If it’s of any comfort to US homeopaths, until the past ten years or so, when the health insurance industry gave conventional medicine something serious to fret about, the organized hostility toward alternative medicine was mostly democratic. It hated all forms.
Their battle cry, “We’re the real doctors, down with quacks,” was directed at any healer who didn’t follow three rules: Go to our schools. Get the licenses we control. Don’t make waves.
A good example of this conventional hostility can be gleaned from the Wikipedia entry on homeopathy, obviously written by a virulent anti-homeopath. The writing style makes me suspect it’s by Stephen Barrett, MD, a retired psychiatrist who runs quackwatch.com. He’s recognizable because the piece is littered with his usual buzzwords, including “pseudoscience,” “placebo effect,” and “lacks biological plausibility.” To express his contempt, he has a habit of placing the vocabulary of an alternative therapy in quotation marks, like homeopathy’s “provings,” chiropractic’s “subluxations,” or Ayurvedic’s “chakras.”
At one time or another, conventional medicine has vilified each and every form of alternative medicine as pseudoscience. But given that scientifically developed and correctly taken prescription drugs are currently the fourth leading cause of death in the US, you yourself might be a little safer using one of these “pseudoscientific” treatments.
Homeopathy has been a thorn in the side of conventional medicine since the early 19th century, and it should come as no surprise that the basis for this hostility was originally economic. In those days, conventional medicine was even more brutal than it is now. Medicines were more toxic (mercury and arsenic were used to treat syphilis), bloodletting was common, and amputation was the surgeon’s procedure de choix. To no one’s surprise, patients preferred the gentle remedies of homeopathy. When during a mid-century cholera epidemic patients treated by homeopaths fared better than those managed by the medical establishment, conventional doctors began to worry.
The bullies win
By manipulating the government into licensing graduates of non-homeopathic (allopathic) schools only, the medical establishment ensured the 20th century dawned with virtually all homeopathic medical colleges closing their doors. By mid-century, MD homeopaths had simply died of old age with no one to replace them. In conventional medical schools, generation after generation of medical students listened, as I did, to the same blather against homeopathy and chiropractic. Finally, in 1965, the Supreme Court told the AMA to keep its mouth shut about chiropractic.
But homeopathy was defenseless.
You’d see this helplessness were you to Google around (don’t bother, I’ll just tell you) for info on homeopathic clinical trials performed by MDs. These remind me of the Moscow show trials under Stalin, whose victims were allowed to go through the motions of having a trial even though the conclusion was predetermined and the firing squad stood just outside the door. Once anti-homeopath clinical trials are published, the livid responses from homeopaths protesting that the study was performed incorrectly and that the conclusions are biased rarely get printed or manages to appear at the bottom of the very last page of the journal.
Yet all around the world, homeopathy continues to not only survive, but actually thrive. Travel just about anywhere and you’ll see signs for “Homeopathic Physician” or “Homeopathic Pharmacy.”
I think patients like homeopathy for two compelling reasons
First, when remedies are selected by a trained homeopath (rather than you staring at the often-overwhelming display case at a health food store and hazarding a best guess), homeopathy can be quite effective. Second, homeopathic remedies are virtually free of side effects. All that awful stuff you hear rattled off at the end of a TV drug commercial never, ever occurs with homeopathic remedies. If your toddler accidentally polishes off a whole bottle of a homeopathic remedy, the worst-case scenario is he won’t be very hungry at suppertime.
Patients themselves are not only open to homeopathic principles, but seem to grasp them more fully than conventional physicians, who are too busy with axe-grinding to think clearly. When you, the patient, read the sentence “A homeopathic remedy consists of an extremely tiny amount of a substance that if taken in large amounts could cause illness in a well person,” you shrug your shoulders and think, “Sounds like immunizations. Sounds like allergy shots.”
But your conventional doctor bellows, “Sounds impossible! Quackery!”
Learning how truly small—and I mean really really small–homeopathic doses actually are, you rightly wonder, “Aren’t they too small to do anything?” But then you remember that birth control pills are now dosed in micrograms, one millionth of a gram. “Gee! That’s pretty small too,” you might think. “I guess if a few millionths of a gram can turn off my entire fertilization system, I’d better not use small as a reason to disparage homeopathy.”
The real bête noir for conventional medicine occurs when carefully controlled studies show that homeopathy works. These studies of course need to be free from the prejudice and bias of MD researchers. When a positive report appearing in 2005 related that 70% of 6,500 patients suffering chronic illnesses (asthma, eczema, migraines, IBS, arthritis, etc.) self-reported improvement using homeopathic remedies, it was dismissed because it came from Bristol Homeopathic Hospital in the UK, home to some of the world’s best homeopaths.
When a conventional hospital (University of Southampton) pulled a Benedict Arnold and reported that rheumatoid arthritis patients fared better when they received homeopathic remedies along with conventional therapy, the response was unintentionally amusing: This couldn’t have been the remedies; it must have been the compassionate personality of the homeopath.
A report from Germany and Switzerland should stop the bickering
Public health researchers who were neither holding a grudge nor waving a flag tracked for eight years the health of 3,709 people of all ages (children and adults) who were patients of 103 homeopathic primary care practices. Some, but not all, patients combined conventional therapies with homeopathic ones. At the end of the study, 40% of responders were “very satisfied” with their treatment. Just 11% were “little satisfied.” Even better, 68% of adults and 80% of children experienced “clinically relevant treatment success.”
The conclusion, reached not by MDs, not by homeopaths, but by public health researchers? “These data consistently show substantial health improvements in patients under homeopathic treatment, which persisted through the whole observation period. Improvements were more pronounced in younger patients, females, and those with greater disease severity at baseline.”
If you’re interested in trying homeopathy
I’ve referred patients regularly to Dr. Sujatha Mannal, WholeHealth Chicago’s resident homeopath, for more than 20 years. From my work with her I’ve gotten a strong sense about when homeopathy will be useful and when it won’t. Here are some ideas to consider if you’re pondering homeopathy for yourself:
- This is a treatment for people who think of themselves as sensitive. They look with dread at a doctor’s prescription because they know they’ll be battling side effects. These are individuals who get nauseated from chemical smells, are sensitive to certain foods, and literally feel unpleasant symptoms from offensive colors, sounds, and weather changes.
- This is a treatment for people with chronic symptoms of virtually any stripe, especially those accompanied by conventional medicine’s mantra “we can’t find anything wrong with you, all your tests are normal.”
- This is a treatment for those getting partial relief using conventional medicines but who are unable to tolerate higher doses.
- This is a treatment for people wanting to reduce their dependence on conventional medicines. Using homeopathy, someone with asthma who carries four inhalers in her purse might cut that number to one or two.
- Homeopathy is ideal for shortening the duration of acute, self-limiting conditions like colds, flu, sprains, indigestion, and so forth. For this reason, it’s especially great for kids.
- I don’t recommend homeopathy for serious infections, like pneumonia, or when surgery might be the only option, like appendicitis, though hospital-based homeopaths in Europe, the UK, and India would argue otherwise. Homeopathy has never cured cancer, but it certainly can reduce the symptoms of the disease and the side effects of chemotherapy.
- Having a homeopathic first aid kit in your home, especially if you have kids, may save you trips to the crowded, germ-infested pediatrician’s office. In my home, we used homeopathy when my kids were small and, yes, they managed to make it into adulthood.
David Edelberg, MD