What Is It?
Homeopathy is a comprehensive system of medicine in which practitioners use solutions containing minute amounts of animal, vegetable and/or mineral substances to promote healing. Homeopaths believe in what they call the “law of similars.” This means that “like cures like” and that illnesses can be treated by giving patients a small dose of a substance that produces similar effects to those of the illness. This is the same principle used in allergy treatments and immunizations.
Homeopaths evaluate and treat each patient as a whole. They consider psychological, behavioral, and genetic factors–not just the immediate physical symptoms of the disease–when prescribing the remedy that will have the most powerful healing effect on the patient.
The system of homeopathy is based on the work of Samuel Hahnemann (1753-1843), a German physician and chemist. Deeply disturbed by practices such as bloodletting and purging, which were mainstream medicine in his time, Hahnemann quit his medical practice and began a quest to understand the healing properties of drugs.
In his research, Hahnemann tried out various substances on his followers and on himself, and carefully recorded the details of their effects. Armed with this information, he then applied them to the treatment of the sick based on the “law of similars.” His work led him to conclude that an imbalance in the body’s vital energy caused disease and that a slight stimulus from the correct substance could trigger the body’s ability to heal itself. Hahnemann also found that by progressively diluting and mixing a drug preparation, he could make an increasingly potent remedy with few or no side effects.
Hahnemann’s research and writings were synthesized into a system of homeopathic medicine in the mid-nineteenth century. It wasn’t long before homeopathy became an accepted medical discipline in many nations throughout the world, and by the early 1900s it was widely practiced in the United States. Interestingly, the original legislation that created the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1938 included the regulation of manufacturing standards for homeopathic drugs.
Conventional medical doctors and scientists, however, scoffed at the dilution principle of homeopathy, preferring to think that direct chemical actions were necessary for drugs to be effective. After a decline during the middle of the twentieth century, homeopathy regained status and today has a broad following in Europe, South America, and India. With preliminary scientific studies documenting the effect of some homeopathic treatments, along with the widespread interest in “natural healing,” homeopathy has once again become a more accepted method of treatment in the United States.
How Does It Work?
A homeopathic remedy is made by crushing a plant, animal, or mineral substance then putting it into a solvent such as grain alcohol. The extract is then further diluted in a mixture of alcohol and water and shaken with each dilution; this emphasizes the signature healing effects of the substance being diluted. The process is repeated many times to achieve a therapeutic dilution with few chemical side effects.
Homeopathic remedies are labeled with numbers and letters that indicate their dilution, or “potency.” A solution labeled “30C,” for example, has been diluted 30 times at a ratio of one part substance to 99 parts alcohol and water (“C” is for “centesimal,” as the ratio is 1:100). A solution labeled “6X” has been diluted 6 times at a ratio of one part substance to 9 parts alcohol and water (“X” stands for “decimal potency,” or a ratio of 1:10). After it has been properly diluted, the medicine can be administered in one of many forms, including tablets, ointments, liquid, or spray.
Advocates say that the dilution process produces a potent healing “essence.” Critics argue that most homeopathic remedies are so diluted that chemical laboratory tests cannot detect the original active substance. They suggest that homeopathic cures are the result of a placebo effect caused by the patient’s belief in the practitioner or the method. Some well-run recent research, however, suggests that there is more than a placebo effect inherent in homeopathy.
What You Can Expect
If you’d like to be treated homeopathically for a chronic illness, it is best to seek out a licensed naturopath, osteopath, or medical doctor who includes homeopathy as a treatment modality. Because there are over 2,000 substances used in homeopathic remedies, it helps to have professional advice.
A homeopathic practitioner should begin an initial visit by taking a very detailed health history. You will probably be asked how your current complaint started, how it has developed, and how it makes you feel physically, mentally, and emotionally. You will also be asked to explain exactly what kinds of symptoms are involved, precisely where your symptoms are located, and what kinds of events or actions, times of day, or types of weather make the problem better or worse. You may even be questioned about what foods you like and don’t like.
