What is homeopathy?

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A system of medicine based on the principle that an ill patient can be provided effective and nontoxic treatment through the use of weak or very small doses of a substance that would cause similar symptoms in a healthy individual.
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In conventional medicine, diseases—or changes from the normal physiological state—are diagnosed on the basis of symptoms and physical signs. This enables the physician to find a cause for which there is a specific treatment and to treat the patient’s symptoms. There are few treatments, however, that cure or even address the whole patient. Sometimes, symptoms are assumed to be the disease, and the traditional method of action is to address and fix the symptoms and not the disease. Suppressing or removing symptoms does not necessarily constitute a cure. Curing patients means restoring them to a holistic sense of well-being that focuses on all facets of a patient: the physical, emotional, and mental. Homeopathic medicine is a form of treatment that studies the person as a whole, with particular interest in the patient as an individual. Homeopathy is a therapeutic method that consists of prescribing for a patient weak or infinitesimal doses of a substance that, when administered to a healthy person, causes symptoms similar to those exhibited by the ill patient. Homeopathic remedies stimulate the defense mechanisms of the body, causing them to work more effectively and making them capable of curing the individual. While controversial and still considered alternative medicine in much of the medical community, homeopathy is not intended as a substitute for conventional medicine. Rather, it is a system of therapeutics that is meant to enlarge and broaden the physician’s outlook and in some cases might about a potential cure that would not be possible with conventional medication and medical treatment alone.

The word “homeopathy” is derived from the Greek words homoios, meaning “like” or “similar,” and pathos, meaning “suffering.” A symptom is defined as the changes felt by the patient or observed by another individual that may be associated with a particular disease. When a homeopathic drug, or remedy, is administered in repeated doses to a group of healthy persons, certain symptoms and signs of toxicity are produced. These symptoms are carefully annotated in what is called the proving of a remedy. In some cases, there are accidental provings—cases in which the symptoms produced by a drug in a healthy person are observed because of an accident, such as being bitten by a snake. Other sources for the proving of a remedy are the cases in which, after a remedy has been successfully prescribed, symptoms cured by it that were not present in the provings are noted. Some of these symptoms are common to many drugs, and a few are characteristic of particular ones. It is then possible to build a symptom-complex picture that is unique to each drug or remedy. In many cases, when the symptom-complex presented by the patient is compared to the symptom-complex produced by a certain remedy, there will be a resemblance—often a close one—between the patient’s symptom picture and the effects of a given drug on healthy persons.

The first and fundamental principle of homeopathy is the selection and use of the similar remedy based on the patient’s symptoms and characteristics and the drug’s toxicology and provings. A second principle is the use of remedies in extremely small quantities. The most successful remedy for any given occasion will be the one whose symptomatology presents the clearest and closest resemblance to the symptom-complex of the sick person in question. This concept is formally presented as the Law of Similars, which expresses the similarity between the toxicological action of a substance and its therapeutic action; in other words, the same things that cause the disease can cure it. For example, the effects of peeling an onion are very similar to the symptoms of acute coryza (the common cold). The remedy prepared from Allium cepa (red onion) is used to treat the type of cold in which the symptoms resemble those caused by peeling onions. In the same way, the herb white hellebore, which toxicologically produces cholera-like diarrhea, is used to treat cholera.

The homeopathic principle is being applied whenever a sick person is treated using a method or drug that can cause similar symptoms in healthy persons. For example, conventional medicine uses radiation therapy, which causes cancer, to treat this disease. Orthodox medicine, however, does not follow other fundamental principles of homeopathy, such as the use of infinitesimal doses.

Homeopathy stimulates the defense mechanism to make it work more effectively and works on the concept of healing instead of simply treating a disease, combating illness, or suppressing symptoms. Individualization plays a crucial role in homeopathic treatment. Even when two individuals have the same ailment, their symptoms can be different. Remedies are therefore selected on an individual basis, depending on the specific, complete symptom picture of the individual. Homeopathic physicians must develop a different approach to their patients, which involves a diagnosis as well as a study of the whole individual. The way in which some homeopathic remedies work is still unknown, but the persistence of homeopathy since the mid-nineteenth century would seem to suggest its effectiveness in helping sick people.

Some conditions do not respond well to homeopathy, such as those requiring surgery, immediately life-threatening situations such as severe asthma attacks, or situations for which an improvement requires a change in diet (such as iron deficiency) or reduced exposure to environmental stress (a change in lifestyle). Nevertheless, homeopathy appears to help in these cases. For example, it can be useful for faster, complete healing after surgery or after the necessary change in lifestyle has been made. In the United States, both the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and traditional homeopaths have been concerned about the use of homeopathic remedies to treat serious problems, such as cancer, and their use by unlicensed practitioners. In some cases, the ability to prescribe homeopathic remedies has been restricted to osteopaths, naturopaths, and medical doctors. In some cases, homeopathy does not work; the reason is unknown.

