The rising profile of homeopathy has produced something of a dilemma in the world of medicine: does it work or doesn’t it? The decision bites deep: if homeopathic medicine is nothing but fraud, quackery and placebo, as many of its opponents would maintain, then a large number of competently trained homeopathys and doctors, together with countless thounsands of dedicated lay practitioners, have ben led up the medical garden path.
Amongst the alternative therapies available today, homeopathy is one of the most controversial. It has sometimes been described as ‘the therapy that can’t work but does work’. Investigation, however, suggests that it is far easier to appreciate the first part of this statement than to substantiate the second.
Homeopathy derives from two Greek words, homoios – like, and patheia – pain or suffering. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as ‘the treatment of disease by minute doses of drugs that in healthy persons would produce symptoms like those of the disease’.
Whilst some therapies such as acupuncture, reflexology and aromatherapy can be clearly traced back to ancient Chinese, Egyptian and Greek civilisations, homeopathy only appeared as a specific form of alternative medicine at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
Historical references to a comparable ancient or early therapy are tenuous to say the least. An essential part of the homeopathic principle, ‘like cures like’, was considered by Hippocrates (c460-370 BC), who suggested that healing could either be by ‘contraries’ or ‘similars’. However, he made no mention of extreme dilution or a process of shaking or potentisation, which are both central to homeopathy.
Paracelsus (1493-1542), a Swiss physician, alchemist and scientist, also raised the possibility of like curing like and he advocated the use of herbs, minerals and chemicals as medicines. However this appears to have been a minor aspect of his work and it was not until the early nineteenth century that Samuel Hahnemann, a disillusioned German doctor and chemist, progressed this as a fundamental principle of a new therapy which he called homeopathy.
Hahnemann (1755-1843) is recognised as the founder of homeopathy. He was born in Meissen, Saxony, and studied medicine and chemistry at the University of Leipzig. He qualified in 1779 but quickly became disillusioned by the medical treatments of his day, which included bloodletting, purging and the use of dangerous drugs such as mercury and arsenic. After a few years he gave up his medical practice to concentrate on research and translation. During the translation of a treatise on Materia Medica by Dr William Cullen, a doctor working in Edinburgh, he became interested in the properties of the Peruvian cinchona bark and its use for treating malaria.
He tested this on himself and was fascinated to discover that small doses of the substance apparently produced symptoms similar to malaria. This finding, essential to the early development of homeopathy, is now in some doubt and is thought to have most likely been due to an allergic reaction or a contaminant in the preparation. However, these observations prompted him to devise the theory that small doses of a substance apparently producing symptoms similar to those of a disease could be used to treat these same illnesses. He called the testing of these substances ‘provings’ and he formulated the first law of homeopathy, similar similibus curentur – ‘let like be cured by like’.
After studying these provings for six years, he returned to medicine with renewed vigour and proceeded to put his new ideas into practice. He only employed one remedy at a time but used an increasingly wide range of substances, herbal, mineral and chemical, which he dissolved or ground up in water and alcohol, to produce a ‘mother tincture’. In order to minimise side effects called ‘aggravations’ that he noticed in a substantial number of patients, he decided to dilute the tincture progressively before giving it to patients.
This process of ‘dilution’, the second principle of homeopathy, involved placing one drop of original tincture in nine or 99 drops of solvent (water and alcohol), making a dilution of one in ten (1x) or one in 100 (1c) respectively. He repeated this up to 15 or 30 times and labelled the solutions according to their degree of dilution, eg 6c, 12c or 30c.
Observing that smaller doses were less effective in the relief of symptoms, he decided to shake the preparations vigorously between each diluting process, in the hope of increasing their effectiveness. He called this process ‘succussion’ and the resulting remedy he referred to as ‘potentised’. He believed that some form of ‘vital force’ was imparted to the medicine by the process of succussion. This is the third principle of homeopathy.
In 1810 Hahnemann’s book, Organon of Rationale Medicine, was published. It was later renamed The Organon of the Healing Art and ran to six editions. He also produced a six-volume Materia Medica of his own.
Hahnemann’s practice thrived; he lectured at Leipzig University and opened the Leipzig Homeopathic Hospital in 1833. However, due to local opposition this had to close in 1842. Despite this, he attracted a number of followers and homeopathy began to spread quite widely before he died in Paris in 1843. Hahnemann was born into a Christian family, but became an active Freemason and later a devout follower of Confucius.
Enthusiastic followers of Hahnemann helped to promote the therapy. These included Dr Constantine Hering in South America and the USA, James Tyler Kent in the USA and Dr Frederick H Quin in Britain.