The answers to these questions help the homeopath determine what kind of problem you have, what kind of person you are, and what remedy to prescribe to encourage your body’s natural healing processes. You may be given the recommended remedies or be told where to purchase them.
Some homeopathic remedies are recommended for use every few hours for treating a specific problem; others are used once a day to support resistance to disease or to strengthen the body in general. If a remedy fails to improve your ailment, you may need to move on to another remedy or some other form of treatment.
If you have a minor acute condition, homeopathic remedies are an excellent choice for self-care. Over-the-counter homeopathic remedies have label indications for their use, and there are many effective home-care guides to using such remedies as Arnica montana for bruising injuries, Ignatia amara for the emotional stress of sudden grief or loss, or Nux vomica for overeating or alcohol hangover symptoms.
A unique aspect of homeopathy is that two people with different conditions but similar symptoms might be treated with the same remedy. Homeopathic self-help guides can counsel you on how to choose the best remedy based on your symptoms.
In addition to the specific single-drug remedies, mixtures of homeopathic remedies are sold for common conditions. A flu remedy, hay fever remedy or bladder symptom remedy, for example, might contain four to eight specific agents. Many homeopathic remedies can be found at heath-food stores, drug stores and natural pharmacies.
While many mainstream physicians believe that the much-diluted homeopathic remedies are at best placebos, homeopaths argue that the remedies do work–for all types of ailments from hay fever to seasickness.
There is now a growing body of clinical evidence concerning homeopathy’s efficacy. However, the need for more solid research in the future is clear.
While many clinical trials have indeed shown homeopathic remedies to be no better than placebos, others studies have found them to be effective. A number of conditions, including hay fever, postoperative ileus (intestinal obstruction following surgery), rheumatoid arthritis, influenza, asthma, and sprains appear to respond to homeopathic remedies.
A recent German study tested 146 patients with hay fever and showed that the homeopathic nasal spray Luffa comp.-Heel (a mixture remedy) worked as well and as quickly as the conventional treatment cromolyn sodium spray.
How To Choose a Practitioner
Homeopaths are licensed in only three states in the U.S. (Arizona, Connecticut, and Nevada), although some practitioners may hold other medical licenses. Naturopaths, chiropractors, or acupuncturists may also have taken training to practice homeopathy. In addition to the state licenses, there are national certifying boards for medical doctors, chiropractors, and naturopaths who want to practice the full classical specialty of homeopathy.
The homeopathic community is in the process of certifying the training of nonmedically licensed homeopathic counselors. Until this comes to pass, it is best to seek out a licensed M.D., D.C. or D.O. who is also trained in homeopathy to avoid a potentially dangerous misdiagnosis of your condition.
Be sure to ask where the homeopath received training and how long the individual has been practicing this form of medicine.
Because the practice of homeopathy is only minimally regulated in the U.S., a homeopathic practitioner may be a self-educated person with minimal training. Be sure to check into the practitioner’s credentials.
Some unlicensed practitioners “diagnose” the need for remedies by the use of electrical diagnostic devices. This method, even when practiced by trained M.D.s, is controversial within the homeopathic community. Do not accept such diagnostic advice from a person who is not otherwise licensed as an M.D., D.O., D.C., or N.D.
Although the manufacture of homeopathic remedies is regulated under the Food and Drug Administration for safety and purity, the effectiveness of homeopathic remedies has not been tested the same way pharmaceutical drugs are before coming to the market.
If you are pregnant, consult your doctor before taking drugs, homeopathic remedies, or supplements for self-care.
Even though the doses of alcohol are very small, it is wise to avoid taking homeopathic remedies in an alcohol base if you are pregnant, a recovering alcoholic, or otherwise need to avoid alcohol.
Don’t rely solely on homeopathic remedies to treat a serious illness such as cancer, depression, high blood pressure, diabetes, or heart disease.