his outrageous theories. Some of them feared that, if he were allowed to continue, his theories could threaten the very basis of “modern” medicine. However, according to George Vithoulkas, a modern day practitioner and teacher of homeopathy in the U.S., once the critics observed Dr. Hahnemann’s work firsthand, even the most skeptical among them were eventually won over, often joining him in his efforts to develop an entirely new approach to healing.
Dr. Hahnemann and his team of medical colleagues combed through the annals of medical history looking for accounts of poisonous and non-poisonous plants (as well as toxic and non-toxic minerals and metals) and their effects on the body. Using as many different substances as he could find, he continued to test his like cures like theory, documenting the impact that the curative treatments derived from these substances had on healthy individuals. The documented results of these experiments were then compiled into a multi-volume homeopathic Materia Medica Pura that describes some 5,000 homeopathic remedies. Homeopaths today are expected to spend significant time studying these remedies before working directly with patients.
The primary working principle of homeopathy is that the human body itself will mount a healing offensive if given the correct and, importantly, subtle message. In fact, homeopathic remedies derived from plants and minerals are given in dosages of such dilution that molecules of the original source (i.e., the plant or the mineral) are no longer traceable. Further, one of the more curious facts of homeopathy is that the greater the dilution of a remedy (in other words, the lower the dosage by conventional medicine’s definition), the greater its impact. This, of course, goes completely against the grain of Western pharmaceutical thought where “more is better” in terms of a higher dosage having a stronger impact. This mystifying basis for homeopathic healing has only served to intensify the charges of quackery that are sometimes leveled against it.
There are several problems with anyone blithely dismissing homeopathy as quackery. First, despite NIH’s skepticism, homeopathic remedies have been rigorously studied in Europe (including by a Nobel Prize winning scientist) and found to be particularly effective with chronic diseases such as fibromyalgia, behavioral conditions such as ADHD, and detoxification following arsenic poisoning. Second, since Dr. Hahnemann’s discoveries and development of the homeopathic approach in Germany, Europeans have come to widely accept homeopathy as a low-cost, effective, and virtually risk-free medical treatment. In cases of mild illness, many conventionally trained physicians across Europe prescribe homeopathic remedies in lieu of pharmaceutical drugs, such as the Pulsatilla remedy given to me by a French physician.
Due to homeopathy’s widespread use, European pharmacists are routinely trained to give their customers counsel on homeopathic remedies as well as on what Americans would consider to be more conventional pharmaceutical options. Out of curiosity, on a recent trip to Spain, I walked into the first half dozen pharmacies that I passed on the street to see what was routinely sold. Every one of the pharmacies sold an array of over-the-counter homeopathic remedies (plus nutritional supplements and herbal tonics) alongside aspirin and cough syrup. When I tried to convey my surprise in broken Spanish that homeopathic remedies were being sold in “regular” pharmacies, each of the pharmacists asked insistently what symptoms I was hoping to treat, thinking I was instead asking for their advice!
Many Americans are using the same low-cost, effective, and non-toxic homeopathic remedies that are sold in Europe. Boiron, the world’s largest homeopathic manufacturer (headquartered in France and founded by pharmacist brothers, Jean and Henri Boiron), has opened manufacturing and distribution outlets on both the East and West Coasts of the U.S. (as well as other locations throughout the world). Boiron remedies are now available over-the-counter in health food and nutritional supplement stores as well as in selected pharmacies all across the U.S. Hopefully, the increase in consumption will pique American physicians’ curiosity and increase the demand for government-sponsored research.
In our second year of consultations with Dr. Razi, the pediatrician and homeopath I found to work with my son, she ordered a special Escherichia coli remedy from England that was specifically designed to treat the pancreatic insufficiency of CF. We had to wait several months for it to arrive from abroad. Dr. Razi assured me that this remedy, which was derived from a much-feared bacteria that could cause kidney failure in young children, would be perfectly safe to give to Russell. I knew that vaccines contained the actual viral agent they were designed to protect against, and that some vaccines such as polio even contained live molecules. I had allowed Russell to be vaccinated with the usual slate of pediatric vaccines because they were considered to be at least generally safe, but the idea of giving him something as deadly as E. coli frightened me. Dr. Razi patiently reassured me multiple times, and though I was still nervous, I finally decided to simply trust her. She instructed me to give him several chewable “tablets” each day for a period of several weeks. Once that initial period of time passed, we would consult again to discuss its effect and any need for further treatment.
Russell’s stools were still far from normal at this stage—the steatorrhea typical of CF had ended, but his stools were still abnormally frequent and loose, and his diapers often contained greasy yellow globules of undigested fat. The day following his first dosage of the E. coli remedy, his stools suddenly turned green and foamy and voluminous—frighteningly reminiscent of his pre-diagnosis steatorrhea. I called Dr. Razi in a panic. Much to my amazement, she was very encouraged.
“This is an excellent response!” she said with excitement.
I was puzzled by what she explained was a “homeopathic aggravation,” when a remedy initially causes symptoms to worsen. This was utterly counter-intuitive, but I continued to give Russell the E. coli remedy for the allotted time anyway. As Dr. Razi predicted, his stools calmed down within days and eventually normalized to a much greater degree than ever before.
UP NEXT: Osteopathy
This essay is an excerpt from Dr. Beane’s memoir, Embracing the Dragon: Using Alternative Healing to Reclaim Hope, which chronicles her combined use of conventional and so-called “alternative” medicine to treat her son’s cystic fibrosis. See also previous essays: HOMEOPATHY (Part 1) and ACUPUNCTURE (Parts 1 and 2).Alternative Medicine