During the 20th century, public interest in homeopathy fluctuated but it gradually spread worldwide, becoming particularly strong in India with 300,000 full time homeopaths and 40 homeopathic medical schools. The practice is also quite popular in Europe and Australasia. In Greece there is an influential homeopathic training school whilst interest is rapidly increasing in the USA.
Homeopathy in Britain
Dr Quin introduced homeopathy into Britain in 1826, after studying with Hahnemann in Germany and Paris. He believed that he had been healed of cholera by a homeopathic preparation of camphor. He set up a homeopathic practice in London in 1832 and established the British Homeopathic Society in 1844.
In the United Kingdom, homeopathy is the third most popular alternative therapy; its image has no doubt been enhanced by high profile users such as the royal family. Their interest in the practice began with Queen Adelaide (1792-1849), wife of William IV, and has continued right up to today, with Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles, who is a strong advocate of homeopathy, both for humans and animals.
There are currently homeopathic hospitals in London, Bristol, Liverpool, Glasgow and Tunbridge Wells. The professional organisation, the Society of Homeopaths, was founded in 1974 and organises both a register of practitioners (RSHom) and a fellowship (FSHom). Medically qualified practitioners may also become members of the Faculty of Homeopathy (MFHom) after appropriate training at the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital.
Whilst the presence of specific underlying pathology and accurate medical diagnosis is by no means ignored by homeopathy, there is a much greater emphasis on fitting the diagnosis into a ‘symptom picture’. Homeopaths without a medical qualification will make a diagnosis and treatment decision without a full medical examination. The orthodox approach of history, full examination and specific investigations followed by a treatment plan is typically only adhered to by homeopaths with a medical qualification.
In addition to symptoms, many homeopaths also assess appearance, constitution and personality. Particularly when homeopathy is presented in New Age settings such as mind/body/spirit festivals and psychic fairs, diagnosis may include divination, astrology and pendulum swinging as well. This is evidently more common in Continental and Asian countries, but in the UK most medically qualified homeopaths would wish to distance themselves from any such involvement.
Homeopathy should not be confused with the Bach Flower Remedies and herbal medicine. There are significant differences between these therapies, whose preparations do not involve serial dilution or potentisation.
Hahnemann’s essential principles, ie the law of similars, dilution, succussion and potentisation, remain the same today. When the symptom picture is decided, treatment is based on matching it with a ‘remedy picture’ from a homeopathic Materia Medica. The dosage of individual remedies is believed to be less important than the frequency with which they are administered. If one remedy is unsuccessful after six doses, this may be changed to a different remedy. Alternatively, if a condition does not respond to a certain dilution, eg 6c, homeopaths might well suggest a dilution of 30c, believing that the weaker the solution is, the more powerful its effect! A dilution of 6x is a usual strength for over the counter preparations sold in pharmacies and 6c and 12c would be common starting strengths for trained homeopaths.
As Hahnemann discovered, a significant number of patients experience an exacerbation of their symptoms after beginning treatment. This is still called an aggravation and may be treated with coffee or peppermint as well as withdrawal of the remedy. There are very few contra-indications but patients are advised to take the medication with water and to eat or drink nothing else for 20 minutes before and after treatment.
It is said that the remedies keep for many years if undisturbed, but it is advised that they are kept in a cool, dark place away from strong odours. They should also not be touched by hand during transfer from the container to the patient, for fear of contamination.
It is commonly believed that homeopathic remedies are based on the use of herbs, plants and other natural substances, with the assumption that natural = harmless. In fact many of the substances used to produce mother tinctures are noxious and poisonous, such as anthrax poison from the spleen of an infected sheep, rattlesnake, cobra and viper venom, discharge from a scabies blister, sulphuric acid and tarantula spider. No harm results, however, because of the extreme dilution. Hahnemann started with around 60 remedies but there are now many hundreds in the homeopathic Materia Medica.
There are some very obvious problems with homeopathy, from both a medical and Christian perspective. These concern both the use of homeopathy and the principles upon which it is based.
The idea of like curing like is not generally observed in medical practice. It is much more common for symptoms and diseases to respond to medicines that produce the opposite effect to the medical problem. For example, diarrhoea responds to constipating substances such as codeine, rather than bowel irritatives such as castor oil. This is known as allopathy.
Vaccination is an exception, where an attenuated pathogen may be used to provoke an immune response. There can be no meaningful comparison, however, between homeopathy and vaccination (see ‘Evidence’ section below).
