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Homeopathy - a Sceptical View

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One of the biggest health fads to hit the consumer market in the 20th Century is homeopathy. Dubbed a 'home remedy', homeopathy is considered a branch of holistic medicine, and is all about curing an illness or a disorder by treating the whole person rather than merely concentrating on a set of symptoms.

What makes homeopathy so popular is the fact that it can be administered by the patient, with or without prescription. Nowadays, homeopathic cures are available everywhere from pharmacies to multilevel distributors and health websites. Bookstores and cyberspace alike are littered with literature such as Healing with Homeopathy by Wayne Jonas (ex-director of the Office of Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health) and Jennifer Jacobs. For those who wish to delve deeper into the art, homeopathic courses are being offered at institutions of higher learning and as long-distance learning courses on the Internet.

The Roots of Homeopathy

The notion that substances that produce a certain set of symptoms in a healthy person can cure the same symptoms in someone who is sick was in fact conceived in Chinese medicine thousands of years ago and was documented in the writings of Paracelsus in the Middle Ages. Samuel Hahnemann, a German physician, first came across this idea in 1790 when he was translating Cullen's Materia Medica into German. In his book, Cullen had defended the old opinion of the effectiveness of Peruvian bark1 in treating fevers through its 'tonic effect on the stomach'. Hahnemann was unimpressed with Cullen's explanation of the action of Peruvian bark in curing intermittent fevers and decided to test the substance on himself (despite not actually being ill at the time).

Soon after taking the quinine, Hahnemann became very ill. The chief symptoms were chills and fever. His feet and finger ends became cold, and he became drowsy. His heart palpitated, his head pulsed, and his cheeks became red. He suffered from intolerable anxiety, trembling and prostration. This continued for as long as he repeated the dose. Hahnemann drew the parallel between what he experienced with the classical symptoms of malaria and jumped to the conclusion that 'like cures like'. His general principle contradicted the prevailing medical approach of the time, which was to prescribe treatments that suppressed the symptoms of a disease.

Spurred by this discovery, Hahnemann spent most of his life testing natural substances for the symptoms they produced and then connecting them to the symptoms of known diseases. He declared that diseases represented a disturbance in the body's ability to heal itself, and that only a small stimulus was required to trigger the healing process. He also claimed that chronic diseases were manifestation of a kind of evil spirit or miasma, called psora (or suppressed itch).

Hahnemann was, of course, troubled by the side effects that often accompanied his medications2. He decided to dilute these substances and subsequently found that with increasing dilution, these side effects could be reduced and eventually eliminated. Furthermore, it seemed that the more dilute the medicine was, the better the effect it seemed to have on his patients. Convinced that dilution strengthened the efficacy of his medicinal substances, Hahnemann declared his 'law of infinitesimals' and thus homeopathy was born...

Hahnemann's Theory of Disease

Vitalism, or the 'vital force', was introduced by GE Stahl in 1707 and later incorporated into homeopathy by Hahnemann as the Vis Vitalis. At the time it was thought that chemicals made by living bodies differed from inorganic compounds in that a vital force was needed to make them. According to Hahnemann, disease was caused by a disharmony of this force.

Later, of course, it was found that organic compounds could be artificially synthesized. The first of these was urea, which was artificially synthesized by Wohler in 1828. Today we are not only able to produce simple compounds, but also hormones and enzymes, among other things.

How Homeopathic Medicine Works

Homeopathic cure is based on three principles:

  • Like cures like
  • Potentization-dynamization
  • The law of infinitesimals

Based on the 'like cures like' concept, a substance that produces an ill-effect in a well person is used to cure a person suffering from a malady with similar symptoms3. This substance is first soaked in alcohol to extract the essential ingredients. This solution is called the mother tincture. It is then diluted successively by factors of ten or a hundred4. Each dilution is shaken before further dilutions are made to make the preparation more powerful by adding energy at each state while removing impurities. Most homeopathic medicines are sold in concentrations of 30x (which means that the user must do 30 tedious tenfold dilutions) or 200C (one part per hundred 200 times). Homeopathic remedies may be made into tablet, ointment, solution or powder form.

Potentization-dynamization refers to the succussion (or vigorous shaking) that accompanies each dilution step. Hahnemann, who was familiar with Benjamin Rumford's experiments5, deduced from them that metal contained untapped reserves of heat energy in latent, bound, undeveloped state and used this to support his theory of dynamization.

The theory behind potentization-dynamization is this: the invisible force of a magnet that attracts metal does not need mechanical means because it had its own pure, nonmaterial, invisible, spirit-like force. However, this force is latent and only becomes a true, active, powerful magnet when the metal has been dynamized by rubbing it vigorously. Similarly, the trituration and succussion of a medicinal substance dynamizes the latent force residing inside it. This charges the solution and renders it more effective in treating ailments.

