by Guy McCardle for Skeptoid.com
Ask the average person on the street if they know what Homeopathy is and more likely than not they’ll say something to the effect that it is natural, or herbal, medicine. A quick unscientific survey of my own fairly well educated friends and family showed this to be the case. While it is a partial truth to say that homeopathy is a natural, herbal form of medicine, this is far from the whole story. People use homeopathy for a wide range of health concerns, from wellness and prevention, to the treatment of diseases and conditions ranging from allergies to AIDS.
In short, homeopathy is a system of alternative medicine in which a practitioner uses very dilute solutions of a naturally occurring substance which usually has been diluted in a substrate of water or alcohol. Occasionally these weakened solutions are dropped onto a sugar pill. Preparations are chosen on their presumed ability to cause symptoms similar to those exhibited by the patient. The basic tenet of homeopathy is that “like cures like”. This is known as the “law of similars” and was first postulated by German physician Samuel Hahnemann in 1796. It is important to remember that this “law of similiars” is an unproven notion based solely on the theories of Hahnemann. It is not a true law of nature based on the scientific method.
Back in Hahnemann’s time medicine had barely evolved past the days of barber surgeons and bloodletting. Doctors believed that an imbalance of one of the four bodily humors (blood, phlegm, black bile, yellow bile) was to blame for every ailment. Medicine was the process of re-balancing the humors to return the patient to a state of good health. Many died in agony in search of a cure. Realizing this, Hahnemann set out to discover a way for the body to regulate its own humors. His thought was that a small dose of the causative agent for a particular disease gave the body the boost needed to cure itself. Not surprisingly, his natural tinctures grew popular as medical treatments being an alternative to bloodletting and leeches.
Homeopathic remedies (in this case remedy means that a substance was prepared with a particular procedure and with the intent of treating patients; not to be confused with the generally accepted meaning of the word which means “a medicine or therapy intended to cure disease or relieve pain”) are formulated by shaking or striking the substances to be mixed on an elastic body. This is known as succussion. Each dilution followed by succussion is thought to increase the effectiveness of the medication. Homeopaths call this process potentization. Dilution often continues until none of the original active material remains. In the eyes of a Homeopath, less is truly more. A solution that is more dilute is described as having a higher potency, and more dilute substances are considered to be stronger and deeper-acting remedies. Hahnemann advocated dilutions of 60C (or 10 to the minus 60). There are numerous dramatic ways to put this infinitesimal number into perspective but I think just one will suffice. A patient would have to ingest 10 to the 34th power gallons of remedy to get even one molecule of active ingredient. This equals out to be 10 BILLION times the volume of the Earth. Enough said.
Wait, you may be saying, “don’t vaccines work by putting a little bit of a disease causing substance into the body? Not really enough to cause disease but enough to start an immune response. Isn’t this the same basic concept as Homeopathy?”. My answer is yes, and no. Yes this is the basic idea of how vaccines work and no, this has nothing to do with homeopathy as defined by Hahnemann. First and foremost, vaccines contain measurable amounts of active ingredients, homeopathic remedies do not. Their active ingredients are inactivated versions of the disease causing agent. Vaccines are used to prevent a future illness that does not yet exist in the body. They work by the production of protective antibodies. Homeopathy is supposed to be used to fight a disease already present in the body. In the case of a vaccine, the immune response (antibody production) is measurable whereas homeopathy produces no measurable biological reaction.
We’ve established that homeopathic remedies contain no measurable amounts of active ingredients. Why then, do people swear by these treatments? According to the American Homeopathic Pharmaceutical Association, homeopathic remedy sales exceed $166 million per year in the United States and have been steadily rising. According to the 2007 National Health Interview Survey, an estimated 3.9 million U.S. adults and approximately 900,000 children used Homeopathy in the previous year. There has to be something to it. Right? Homeopathy has been a global phenomenon for over 200 years and homeopathic medical schools are going strong in many countries. Both parents of 29th U.S. president Warren G. Harding were homeopathic physicians. He also died at the hands of a homeopathic physician. More on that in a minute.
But…does it work? A majority of research studies demonstrate that homeopathic remedies are no more effective than a placebo. In fairness, there are also some studies that show Homeopathy to have results superior to that of a placebo. The problem is that in every one of the studies that shows a statistically significant benefit of homeopathic treatment, serious doubts have been raised about the quality of the evidence in the studies. Final word: The collective weight of scientific evidence has found Homeopathy to be no more effective than a placebo.
So, where is the harm in all of this? As Americans, we have a God given right to waste our money in any way we see fit. Or something like that. How could pure water or a simple sugar pill do any harm? The damage is done when people with life-threatening conditions turn away from legitimate medicine and put their full faith in quackery. Consider the case of Jacqeline Alderslade of County Mayo, Ireland. A Homeopath convinced her to give up her asthma medication. She died of an asthma attack in July of 1999. What about Isabella Denley, aged 13 months, of Victoria, Australia? Isabella was prescribed medications for her epilepsy. Her parents opted not to use them and sought the advice of a Homeopath. She was being treated solely with homeopathic medication when she died in October of 2002. Remember President Harding? Throughout his presidency both he and the first lady were under the care of homeopathic physician Dr. Charles E. Sawyer. Harding had so much faith in Sawyer that he gave him the rank of Brigadier General in the Army Medical Corps. Sawyer’s reliance on outdated medical practices resulted in a misdiagnosis of the President’s serious coronary condition which led to his death in San Francisco in 1923. Other physicians caring for the President speculated that Sawyers prescriptions of heavy doses of purgatives contributed directly to Harding’s fatal heart attack. We will never know for sure. At Sawyer’s recommendation, Mrs. Harding refused to have an autopsy performed on her husband.
People suffering the world over deserve better than to be treated with make believe medicine. Modern medical care, although far from perfect, provides millions of people with real relief from their ailments and hope of a better quality of life. As medical professionals we owe it to all patients to offer the best treatment that modern medical science has to offer. In particular, the pharmacy profession must do their part by ending the sale of homeopathic remedies in pharmacies. This implicit validation of the alternative therapy is an embarrassment that discredits pharmacists in the eyes of the public and healthcare professionals alike. Patients: When considering a medical treatment be sure to use some common sense and choose wisely. Someday your life may depend on it.