About 25 years ago, when my boys started being born and getting acquainted with Chicago–and also before I became involved with alternative medicine–the oldest began to get ear infections. At the time, I was medical director of a big group of very conventional doctors and had access to some really good pediatricians. My son was prescribed antibiotics, his ear cleared up, but when the antibiotics were stopped, up popped another infection. Then, more antibiotics and later yet another infection.
Finally, the pediatrician recommended that what the kid needed was to be on one solid year of daily antibiotics (writing this now, I feel myself cringe). And so, in our refrigerator stood a quart-sized jug of vaguely iridescent pink goo that over the next few months would find its way down my poor son’s gullet. Fortunately for him, it had a deliriously sweet strawberry flavor, so he didn’t particularly mind. But after three weeks of this treatment, our household was celebrating National Diarrhea Week and heading into to National Diarrhea Month (could a year-long celebration be far behind?).
I was advised to mix Pepto Bismol (another pink goo, this one bubble gum flavored) with the antibiotic and soon he was constipated and screaming, whether from his ear or his bowels I’ll never know because we stopped everything.
Why? Because someone at my wife’s Moms-n-Tots group suggested a homeopath.
“A homeopath?” I bellowed. “I know all about homeopaths!” Truth to tell, I knew very little about homeopathy at the time, but ignorance has never prevented anyone from having strong opinions. I did know that my medical school professors considered all homeopaths deluded quacks delivering worthless sugar pills, their patients equally deluded victims. But I understood that if homeopathic remedies were totally worthless they were also completely harmless, and since the situation in the Edelberg household couldn’t get any worse, I reluctantly agreed.
The homeopath advised my wife to take our boy off all dairy and prescribed Pulsatilla 30 C. In a week, he seemed fine. Certainly the diarrhea was gone. A month passed without an ear infection, then two months. He was never to have another ear infection again. I sensibly kept silent to avoid any “I told you so” recriminations, but also started becoming very interested in homeopathy.
Here’s a second homeopathy story, this one from Andrew Weil, MD–the alternative medicine doc with the big beard–relayed at a medical meeting. Although he deeply respected alternative medicine and had written books about it, he drew the line at homeopathy. It was beyond unscientific, he said, defying all principles of physical chemistry and physiology. But Dr. Weil told us he’d been suffering heartburn, was thoroughly tired of taking medication (probably Nexium), and out of sheer desperation followed a homeopath’s recommendation to try the remedy Nux vomica. Within a few days, his heartburn was gone for good.
Of course not everyone gets these results with homeopathy. Nor is it recommended for everything, even by the best of homeopaths. Serious illnesses, no. An alternative to needed surgery, no. But for many common ailments, homeopathic remedies are just fine.
Healthcare alternative to the pharmaceutical industry
If you travel to just about any city outside the US, you’ll see homeopathic pharmacies. Even conventional pharmacies in Europe and South America have large sections devoted to homeopathic remedies, and usually a homeopath on staff to help with your selection (useless, I discovered, unless you’re fluent in the local language). Let’s face it, if homeopathy didn’t work, was 100% fraud, it would have disappeared from the landscape more than 150 years ago instead of growing into its worldwide status as an alternative to pharmaceuticals. Interestingly, the US is pretty much the only country on the globe that thoroughly marginalizes homeopathy, a result of the AMA’s control of physician medical licensing in the 1890s. At one time the US had dozens of homeopathic medical schools and now it has none.
Let me describe homeopathy and I’ll keep it brief. There are roughly 1,500 natural substances (herbs, minerals, and the like) that, taken in large amounts by a well person, would produce specific symptoms. But if you happen to be suffering from those symptoms, taking a highly diluted form of that same substance triggers your body to start healing itself. For example, were you to take a high dose of Nux vomica (nutmeg, actually), you’d start getting heartburn. The highly diluted Nux, as Dr Weil discovered, cures it.
You’d think conventional doctors would have little trouble with this concept given its similarity to immunizations and allergy shots. With a flu shot, for example, you’re deliberately given an extremely small dose of flu virus to trigger your body to create antibodies against a real infection. If you’ve got hay fever, you’re given injections of ragweed and other similar allergens.
What most physicians and scientists have trouble swallowing is the second homeopathic principle, called potentization. This means that the more a substance is diluted, the more powerful a remedy it becomes. In highly potentized homeopathic remedies, there is actually no remaining molecule of the original substance, which causes conventional doctors to start screaming, while homeopaths see no problem. With serial dilution, the energy of the substance imprints itself on the diluting fluid. More dilution, more energy.
Some years back I gave a talk at the Chicago Medical Society about homeopathy, assuring them beforehand that I wasn’t a homeopath (probably out of fear for my own safety). When I got to my explanation of potentization and subtle energies, half the audience walked out of the room. At the end, when I asked if there were questions, the room was silent. OK, then.
My take on homeopathy
I think homeopathy is great for common ailments, both for you and your children. A lot of the studies in conventional medical journals showing good results with homeopathy are in pediatric populations. If you’re a parent, you can buy a small homeopathic remedy kit online or at any large health food store and have it around the house for minor ailments like sore throats, earaches, and bruises. There’s no shortage of reliable books and websites that will teach you how to use them.
Kids really like homeopathic remedies: tiny sweet pellets melt in their rosebud mouths, taken without any complaint at all. Also, their little bodies aren’t so dumb. They know if they get well with a homeopathic remedy, they’ll avoid a doctor visit and possibly even the universally dreaded shot.
I’m not ignoring conventional medicine here. Your child certainly needs a primary care pediatrician, if for nothing else than administering required immunizations and signing physical exam forms for school. But if anyone in your family has a recurring symptom and your doctor can’t find anything wrong, make an appointment with your local homeopath or see Dr. Sujatha Mannal in our group. I’ve been working with her since we first opened almost 20 years ago. In that time, she’s helped not only my kids, but my wife and me (I had this awful rash, but that’s another story), and probably at one time or another everyone at WholeHealth Chicago.
David Edelberg, MD