The Scientific Evidence Against Homeopathy

Despite the testimonies of people who swear by their homeopathic cures and proof presented by homeopaths on the efficacy of this alternative medicine, scientists did not take long to wage war against homeopathy. Among the aspects of homeopathy that scientists have dissected and challenged are discussed below...

Hahnemann's 'Discovery' of Homeopathy was a Fluke

Most natural substances are toxic. For every substance found to have 'good' properties there will be a small number of people who are allergic towards it. Take for example the substance produced by poison ivy, which causes severe rashes when small quantities come into contact with skin. Similarly, small doses of alkaloids from Cinchona will cause toxic manifestations, including thrombocytopenia, vomiting, diarrhoea, skin rash, fever, rigors, disturbed liver function, arrhythmia, hypotension and death.

What exactly did Hahnemann consume in 1790 and what did it do to him? He took 'four drams of good China', which is equivalent to 400-500 milligrams of quinine, the prescribed therapeutic dose in the past century-and-a-half. After taking it, he became languid and drowsy, which is a sign of hypotension. He felt weak and his head pulsed - a good indication that Hahnemann had a mother of a headache. The redness in his cheeks was most likely a rash. Also, his head palpitated, which meant that his heart was beating irregularly, a sign of ventricular tachycardia. His fingers and feet were cold and trembled. Any good immunology textbook will tell you from these symptoms that what Hahnemann was experiencing was none other than hypersensitivity.

Which meant that Hahnemann's 'like cures like' association between his reaction towards quinine and the symptoms of malaria was a fluke - a lucky coincidence because of his unexpected sensitivity towards the toxicity of quinine. Might things have gone differently for homeopathy had Hahnemann not been allergic to the drug? Or had he developed other reactions towards it?

The Law of Infinitesimals Clashes with the Laws of Science

The law of infinitesimals in homeopathy states that dilution increases the curative power of homeopathy medications. This means that a part-per-million solution of a substance is more medicinally powerful than a part-per-thousand solution, which has in turn more curative power than a part-per-hundred solution. In contrast, many of our modern drugs are ineffective in small quantities and the efficacy increases with dosage6.

Let us put modern medicine aside and consider the dosages involved in homeopathy. As mentioned earlier, most homeopathic medicine comes in 30x or 200C dilutions. If a substance were to be diluted 30 times, this means that there would be one part medicine to 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 parts water. A substance that was diluted 200C times would contain one part medicine in 10 to the power of 400 molecules of water (or 1 followed by 400 zeroes). These numbers may be mind-bogglingly huge, but what of it?

A very important concept in chemistry - and perhaps all of science - is Avogadro's number. Avogadro's law states that equal volumes of any two different gases if they are at the same temperature and pressure contain equal number of molecules. Thus, one mole of a substance will always contain the same number of molecules - the Avogadro number - as a mole of any other substance.

The Avogadro number, which is determined by X-ray diffraction of crystals, is 6.0221367 x 10 to the 23rd power (or 10 followed by 23 zeroes) as calculated by the International Council of Scientific Unions. In taking this constant into account when calculating Hahnemann's homeopathy dilutions, we would find that the limit imposed upon the dilution - the dilution that can be made without losing the original substance altogether - is equivalent to 12C or 24x. 30x is not only way outside this limit - to get even one single molecule from a solution diluted 30 times, one would have to drink 7,874 gallons of the solution. This would be roughly equivalent to a container 30 million times bigger than the Earth itself.

Oscillococcinum, which is prescribed for colds and flu-like symptoms, is a 200C product made from duck heart and liver. Not only would you only need one duck per year to make the medicine, the dilution would go way beyond the dilution limit of the entire known universe, which consists of only ten to the power of 80 atoms.

The Memory of Water, and Potentization-dynamization

While Hahnemann had probably never heard of Avogadro's number (which was only determined half a century after Hahnemann published Organon der Rationellen Heilkunde in 1810) he surely must have realised that his dilutions were stretching even the limits of utter impossibility. However, Hahnemann had his own explanation for the skeptic using his potentization-dynamization theory. The vigorous shaking or pulverizing of a substance in between dilutions, he claimed, caused the substance to leave behind a 'spirit-like' essence which, although 'no longer perceptible to the senses', was nevertheless 'remembered' by the water, and thus retained healing properties.

This important aspect of homeopathy, which has been one of the most widely attacked by scientists, has brought forth a barrage of assault from believers of homeopathy. Many of these are centred around the 'inadequacy' of existing technology. Indeed, many of them defended homeopathy with the claims that it had everything to do with the as yet undetected 'subatomic fields' that could be carried and conveyed by water and sugar molecules.

