A slew of questions spilled forth. What is the scientific basis of these homeopathic “miracle water” products? Do they even work? Why do people find themselves drawn to them? In this article, I’ll answer these questions as we dig into homeopathy.
What is Homeopathy?
Homeopathy was invented by a German physician named Samuel Christian Hahnemann approximately 200 years ago. The practice involves taking natural materials and diluting them into solutions in alcohol or water that can then be taken orally or topically to cure an ailment.
There are 3 major underlying principles of homeopathy (Jonas et al., 2003):
• The principle of similarity: to cure an ailment, use an ingredient that causes the ailment in healthy people. For example, if the patient is suffering from watery eyes, treat them with onions, which can cause tears in healthy people. Hahnemann originally came upon this belief when trying to understand how cinchona could cure malaria. After chewing cinchona bark himself, he found that his symptoms closely matched those of malaria. Today, a homeopathic remedy is ‘proven’ by being tested on healthy subjects to see what kind of symptoms may develop.
• The principle of minimum dose: diluting the medicine can affect the medicine’s healing properties. The more diluted the active ingredient, the more powerful the effect.
• The principle of totality of symptoms: treatment should most closely match the symptoms shown by the patient. Even if two patients have the same diagnosis, the treatment should be custom-made to handle the different combinations of symptoms.
In addition, homeopaths may also believe the following to support the above principles:
• The medicine or alcohol that dilutes the medicine can ‘remember’ what has been in it and retains its healing power.
• The body and mind are connected, and imbalances in the vital forces can lead to sickness.
Where do these beliefs come from?
It’s easy to observe some of the phenomena that might lead to the principles of homeopathy:
• Misusing medicine can cause harm to the body and even cause symptoms of the ailment it was made to cure. Aspirin can be used to reduce fever, but higher doses can cause hypothermia (Merrell & Shalts, 2002).
• The same treatment can cause opposite side effects in different patients. For example, some patients on one brand of birth control may report increased appetite, while others report a decrease. This suggests that medicine should be personalized.
Is homeopathy scientifically proven effective?
Most studies have shown that homeopathy has little to no effect beyond the placebo effect (Cucherat et al., 2000; Ludtke & Rutten, 2008) and research suggesting that homeopathy is more effective than the placebo effect often has methodological weaknesses, such as a lack of trial randomization (Linde et al., 1999). However, some research does suggest that homeopathy can be useful for certain conditions, such as hay fever, asthma, diarrhea or mild traumatic brain injury (Merrell & Shalts, 2002; Riley et al., 2001).
So why does it seem like Homeopathy works?The two most common explanations for why homeopathy works are the placebo effect and the ailment following its natural course and healing. Most symptoms cured by homeopathy (e.g., sore throat, cough, nausea and muscle pains) will resolve themselves naturally in a few days.
Why might people find alternative medicine so alluring?
While no major study has been done on people’s use of homeopathic medicines in the past decade, alternative medicines like homeopathy have been gaining media attention, mostly as a pushback against science-based medicine and big pharma. The most publicized example of this is the anti-vaccine movement, which has caused several measles outbreaks in the US.
In contrast to science-based medicine, the School of Homeopathy’s website explains the allure of homeopathy at the bottom of their homepage:
• Homeopathic treatment works with your body’s own healing powers to bring about health and well-being.
• You are treated as an individual, not as a collection of disease labels.
• Homeopathy treats all your symptoms at all levels of your being – spiritual, emotional, mental and physical, and finds the ‘like cures like’ match for them.
• Homeopathically-prepared remedies given in the minimum dose, are gentle, subtle and powerful. They are non-addictive, and not tested on animals.
A lot of these assertions may speak to people who are frustrated with modern medicine, which is often characterized as cold and rushed. Alternatively, homeopathy provides a warm, friendly environment with personalized treatment. The non-addictive, gentle, and natural character of homeopathy counters the image of big-pharma and harsh chemicals that people tend to dislike.
Are there dangers for taking homeopathic or other alternative medicines?
Taking alternative medicines may not always expose you to dangerous consequences, but there are exceptions. Homeopathic products made from belladonna (also known as deadly nightshade), for example, can cause seizures and death in infants, as well as a number of other awful effects.
Based on current scientific research, most homeopathic medicines are no substitute for more rigorously tested science-based medicine that have undergone clinical trials and dose-response testing. In 2019, a 7-year old died after parents treated his ear infection with homeopathic medicine, fearing the child was taking too many antibiotics. And the risks in foregoing evidence-based medicine are not only to your health. In 2009, a husband and wife were jailed following the death of their 9-month-old daughter after forsaking science-based medicine for homeopathy and naturopathy. These concerns have been long-standing as people choose alternative medicine’s “preventative care” over vaccines.
In conclusion, although some homeopathic treatments may be taken alongside science-based medicine without cause for safety, users should be aware that homeopathic medicine has clinically been found to have no to little effect.
Associated Press in Sydney. (2009). Homeopathy couple jailed over daughter’s death. Accessed from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/sep/28/homeopathy-baby-death-couple-jailed
CBC Marketplace. (2011). Cure or con? Accessed from: https://www.cbc.ca/marketplace/episodes/2011-episodes/cure-or-con
Cucherat, M., Haugh, M. C., Gooch, M. & Boissel, J. P. (2000). Evidence of clinical efficacy of homeopathy: a meta-analysis of clinical trials. European Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, 56(1), 27-33.
Jonas, W. B., Eisenberg, D. M., Kaptchuk, T. J., & Linde, K. (2003). A Critical overview of homeopathy. American College of Physicians–American Society of Internal Medicine, 138, 393-399.
Kaplan, S. (2017). Hundreds of babies harmed by homeopathic remedies, families say. Scientific American. Accessed from: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/hundreds-of-babies-harmed-by-homeopathic-remedies-families-say/
Linde, K., Scholz, M., Ramirez, G., Clausius, N., Melchart, D. & Jonas, W. B. (1999). Impact of study quality on outcome in placebo-controlled trials of homeopathy. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, 52(7), 631-636.
Ludtke, R. & Rutten, A. L. (2008). The conclusions on the effectiveness of homeopathy highly depend on the set of analyzed trials. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, 61(12), 1197-1204.
Merrell, W. C. & Shalts, E. (2002). Homeopathy. Medical Clinics of North America, 86(1), 47-62.
Montagnier, L., Aissa, J., Ferris, S., Montagnier, J., & Lavalleee, C. (2009). Electromagnetic signals are produced by aqueous nanostructures derived from bacterial DNA sequences. Interdisciplinary Sciences: Computation Life Sciences, 1(2), 81-90.
Paton, C. (2009). Parents of boy, 7, who died after they treated his ear infection with homeopathy given 3 month sentence. Newsweek. Accessed from: https://www.newsweek.com/parents-boy-who-died-after-they-treated-his-ear-infection-homeopathy-given-3-month-sentence-1442812
Riley, D., Fischer, M., Singh, B., Haidvogl, M., & Heger, M. (2001). Homeopathy and conventional medicine: An outcomes study comparing effectiveness in a primary care setting. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 7(2), 149-159.
About the Author
Joanna Lee is a Ph.D. student at Boston University studying the evolution of parasitism through the lens of gene expression. She was born and raised in Hawaii and holds a bachelor’s degree in Science Education from Boston University. Joanna volunteers in classrooms and is passionate about demystifying science to audiences of all ages and backgrounds. In her free time, Joanna enjoys visual arts, reading, and creating social media for her Pomeranian.