Individuals who have benefited from these remedies may not care whether homeopathy can be scientifically explained or whether research has proven its effectiveness. Nevertheless, some facts suggest that homeopathic medicines are not placebos and that the infinitesimal doses produce true biological action. For example, homeopathic medicines work on animals and are also commonly and successfully used on infants; it is doubtful that psychological suggestion can explain their success in these cases. Moreover, homeopathic microdoses have the capacity to cause symptoms in healthy individuals, and the experience of what is called a healing crisis—temporary exacerbation of symptoms that is sometimes observed during the healing process—cannot be produced by placebos or psychological suggestion. The major drawback to most homeopathic research, however, is that it is rarely published in respected scientific journals, and whatever little has been published has been received with much skepticism from the medical community.

The action of homeopathic medicines supports the theory that each organism expresses symptoms in an effort to heal itself. This homeopathic action can augment, complement, and sometimes replace present medical technologies. For example, abuse of strong medications can lead to resistance to the drugs themselves, allergies, and other unpleasant side effects. In homeopathy, small drug doses have been shown to be more effective than larger ones, which in itself can reduce the undesired side effects associated with the use of common medications.

Diagnostic and Treatment Techniques

The first step in treating an illness using homeopathy is taking the case history or symptom picture (the detailed account of what is wrong with the patient as a whole). This is carried out in a similar way by classical doctors and homeopathic practitioners, since most homeopaths are doctors or have some conventional medical training. The symptoms are divided into three categories: general, mental/emotional, and physical.

The homeopath then consults the Materia Medica (the encyclopedia of drug effects) and/or the Repertory (an index of symptoms from the Materia Medica listed in alphabetical order, used as a cross-reference between symptoms and remedies) to decide on the remedy to be used. The professional homeopath works with a number of Materia Medica texts compiled by different homeopaths.

The classical homeopath will give only one remedy at a time in order to gauge its effect more efficiently. The best-known unconventional usage of homeopathic medicines is of combination medicines or complexes, normally a mixture of between three and eight low-potency remedies. This approach is useful when the correct remedy is not available or when the practitioner is unsure as to which one to use. These mixtures are commonly sold in health food stores and are named for the disease or symptom that they are supposed to cure. Another unconventional use is what is called pluralism, which is the application of two or more medicines at a time, each of which is taken at a different time of day. This approach is most commonly used in Europe.

Homeopathy is a natural pharmaceutical system that utilizes microdoses of substances to arouse a healing response by stimulating the patient’s immune system. Homeopathic remedies are always nontoxic because of the small concentrations used. They do not act chemically but rather according to a particular physical state linked to the way in which they are prepared. They have the capacity of making the ill subject react to his or her disease, and in this way they are considered specific stimulants.

Homeopathic remedies come from the plant, mineral, and animal kingdoms. Plants are the source of more than half of the remedies with a popular product being Bach flower remedies. The plants are harvested in their natural state according to strict norms by qualified specialists and are used fresh after thorough botanical inspection. Mineral remedies include natural salts and metals, always in their purest state. Animal remedies may contain venoms, poisonous insects, hormones, or physiological secretions such as musk or squid ink.

In all cases, the starting remedy is made from a mixture of the substance itself, which has been steeped in alcohol for a period of time and then strained. This starting liquid is called a tincture or mother tincture. In the decimal scale, a mixture of one-tenth tincture and nine-tenths alcohol is shaken vigorously, a process known as succussion; this first dilution is called a 1X. (The number in the remedy reveals the number of times that it has been diluted and succussed; thus, 6X means diluted and succussed six times.) In the centesimal scale, the remedy is diluted using one part tincture in a hundred, and the letter C is used after the number. The number indicates the degree of the dilution, while the letter indicates the technique of preparation (decimal or centesimal). Insoluble substances are diluted by grinding them in a mortar with lactose to the desired dilution. The greater the dilution of a remedy, the greater its potency, the longer it acts, the deeper it heals, and the fewer doses are needed.

A medicine is chosen for its similarity to the person’s symptoms so that the person’s bioenergetic processes are hypersensitive to the substance. One theory used to explain the success of homeopathic remedies, even when they are used in such small concentrations, is that they work through some kind of resonance within the individual’s system. There are other examples of high sensitivity to small amounts of substances in the animal kingdom, such as in the case of pheromones, sex attractants that affect only animals of the same species in very small amounts and at a very long distance.

Constantine Hering (1800–80), one of the early pioneers of American homeopathy, was the first to make note of the specific features of the healing process to create a holistic assessment tool that can be used to evaluate a patient’s progress. His observations are summarized in Hering’s Law of Cure. First, the human body seeks to externalize disease, to dislodge it from more serious, internal levels to more superficial ones. For example, in the healing of asthma the patient may exhibit an external skin rash before complete cure is achieved. Second, the healing progresses from the top of the body to the bottom; someone with arthritis, for example, will feel better in the upper part of the body earlier than in the lower part. Third, the healing proceeds in the reverse order of the appearance of the symptoms; that is, the more recent symptoms will heal first, and old symptoms may reappear before complete healing.

