Homeopathy, also known as homeopathic medicine, is a whole medical system that originated in Europe, over 200 years ago. Most experts on the subject attribute the discovery and development of this treatment modality to a German physician Dr. Samuel Hahnemann, who first wrote about the approach in 1796 followed by a treatise called the “Organon of Rational Therapeutics” which he first published in 1810. The sixth edition, published in 1921, is still used today as homeopathy’s basic text. Hahnemann practiced Homeopathic medicine for almost 50 years until his death in 1843.
A German physician, who earned his Doctor of Medicine degree in 1779, saw much was wrong with the treatment practices of the time. At the time of his graduation, scientific advances were beginning to be seen in the fields of chemistry, physics, physiology and anatomy. The clinical practice of medicine, however, was rife with superstition and lack of scientific rigor. The treatments of the day, such as purgatives, bleeding, blistering plasters, herbal preparations and emetics lacked a rational basis and were more harmful than effective. Hahnemann recognized this and wrote critically of current practices in several papers on topics such as Arsenic poisoning, hygiene, dietetics and psychiatric treatment.
Homeopathy seeks to stimulate the body’s ability to heal itself by giving very small doses of highly diluted substances that in larger doses would produce illness or symptoms (an approach called “like cures like”)., is a whole medical system, with a complete system of theory and practice that has evolved over time in different cultures and apart from conventional medicine. Examples of whole medical systems include traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine, homeopathy, and naturopathy that was developed in Germany more than 200 years ago and has been practiced in the United States since the early 19th century. Homeopathy is used for wellness and prevention and to treat many diseases and conditions. This fact sheet provides a general overview of homeopathy and suggests sources for additional information.
- The “Law of Similars” (or “like cures like”) is a central homeopathic principle. The principle states that a disease can be cured by a substance that produces similar symptoms in healthy people.
- Most analyses have concluded that there is little evidence to support homeopathy as an effective treatment for any specific condition; although, some studies have reported positive findings.
- There are challenges in studying homeopathy and controversies regarding the field. This is largely because a number of its key concepts are not consistent with the current understanding of science, particularly chemistry and physics.
- Inform your health care providers about any complementary and alternative practices you use. Give them a full picture of all you do to manage your health. This will help ensure coordinated and safe care.
The term homeopathy comes from the Greek words homeo, meaning similar, and pathos, meaning suffering or disease. Homeopathy seeks to stimulate the body’s ability to heal itself by giving very small doses of highly diluted substances. This therapeutic method was developed by German physician Samuel Christian Hahnemann at the end of the 18th century. Hahnemann articulated two main principles:
- The principle of similars (or “like cures like”) states that a disease can be cured by a substance that produces similar symptoms in healthy people. This idea, which can be traced back to Hippocrates, was further developed by Hahnemann after he repeatedly ingested cinchona bark, a popular treatment for malaria, and found that he developed the symptoms of the disease. Hahnemann theorized that if a substance could cause disease symptoms in a healthy person, small amounts could cure a sick person who had similar symptoms.
- The principle of dilutions (or “law of minimum dose”) states that the lower the dose of the medication, the greater its effectiveness. In homeopathy, substances are diluted in a stepwise fashion and shaken vigorously between each dilution. This process, referred to as “potentization,” is believed to transmit some form of information or energy from the original substance to the final diluted remedy. Most homeopathic remedies are so dilute that no molecules of the healing substance remain; however, in homeopathy, it is believed that the substance has left its imprint or “essence,” which stimulates the body to heal itself (this theory is called the “memory of water”).
Homeopaths treat people based on genetic and personal health history, body type, and current physical, emotional, and mental symptoms. Patient visits tend to be lengthy. Treatments are “individualized” or tailored to each person—it is not uncommon for different people with the same condition to receive different treatments.
Homeopathic remedies are derived from natural substances that come from plants, minerals, or animals. Common remedies include red onion, arnica (mountain herb), and stinging nettle plant.
According to the 2007 National Health Interview Survey, that included a comprehensive survey of complementary and alternative medicine. This represents a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not presently considered to be part of conventional medicine. Complementary medicine is used together with conventional medicine, and alternative medicine is used in place of conventional medicine. (CAM) use by Americans, an estimated 3.9 million U.S. adults and approximately 900,000 children used homeopathy in the previous year.
