Homeopathy … is even more popular in Europe than in the United States. In Europe, it is a $1.4 billion a year market, according to Business Week. It is popular with the British Royal family and is currently supported by the NHS [National Health Service].
There are a lot of misconceptions about what homeopathy is. Many people think that homeopathy means herbal medicine or natural medicine, but this is not true. Homeopathy, in fact, is a 200-year-old philosophy-based system. It’s based on the notion of vitalism, the idea that living creatures have an essence or vital force that animates them. Homeopathy survives today due to cultural inertia and despite a complete lack of scientific evidence.
Homeopathy was developed by Christian Friedrich Samuel Hahnemann (1755–1843), a German medical doctor. In the 1790s, Hahnemann came up with several laws that govern the actions of homeopathic remedies. The first law of homeopathy is called the law of similars. He claimed to discover this principle when he noted that the cinchona bark, which is used to treat malaria, caused him to have symptoms very similar to those of malaria. He therefore generalized this one observation to this law, which became one of the cornerstones of homeopathy.
Hahnemann’s next law is the law of infinitesimals. He believed that substances transferred their essence to water in which they were diluted. The greater the dilution, the greater this transference of essence was. The law of the individual remedy states that each person’s totality of symptoms has a single underlying cause. Therefore, homeopathic remedies are intended to treat all of those symptoms at once with a single remedy. Homeopathic remedies also include the notion of potentiation. Between each dilution, homeopathic remedies are potentiated by succussing them. That means shaking them in a certain way; this is more of a ritual than science or chemistry.
What does the clinical evidence show? There have actually been hundreds of clinical studies of homeopathic remedies. After reviewing all of the evidence for homeopathy, the scientific community has come to the conclusion that there is no evidence to support homeopathy for any indication. Also, homeopathic remedies are no different than placebos.
There are many homeopathic products on the market, however. They are marketed because of loose regulations without evidence for either safety or effectiveness. Homeopathic remedies are generally safe, because they’re usually just water. There is no active ingredient, so they don’t really have the potential to cause direct harm. But this is not universally true of homeopathic remedies. Some homeopathic products cheat the system by including measurable levels of active ingredients but using the homeopathic label to skirt regulations.
One example is Zicam. This is a product that was marketed as homeopathic. Some preparations of it have measurable and meaningful amounts of zinc oxide, which is shown to treat and reduce the symptoms of a cold. However, zinc oxide is also known to cause anosmia, a sometimes permanent loss of the ability to smell. Several people who were using Zicam had permanent anosmia as a side effect. That caused regulatory agencies to take a second look at it and to temporarily suspend it from the market.
One justification for the ultra-dilutions of homeopathic remedies that’s often given is the analogy to vaccines or allergy shots. This is a myth and not an apt analogy. A vaccine contains a measurable, if small, amount of antigen meant to stimulate the immune system.
Allergy shots give a small amount of a substance to which one is allergic in order to provoke the immune system to make blocking antibodies. They make antibodies to the substance to help prevent an allergic reaction. In order for allergy shots to work, you have to give a small dose and then build it up to increasingly larger doses. Eventually, you’re giving a fairly significant dose in order to provoke a sufficient immune response. Therefore, there is no analogy whatsoever to a preparation that has no measurable amount of anything in it.
Testimonials and anecdotes tend to support what people want to believe. There are also placebo effects, which can make anything seem to work. There’s also often a failure to recognize the harm that could be done with these types of interventions. Homeopathy mostly is a completely inactive substance; it’s just water without any active ingredient. Some people will say if it does nothing, how could it possibly do any harm? The harm often comes in preventing effective treatment. There are many cases of harm occurring to people relying upon homeopathic remedies who could have easily been treated with modern medicine.
There’s a broader intellectual conflict that’s represented by homeopathy. It’s between science-based medicine – what we recognize today as the modern scientific approach to biology, healing, and disease – and what we would now think of as magical thinking. Over the last 200 years, the scientific approach has clearly won out. It has produced all of modern medicine, whereas homeopathy is stuck in the 200-year-old ideas of its founder. Completely inert treatment may have actually been an advantage to what was passing for standard medicine 200 years ago. But today, science-based medicine has brought us a host of effective treatments.