Scientists who are not too busy debunking claims or trying to save lives by conducting medical research will admit that our knowledge of science today is still far from complete, and that yes, there may be lots of subatomic fields that we do not yet know about. However, if we were to keep an open mind and accept that yes, there may be these yet-undetected forces at work in the water or sugar solution, we would arrive at the conclusion that the water would retain a 'memory' of everything inside the substance, and not just the medicinal bits. (Not to mention everything else it has come into contact with.) This leads to the following sticky situation:

  • Each and every one of these bits, from impurities and contaminants to the medicine, would make an imprint in the water, and thus every component's 'essence' would exert powerful effects when ingested by a person. After all, Hahnemann had never mentioned anything about water being selective about what it remembers. We must also assume that the components in a substance are similarly ignorant about their relative importance. What possible effects might these unwanted things exert, and would they outweigh the medicinal effects?

  • Hahnemann never mentioned anything about the strength of the water's 'memory' either. How good is the water at remembering things? Does it remember all of the substance molecules (given that the substance is very strong to begin with and is only weakened with subsequent dilutions) or does it just remember that these molecules were once in contact with it? If so, then wouldn't the water exert the same effect as the whole, undiluted substance? Wouldn't the medication then be as dangerous as if the patient were to consume the medicine neat, as when Hahnemann consumed 400 milligrams of quinine? Bear in mind that most of these substances are poisonous to begin with.

  • Some homeopathic cures are marketed in pill form - lactose pills in fact, on which a single drop of infinitely dilute solution has been placed. How does this drop of diluted solvent convey the memory stored in the water to the lactose molecules? Even if subatomic fields governed these 'memories', how can lactose, which is in solid form, 'remember' the information the same way as water? And how does it convey this information to the cells in our body? Does it convey the information back to water first?

Scientific Evidence does not Corroborate Homeopathy Claims

Any method that is supposedly of any medical value must be put under scrutiny before it is acknowledged as a cure and is legally used in treating ailments and conditions. As with all other medicinal cures, homeopathy has been a hot subject of scientific investigation, the results of which have been published in prestigious magazines like Nature, Pediatrics and The European Journal of Clinical Pharmacology. One article by David W Ramey entitled 'The Scientific Evidence of Homeopathy' summarizes the findings of these investigations, most of which is neutral or against homeopathy as an effective medicinal cure. Basically, there is no evidence to support the superiority of homeopathy as a therapeutic measure in comparison with conventional therapy methods, nor the harmlessness of homeopathy in stronger potency. In some cases, the conditions of the subjects deteriorated after the administration of homeopathic cures. In fact, most research findings seem to indicate the placebo effect at play in homeopathy.

Of course, homeopaths have carried out their own research and experiments, and have reported their findings indicated that homeopathy has, indeed, been effective. However, when put under scrutiny, it was found that these experiments had major methodological errors, and were biased in one way or the other. For instance, in a 1998 review of homeopathic treatment of animals by SG Wynn, a number of studies used animal subjects that were healthy to begin with; in six studies, the animals' condition had worsened or remained unchanged. Many of these trials had no controls and were also not double-blind experiments, meaning that those conducting the research and the subjects already knew if the subjects were taking placebos or homeopathic medicine; thus the behaviour of the group may have been changed. As the Nobel Laureate Werner Heisenberg said: 'What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.' Their interpretation of the data they accumulated was probably already influenced by their theory of the efficacy of homeopathy7.

December, 1996, saw the publication of a lengthy report evaluating reports of controlled trials of homeopathic treatment by the Homeopathic Medicine Research Group (HMRG), an expert panel convened by the Commission of the European Communities, which included homeopathic physician-researchers as well as experts in clinical research, pharmacology, research and epidemiology, and biostatistics. Out of the 184 reports that were examined, only 17 were designed and reported well enough to be worth considering, and even then the sample number for these trials were too small for conclusions to be drawn about the efficacy of homeopathic treatment for any specific condition. Only in a few of the 17 trials did homeopathic treatment appear to be more effective than a placebo or no treatment. The panel concluded that most homeopathic research was worthless. (BBC Horizon arrived at the same conclusion after carrying out a triple-blind experiment on the efficacy of homeotherapy in 2002).

Why Homeopathy Works

Despite the fact that scientific evidence is against homeopathy as an effective cure, there remain many who have testified that homeopathy works. But how can sugar water cure a complex ailment that involves genetic predisposition or pathogens?