A basic principle of pharmacology is that, up to a point, the higher the concentration of a drug, the greater the effect. But homeopathy turns this on its head. The extreme dilution that takes place during the preparation of homeopathic remedies, means that from the dilution 12c and beyond not one single molecule of original substance is present in the medicine, whether it is in the form of tablets, powder or liquid. This fact is freely admitted by homeopathic practitioners and teachers but they do suggest that some obscure and as yet undiscovered reaction known as ‘imaging’ has taken place during the process.
The ‘healing power’ resident in homeopathic medicines is said to be essentially dependent upon the potentisation that takes place between each dilution process. This is apparently why the dilution process is in stages rather than just applying one drop of the mother tincture to a very much larger amount of solvent. However, this would be somewhat impractical since, for example, 12c roughly represents the equivalent of a pinch of substance in a volume of solvent the size of the Atlantic ocean!
An examination of the term ‘vital force’ is most significant. There is really little doubt that this equates to the ch’i of Chinese acupuncture and similar therapies, the prana of Hindu ayurvedic medicine and the universal cosmic energy so beloved by New Age advocates. It is an essential feature of the alternative therapies that each of these embrace.
Homeopathy is generally considered to be safe, particularly when used for minor and self-limiting complaints. It clearly should not be relied upon for serious or life-threatening conditions. Use of this therapy without proper medical advice and diagnosis may result in serious delay in orthodox treatment, sometimes with tragic results.
From a logical, scientific and evidence-based approach, there are obviously major difficulties in accepting homeopathy as a valid therapy. Possible theories for an understanding of the homeopathic process have been advanced but these are hardly tenable. In particular:
- It is not comparable with vaccination or immunisation – no antigens or antibodies have been detected.
- It is not allied to desensitisation as in the orthodox treatment of some allergic processes. These are treated by gradually increasing doses of the irritating substance and scientific measurements are possible.
- Hormonal or biocatalyst effects have not been identified in relation to homeopathic remedies.
- All proposed atomic, molecular and magnetic changes are merely theories resulting from speculation without scientific precedent.
There have been a significant number of clinical trials and scientific investigations into the potential value of homeopathy in a variety of medical conditions. Of particular interest are those involving allergic processes, such as hayfever and asthma, as well as those of a predominantly painful nature such as migraine. Uncritical examination of the outcomes of this research may suggest some positive results. However groups such as that at the Department of Complementary Medicine at Exeter University have subjected the data to detailed examination, including rigorous clinical, scientific and statistical analysis, and have shown that they do not reveal any conclusive evidence for the efficacy and value of homeopathy.
In the magazine FACT (Focus on Alternative and Complementary Therapies), published by Exeter University there were 44 reports of investigations into homeopathy between December 1996 and June 2002. These were mostly randomised controlled trials but their methodology and results were very variable and not one provided conclusive evidence for the efficacy of the homeopathic remedies investigated. In addition, a paper published in 2000 in the European Journal of Clinical Pharmacology called for more research in this area and the authors concluded: ‘there is simply not enough evidence to conclude that homeopathy is clinically effective’.
Questions to be Answered
- Integrity. Can it be acceptable to prescribe a medicine that contains no molecule of active medicine whatsoever?
- Can it be considered good practice to employ a therapy that has been investigated quite widely but for which there is no consistent evidence of efficacy?
- According to Miranda Castro, author of The Complete Homeopathy Handbook, ‘Homeopaths believe that there is a balancing mechanism that keeps us in health, provided that the stresses on our constitution are neither too prolonged nor too great. This balancing mechanism Hahnemann called, ‘vital force’ and he believed it to be that energetic substance, independent of physical and chemical forces, that literally gives us life and is absent at our death.' Is it acceptable to use a therapy that a) relies on the principle of vital force, eg dynamisation, clearly comparable with the ch’i and prana etc of Eastern religious and New Age philosophies and b) which may, with some practitioners, involve divination, astrology and pendulum swinging, clearly forbidden in the Bible?
Particularly when so poorly substantiated, it is quite remarkable that the observations and theories of one man, Samuel Hahnemann, should have led to homeopathy being so widely accepted as an alternative to orthodox, evidence-based medicine. It is essential for Christians to exercise proper integrity in their assessment of alternative therapies. Careful investigation of the theory, practice and unproven value of homeopathy must surely lead to the conclusion that it is inappropriate for Christians to accept or to practise this therapy.
