An Introduction to Homeopathy
by Karyn Siegel-Maier
This article originally appeared, in part, in Natural Living Today magazine
Stephen, an active 37 year old Chef from Maryland, awoke one day to severe lower back pain that left him partially immobilized. Stephen’s family doctor prescribed an anti-inflammatory to alleviate his chronic pain, but without satisfactory result. Three weeks later, he saw an orthopedic surgeon who diagnosed a herniated disk. Desperate for relief, Stephen decided to discontinue his painkillers and try a homeopathic treatment. “Within three days I felt a dramatic difference” says Stephen. “I was finally pain-free.”
Dianne, a paralegal from Monteray, California, watched helplessly while her infant nephew nearly died from internal bleeding of an unknown origin. After extensive testing, specialists concluded that the bleeding was caused by ruptured polyps that formed in the intestine as the result of an earlier bout with flu. Diane recalls that “he became so anemic that a pediatrician said she was surprised that he was even conscious! My sister finally treated him with a homeopathic remedy and he began to improve immediately - his bleeding completely stopped.”
According to the Food & Drug Administration, and the National Center for Homeopathy, retail sales of homeopathic medicines have increased more than 100-fold since the 1970’s with a steady rise of nearly 25% each year since 1988. In the 1990’s, sales of homeopathic remedies surpassed $200 million each year and this figure continues to climb. What are these medicines and how do they work?
Homeopathy, from the Greek to mean “like the disease,” was first introduced into the U.S. by Hans B. Gram, M.D. in 1825. But the father of homeopathy was Samuel Hahnemann, who formulated the Similia similibus curanter, or the doctrine of similarity, in 1796. Hahnemann was a “conventionally” trained physician whose insights into healing might be considered quite advanced today, but they were nearly heretical against 19th century medicine.
Hanhemann’s theories came along during the “Age of Heroic Medicine,” a system of treatment that lasted for more than 70 years. The methods applied were called “heroic measures” and indeed, they must have been for the patient. These measures consisted of the administration of strong purgatives, emetics, diaphoretics (to induce profuse sweating), and of course, the practice of lancing a vein to remove diseased blood. Needless to say, many patients succumbed to the “cure.” A classic example is the account of George Washington’s encounter with fever and severe sore throat. After his well-meaning physicians finally drained him of 4 pints of blood, the former president died the next day. Hanhemann soon abandoned heroic medicine and subscribed to a philosophy more in keeping with Galen and Hippocrates in that medicine shall “first, do no harm.”
In an 1890 issue of Harper’s, Mark Twain wrote that homeopathy “forced the old school doctor to learn something of a rational nature about his business.”
Less is More
Hanhemann worked to refine his system of homeopathy and eventually established two fundamental principles. The first was the Law of Similars which states that when a substance given to a healthy person produces a certain set of symptoms, then that substance has the ability to cure a sick person afflicted with the same symptoms. In essence, “like cures like.”
The second fundamental principle, the Law of Infinitesimals, maintains that the smaller the dose, the more effective it will be in mobilizing the body’s defense mechanisms against disease. Furthermore, he proposed that a homeopathic solution must be “activated” throughout the dilution process by vigorous shaking. This process of “succussion” must be repeated until barely a trace amount, or rather an “imprint” of the original substance remains. This theory truly offended allopathic physicians since it disregarded the basic principles of pharmacology in that the greater the dose, the greater the therapeutic benefit. The allopaths argued that such extreme distillation resulted in a vile of mere water, and they seized the opportunity to label Hahnemann as a quack and his theories as scientific voodoo.
The idea that a solution diluted to 200 or more times of its original strength could retain a “spiritual essence” of any value at all was incomprehensible to orthodox physicians of the time, and even to staunch advocates of homeopathy today this action remains a puzzle. However, there have been some 20th century attempts to account for this mystery.
In 1988, French allergist Jacques Benveniste, M.D., set forth a theory that homeopathic micro-dosages may be effective due to a property of water not yet clearly understood; in effect, a kind of “memory.” His idea was spawned when an antibody solution he had been working with had a marked effect on white blood cells, even though the solution had been diluted 120 times.
Researchers at Hahnemann University School of Medicine in Philadelphia studied the magnetic resonance of 23 homeopathic solutions at the nuclear level. They discovered that the homeopathic solutions displayed active subatomic particles, while those examined in a placebo group showed none. But do they work?
In 1989, a British placebo-controlled, double-blind study tested Oscillococcinum, a typical homeopathic flu remedy, on 487 people. Two days later, the group taking the homeopathic remedy reported significant relief of their symptoms. One might be tempted to argue that the virus affecting this group had simply run its course. That doesn’t explain however, why the placebo group didn’t recover as quickly. Another placebo-controlled, double-blind study took place in Germany in 1990 on 61 people suffering from varicose veins. For 24 days, part of the study group drank a solution of 8 combined homeopathic remedies three times each day, while the others had a placebo cocktail instead. At the completion of the study it was determined that the severity of symptoms rose 18% in the placebo group, while those who took the homeopathic remedies experienced a 44% improvement.