People use homeopathy for a range of health concerns, from wellness and prevention, to the treatment of diseases and conditions such as allergies, asthma, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, digestive disorders, ear infections, headaches, and skin rashes.
Regulation of Homeopathic Treatments
Homeopathic remedies are prepared according to the guidelines of the Homeopathic Pharmacopeia of the United States (HPUS), which was written into law in the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act in 1938. Homeopathic remedies are regulated in the same manner as nonprescription, over-the-counter (OTC) drugs. However, because homeopathic products contain little or no active ingredients, they do not have to undergo the same safety and efficacy testing as prescription and new OTC drugs.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does require that homeopathic remedies meet certain legal standards for strength, purity, and packaging. The labels on the remedies must include at least one major indication (i.e., medical problem to be treated), a list of ingredients, the dilution, and safety instructions. In addition, if a homeopathic remedy claims to treat a serious disease such as cancer, it needs to be sold by prescription. Only products for self-limiting conditions (minor health problems like a cold or headache that go away on their own) can be sold without a prescription.
The Status of Homeopathy Research
Most analyses of the research on homeopathy have concluded that there is little evidence to support homeopathy as an effective treatment for any specific condition, and that many of the studies have been flawed. However, there are some individual observational studies, randomized placebo-controlled trials, and laboratory research that report positive effects or unique physical and chemical properties of homeopathic remedies.
Homeopathy is difficult to study using current scientific methods because highly diluted substances (known as ultra-high dilutions or UHDs) cannot be readily measured, making it difficult to design or replicate studies. In addition, homeopathic treatments are highly individualized and there is no uniform prescribing standard for homeopaths. There are hundreds of different homeopathic remedies, which can be prescribed in a variety of different dilutions to treat thousands of symptoms. On the other hand, many aspects of the interactions between the homeopathic practitioner and his or her patients may be quite beneficial, and can be studied more easily.
Controversies Regarding Homeopathy
Homeopathy is a controversial area of CAM because a number of its key concepts are not consistent with established laws of science (particularly chemistry and physics). Critics think it is implausible that a remedy containing a miniscule amount of an active ingredient (sometimes not a single molecule of the original compound) can have any biological effect—beneficial or otherwise. For these reasons, critics argue that continuing the scientific study of homeopathy is not worthwhile. Others point to observational and anecdotal evidence that homeopathy does work and argue that it should not be rejected just because science has not been able to explain it.
Side Effects and Risks
Although the side effects and risks of homeopathic treatments are not well researched outside of observational studies, some general points can be made about the safety of these treatments:
- A systematic review found that homeopathic remedies in high dilution, taken under the supervision of trained professionals, are generally considered safe and unlikely to cause severe adverse reactions.
- Liquid homeopathic remedies may contain alcohol. The FDA allows higher levels of alcohol in these remedies than it allows in conventional drugs. However, no adverse effects from alcohol levels have been reported to the FDA.
- Homeopaths expect some of their patients to experience homeopathic aggravation (a temporary worsening of existing symptoms after taking a homeopathic prescription). Researchers have not found much evidence of this reaction in clinical studies; however, research on homeopathic aggravations is scarce.
- Homeopathic remedies are not known to interfere with conventional drugs; however, if you are considering using homeopathic remedies, you should discuss this with your health care provider first.
If You Are Thinking About Using Homeopathy
- Do not use homeopathy as a replacement for proven conventional care or to postpone seeing a doctor about a serious chronic medical problem.
- Look for published research studies on homeopathy for the health condition you are interested in.
- If you are considering using homeopathy and decide to seek treatment from a homeopath, ask about the training and experience of the practitioner you are considering.
- Women who are pregnant or nursing, or people who are thinking of using homeopathy to treat a child, should consult their health care provider.
- Tell all your health care providers about any complementary and alternative practices you use. Give them a full picture of all you do to manage your health. This will ensure coordinated and safe care.
Watch this blog for future articles about homeopathy, homeopathic remedies and how to treat common health related problems using these remedies. This author certainly is of the opinion that homeopathy continues to be a very safe and effective treatment modality when used appropriately.