One Researcher has provided valuable insight on this matter:

I have been through a very long period of stress some years ago, and somehow my body was reacting to that: skin rashes, constant headaches etc... There was nothing conventional medicine could do except for cortisone against the rash and aspirin against the headache. That's when I was persuaded to look up a homeopath. I went there and had a go. The way this man worked was fascinating. He is in reality a shrink and heals you in his sessions. You're there for say two hours and talk about your problems. Then he tells you some mumbo-jumbo about homeopathy, prescribes you some placebo. My skin rash and headaches got cured. Of course it had nothing to do with the atoms (if any) I swallowed during the 'treatment'. In retrospect I think this was highly clever of that physician. There are probably a lot of people with illnesses that are caused by stress or psychologic things, but somehow a lot of people hesitate to go to a shrink.

This is probably where conventional medicine went wrong and where homeopaths got it nailed down. People who are sick do not want to be poked and prodded, and presented with incomprehensible medical jargon and a bottle of 'just take this and come back in two days if your condition does not improve' medicine (usually delivered with a degree of impatience). They want to know what is wrong with their bodies, how it could have happened, how the medicine will cure them. These patients need counselling and comfort, which they will not get from the typical harried doctor who has 20 other patients to see.

On the other hand, you have the homeopath, who not only readily listens to your complaints and problems, but takes the trouble to discuss them. He then prescribes some medication that he probably knows has no curative value, but it does not matter - the patient, by peace of mind from the counselling, has already initiated his own healing process. Doctors should maybe take a lesson or two from these people about psychology.

Downloadable Medication - The Final Straw

In 1988, a French homeopathist by the name of Jacques Benveniste published an article in the prestigious science journal Nature claiming that an antibody solution continued to evoke a biological response even when it had been diluted to 30x or beyond. This evoked an outburst in the scientific community. Many scientists were outraged and felt that the editor of Nature had taken leave of his judgement8.

What probably enraged the scientists, was Benveniste's claim that although the antibody concentration had been reduced to zero, that it had nevertheless left an imprint of some sort on the solvent. Of course, the final straw was when Benveniste later made the claim that the information is 'stored' in the water in the form of 'electromagnetic waves' which could then be picked up by a coil surrounding the water, and subsequently stored in a computer - and could even be transmitted over the Internet to activate water anywhere half a world away. Downloadable medicine! The local pharmacy would go out of business in no time.

Is Homeopathy Bad for You?

The final question we have to ask ourselves is this: are homeopathic cures actually bad for you?

On the one hand, homeopathic cures use many toxic substances, are not approved by the FDA and pretty much defy all the current laws of science. They have not been scientifically proven to be more effective than placebo, at least not by scientific standards, and in some cases may actually be detrimental to the well-being of a person9. An ill person who goes straight to homeopathic cures before seeing a physician may delay life-saving treatment and may pose as an infection threat to the community.

On the other hand, homeopathic remedies are nothing more than sugar and water. There is no evidence to suggest that water can mess up its memory, or that the so-called subatomic fields have ever zapped anyone in the wrong way. Needless to say, homeopathic cures have no side effects, as opposed to most medication approved by the FDA, except in the highly improbable case when you actually find a molecule or two of the substance in your diluted medicine (hey, they have to go someplace).

The choice is entirely upon the individual. Those who believe in the power of undetected subatomic fields may continue taking homeopathic medicine. Those who have faith in today's science and medicine may abstain from playing doctor and continue to see their local physician. And then there are those who would choose to save money, and just ingest the sugar and water they have in the kitchen.

1It was then known that the bark of Cinchona trees from South America could cure fever. The bark contains alkaloids including quinine, which is used to treat malaria.2Natural substances are often acutely toxic. Look for no further proof than the substances to be found in toadstools and poison ivy.3For example, poison ivy is used to cure a person with a bad rash.4A ten-time dilution means that one part of the solution is diluted in ten parts water. Likewise, a hundred-fold dilution means that there is one part solution per hundred parts water.5Rumford was the fellow who came up with the mechanical heat theory. He speculated that heat was nothing more than movements of the smallest particles, and applied this in an experiment where he made temperature in a closed room increase by rubbing two metallic plates together.6In enormous doses, however, they can actually become harmful. Paracetamol, which we now regularly take in place of aspirin, has this property: 500 milligrams of Paracetamol will make your headache go away; consume more than six doses of it daily, however, and the drug will cause bleeding and liver damage.7It is interesting to note at this point that a report written by Cucherat in 2000 stated: 'There is some evidence that homeopathic treatments are more effective than placebo; however, the strength of this evidence is low because of the low methodological quality of the trials. Studies of high methodological quality were more likely to be negative than the lower quality studies'.8In fact the editor, John Maddox, had no faith in Benveniste's conclusion, but published the article anyway for the sake of open scientific debate. It did more harm than good, because many homeopaths wound up quoting Beneviste's paper as proof that homeopathy worked.9For example, in 1884 an Australian homeopath by the name of Dr Gunst prescribed a homeopathic medicine, for which the chemist dispensed a concentrated Mother Tincture. The patient died.

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