Homeopathic remedies are most commonly available in tablet form, combined with sugar from cow’s milk. The tablets can be soft (so that they dissolve easily under the tongue and are easy to crush) or hard (so that they must be chewed and held in the mouth for a few seconds before being swallowed), or they can be prepared as globules (tiny round pills). The liquid remedies are dissolved in alcohol. Also available are powders that are wrapped individually in small squares of paper (convenient if the remedy is needed for only a few doses or is to be sent by mail), wafers, suppositories, and liniments. Homeopathic tablets will keep their strength for years without deteriorating, but they must be stored in a cool, dark, and dry place with their bottle tops screwed on tightly, away from strong-smelling substances.

The prescribed quantities are the same for babies, children, adults, and older people. The size of a dose is immaterial because it is how often it is taken that counts. The strength (potency) that is needed changes with the circumstances. The greater the similarity between the symptoms and the remedy, the greater the potency to be used (that is, the more dilute the remedy).

The following substances all counteract the effects of a homeopathic remedy to some extent (and as such are considered antidotes): camphor, coffee, menthol/eucalyptus, peppermint, recreational drugs, and any strong-smelling or strong-acting substance.

As with all treatments, there are some dangers associated with homeopathic cures, such as unintentional provings. These take place when, after an initial improvement, the symptoms characteristic of the remedy appear, creating a worse situation for the patient. Sometimes, this reaction takes place because the individual has been taking the remedy for too long, and it can be stopped by discontinuing the remedy or by using an antidote. In other cases, there is a confused symptom picture, the effect being that the remedy is working in a limited way or curing a restricted number of symptoms.

Homeopathy is important in the treatment of bacterial infections (where resistance to antibiotics can develop) and viral conditions. Homeopathic remedies stimulate the person’s resistance to infection without the side effects of antibiotics, and they help the body without suppressing the organism’s self-protective responses. The remedies used are safer than traditional medications because they exhibit minimal side effects, and counterreactions between medicines can be prevented.

Homeopathic remedies are exempt from federal review in the United States. In 1938, any drug listed in the Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia of the United States was accepted by the FDA. Consequently, prescribed homeopathic remedies do not have to undergo the rigorous safety and effectiveness testing the regulating agency requires of drugs used in orthodox medicine. Nonprescription remedies are also exempt and can be purchased in pharmacies and natural and health food stores throughout the United States. The FDA requires that, as with any over-the-counter drug, a remedy be sold only for a self-limiting condition (such as headaches, menstrual cramps, or insomnia) and that the indications be printed on the label. The ingredients and their dilution must also be listed. Nonhomeopathic active ingredients cannot be included in the preparation.

Perspective and Prospects

The Law of Similars was observed twenty-five centuries ago by Hippocrates and was utilized by people of many cultures, including the Mayans, Chinese, Greeks, and American Indians. In the following centuries, other doctors made similar observations, but they did not come to any practical conclusions. It was not until the end of the eighteenth century that a German physician, Christian Friedrich Samuel Hahnemann, studied the matter further, developed it, and gave it a scientific basis.

Hahnemann recruited a group of healthy subjects to take the remedies and report in a diary the symptoms that they caused, a process called proving the substance. He and his subjects proved more than a hundred remedies and produced a very accurate collection for use by other homeopathy practitioners. He also found that the remedies worked better in very small doses. Homeopathy was initially rejected by the medical profession, but its methods became more accepted when Hahnemann obtained astonishing results with his patients. In 1810, he published a book called Organon der rationellen Heilkunde (The Organon of Homœopathic Medicine, 1836), in which he presented the philosophy of homeopathy. He also published Materia Medica pura in six volumes between 1811 and 1821. These volumes contain the compilations of his provings. As new remedies are discovered, they are added to the compilation. By the time of Hahnemann’s death in 1843, homeopathy was established around the world.

In the 1820s, homeopathy arrived in the United States at a time when the state of orthodox medicine was worse than in Europe. Many ordinary people consulted herbalists and bonesetters, so homeopathy was easily accepted and soon flourished. In April 1844, the American Institute of Homeopathy was founded. In 1846, however, the American Medical Association (AMA) was founded, and it adopted a code of ethics that forbade its members to consult homeopaths. Nevertheless, public demand continued. The 1860s through the 1880s saw the heyday of homeopathy in the United States, with the institution of homeopathic training programs, hospitals, and asylums throughout in the country.

Developments in orthodox medicine around the end of the nineteenth century strengthened this camp, however, while the homeopathic establishment was weakened by internal division. In 1911, the AMA moved to close many homeopathic teaching institutions because they were considered to provide a poor standard of education. By 1950, all the homeopathic colleges in the United States were either closed or no longer teaching homeopathy. By the 1990s, it was estimated that only five hundred to one thousand medical doctors used homeopathics in their practices. Although the AMA has no official statement on homeopathy, it is no longer part of the medical school curriculum.

Homeopathy has exhibited a renaissance, and it is popular throughout the world, especially in France. The London-based marketing research firm Mintel reported that natural and homeopathic product sales were $6.4 billion in 2012, which was a 3 percent increase over the previous year. Perhaps the reasons for this revived popularity include both skepticism surrounding conventional medicine and a need for alternatives in the face of challenging health problems: Homeopathy offers a safe alternative as it seeks to improve the general level of health of the whole person, emotionally as well as physically.


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