How does homeopathy work
Many of the homeopathic remedies are so diluted that according to the known laws of physics and chemistry, they couldn’t possibly have any effect. Once you get beyond a certain point-24x or 12c -there is probably not even one single molecule of the original active substance remaining. This fact is often pointed to by critics of homeopathy as they dismiss the effect of homeopathy as merely due to placebo effect.
And yet, according to homeopathic doctrine and experience, the more diluted the solution, the more potent it is. Homeopaths contend that the remedies work and they see no reason to stop using them simply because we do not understand how they work. They often argue that pharmacologists cannot explain exactly how most conventional drugs work. For example, even aspirin is not fully understood in terms of how it works, but physicians have no difficulty in recommending its use. Over the years several theories have been proposed to explain the action on homeopathic potentization.
The effects of micro-doses have been known for a long time, and there are a number of examples that support the idea that very diluted concentrations of a substance will have a measurable and sometimes profound effect. Scientists call this phenomenon: hormesis. Scientists from Michigan State University have shown how hormesis work in nature. They used micro-doses of a fertilizer to stimulate crop production. In a dose equivalent to a 9x dilution, the fertilizer increased tomato yield by 30 percent, carrots were 21 percent bigger, and corn yield increased by 25 percent.
Our own bodies secrete minute amounts of hormones that have powerful effects. Thyroid hormone is present in our blood at only 1 part per 10 billion-yet this is enough to regulate the rate of our entire metabolism. Many animal studies show that low doses of some substances elicit a beneficial response while high doses are harmful. This phenomenon has been documented to occur with radiation, antibiotics, and heavy metals.
Pheromones are powerful aromatic hormone-like substances that creatures secrete to attract one another. One molecule of moth pheromone is so potent, it will attract another moth from miles away and trigger a cascade of physical reactions. Though well documented, the exact mechanism for pheromones remains unknown.
Homeopathic Remedies Work in Spiritual/Energy Plane and Not in Physical Plane
Homeopathic remedies are believed to work in the spiritual plane as opposed to the physical plane as we are used to think and measure. Hahnemann believed that dilution and succussion released a spirit- like power that worked on the spiritual level of the vital force in humans. We are familiar with the formerly invisible, immeasurable, unknowable energy forms, such as electromagnetic radiation and subatomic particles. Magnets exerted their force long before science could explain the mechanism. Physicists are still trying to explain gravity and the nature of matter, still discovering phenomena such as the “strong force” and the “weak force.” Homeopathy is an energy medicine, as are acupuncture and therapeutic touch. Homeopaths believe that although the physical molecules of the original substance may be gone, dilution and succussion leaves something behind-an imprint of its essence, or its energy pattern-that gives it a kind of healing charge. Potentization does not occur if you simply dilute the substance, even if you dilute it repeatedly. Nor does it occur if you only shake the substance vigorously. There is something about each process that builds sequentially upon the other, causing the power to be retained and progressively intensified.
But how does the information in such a minute amount of substance get transferred to the body? Some theorists suggest the repeated succussion creates an electrochemical pattern that is stored in the water carrier and then spreads like liquid crystallization through the body’s own water; others say the dilution process triggers an electromagnetic imprinting that directly affects the electro- magnetic field of the body. This concept is used in other therapies also. For example, Ayurveda suggests taking water that has been potentizated by precious metals such as gold. The water is believed to possess curative power as a result of coming in contact with gold and other gemstones although no molecular transfer takes place. The healing power of crystals and magnets are believed to come from their effect on the energy pattern or vibration frequency. So, the suggestion of the homeopathic remedies as working on the energy plane may not be as far fetched as we may think at the first glance.
Homeopathic Remedies Activate the Vital Force
Homeopaths believe that it is the energy or “vibrational pattern” of the remedy, rather than the chemical content, that stimulates the healing by activating what Hahnemann called the Vital force. Vital force is the healing power or energy that exists within us all. It is called by the name Chi by Chinese and Prana by Indian Ayurveda. The vital force fuels the mind, body, emotions and mind. It keeps us healthy and balanced. When the balance of the vital force is disturbed by factors such as stress, pollution, improper diet and lack of exercise, it becomes weakened resulting in the person getting sick.
Scientists who accept the potential benefits of homeopathic theory suggest several theories to explain how highly diluted homeopathic medicines may act. Using recent developments in quantum physics, they have proposed that electromagnetic energy in the medicines may interact with the body on some level. Researchers in physical chemistry have proposed the “memory of water” theory, whereby the structure of the water-alcohol solution is altered by the medicine during the process of dilution and retains this structure even after none of the actual substance remains.