While homeopathy has long been taken seriously in Europe, it wasn’t until 1994 that a study on a homeopathic preparation appeared in an American medical journal. Jennifer Jacobs, M.D., assistant clinical professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington School of Public Health, conducted the study to determine the efficacy of a homeopathic treatment for acute diarrhea, the leading cause of dehydration and death in Third World children. Of 81 Nicaraguan children under age five, half were given the standard solution of water, sugar and salt, and the other half were treated with the same solution plus a homeopathic remedy specific to each child’s symptoms and disposition. The children’s diarrhea lasted about 4 days in the control group, while those in the homeopathy group recovered in only 2 ½.
Several studies have been published in British Medical Journals in recent years. The Lancet (the name being a throwback to “heroic” medicine) published a double-blind clinical trial supporting homeopathic remedies as effective in treating allergic asthma. In a 1991 study published by the British Medical Journal demonstrated beneficial results when homeopathy was applied to migraine, influenza and hay fever. Recently, the National Institutes of Health Office of Alternative Medicine has launched a study on the effects of homeopathic preparations on mild traumatic brain injury.
Fact or Faith?
Not everyone agrees that homeopathic medicine is an effective or even valid mode of treatment. In fact, Stephen Barrett, M.D., a retired psychiatrist and author of 42 books, has dubbed homeopathy as being “The Ultimate Fake.” As a board member of the National Council Against Health Fraud, Dr. Barrett is an active consumer advocate. He believes that “since many homeopathic remedies contain no detectable amount of active ingredient, it is impossible to test whether they contain what their label says. Unlike most potent drugs, they have not been proven effective against disease by double-blind clinical testing. In fact, the vast majority of homeopathic products have never been tested.”
Other skeptics have trouble with the sheer mechanics that homeopathy proposes. Stan Polanski, a physician assistant for the Macon County, N.C. Health Department, contends that to accept the methodology of homeopathy, one must disregard the laws of physics, chemistry and pharmacology. While contributing to an article for the Quack Watch web site (which Dr. Barrett maintains), Polanksi expresses doubt that the active agent of a homeopathic product can survive the extreme dilution and “succession” in the presence of contaminants exposed during the manufacturing process. “How is the emerging drug preparation supposed to know which of the countless substances in the container is the One that means business?”
Robert L. Park, noted physicist and Executive Director of the American Physical Society, expresses his views on homeopathy with adherence to the basic laws of chemistry, specifically those imposed by Avogadro’s number, which limits the amount of dilution to retain any of the original substance. “Since the least amount of a substance in a solution is one molecule, a 30c solution would have to have at least one molecule of the original substance dissolved in a minimum of 1 followed by 60 zeroes. This would, according to Park, require a container more than 30 billion times the size of the Earth.”
The homeopath’s response to this argument is that most preparations are in concentrations well within the Avogadro limit. However, many are not. But there are several examples of the potency of very dilute substances occurring naturally. For example, the pituitary gland secretes the thyroid-stimulating hormone that regulates every cell of the body, and yet its concentration in the blood is 1 in 10,000 million. Furthermore, contemporary medicine commonly uses two methods of treatment that support both the effectiveness of micro-dosages and the theory of “like cures like”: vaccinations and allergy shots.
Ellen Goldman, ND, DHANP, is a Naturopath Physician specializing in classical homeopathy, and Chair of the Homeopathy Department at Bastyr University where she has taught since 1990. “The simple answer to the question how does homeopathy work,” says Goldman, “is that we don’t know. But, it’s important to bear in mind that for the longest time we didn’t know why putting an acupuncture needle into a certain point worked to relieve pain. Now, there are machines that can measure the difference in the electromagnetic fields around these points.” Goldman also asserts that certain areas of the brain can effect all of the body’s systems, including one’s emotional well-being. “I believe that homeopathic medicines could be stimulating the limbic area of the brain. I can live with the fact that I don’t know exactly how my homeopathic medicines work, but the improved state of health of my patients is proof that it does.”
In spite of continued scientific debate, homeopathy has made a significant comeback in the U.S. and is being incorporated into the treatments offered by various medical practitioners, including those “conventional.” For Cheryl, an RN from Arizona, homeopathy was an answer to prayer. Being multi-chemically sensitive, Cheryl cannot tolerate synthetic drugs to combat her numerous allergies. Instead, her M.D. prepares homeopathic solutions in his office for her. These remedies says Cheryl, “have helped give quality back to my life.”
Unlike allopathic physicians, homeopaths do not necessarily treat a specific disorder, but strive to achieve a balance between all of the body’s systems, including emotional and spiritual elements. Jim Blumenthal, DC, CCN, DACBN, often uses homeopathy in his practice at the Applied Kinesiology Center of Santa Monica, and explains that he, “approaches the body as an integrated system with interdependent components, each of which affect the others.”
So is homeopathy simply a revival of a 19th century answer to brutal medicine of the time, or is it a spiritual endeavor of the current New Age movement? Blumenthal answers: “Homeopathy has shown itself to be quite useful over the past 150 years. Had it not, it would have been eliminated by the powers of political medicine a long time ago. This is not some sort of “New-Agey” thing. It is precise medicine based on principles and practice.”
The potency of a homeopathic remedy is expressed in either the decimal, or x system, or in the centissimal, or c system. The former is more commonly used in the U.S. In the decimal system, the number preceding the x is equal to the number of zeros in the dilution. Hence, a potency of 3x is a dilution of 1:1000. The number before the c is equal to half the number of zeros in the dilution. A strength of 3c means a dilution of 1:1,000,000.