In the late 18th century, German physician Samuel Hahnemann faced a complex problem. He was dissatisfied with the conventional medicine of his day, which was reasonable considering that pre-scientific medicine was more likely to cause illness and injury than to cure it. He began a search for a better way to treat his patients and eventually had a great idea. That great idea was clear, simple, and also completely wrong. That idea was homeopathy.

What is homeopathy?

Trying to explain what homeopathy was when first invented, versus what we know it to be today through its two centuries of evolution is a bit challenging.

As originally conceived, homeopathy consisted of one basic principle: the Law of Similars. Based on personal observation, and an emotional bias that sprung from his dedication to uncovering the grand mysteries of the human condition, Hahnemann believed that the effects of a substance on a healthy patient were a clue to the condition that substance could cure. That’s right – the side effects that a substance had on a healthy person were equated to the substance’s ability to cure symptoms of the same kind in an illness.

So if ingesting cinchona bark makes you feel like you have fever, chills, and achy joints, as it did one fateful day when Hahnemann consumed some, it would therefore cure the same symptoms if you had malaria. Confused? Don’t worry, so is everyone else. It’s the exact opposite of sound logic.

Hahnemann recruited healthy friends and family members to help him “prove” what symptoms a substance might cure by having them log each and every mental or physical change they experienced after taking a variety of them. There were no controls for bias or outliers, there were no medical backgrounds for these individuals, and it was under no circumstances the equivalent of what would be considered peer-review in today’s modern scientific environment. Using this substance-trying process with people he knew, Hahnemann pieced together a compendium of substances and side effects which to this day help practitioners of homeopathy decide what remedy best fits the complaints of their patient.

Why is this pediatrician practicing newborn medicine in the year 2015 writing about it?

The answer to this question is easy, though mind-boggling. Hahnemann’s idea was eventually revealed to be impossible by our advanced scientific understanding of the universe, and considerable negative research has showed beyond a reasonable doubt that it is ineffective for any human ailment. Yet we hear about it today because it still remains one of the most popular approaches to health in countries around the world.

Consider an example with your own child, who might have a viral infection known as hand, foot, and mouth disease. According to the CDC, this infection is characterized by:

  • Fever
  • Poor appetite
  • Lack of desire to do anything/malaise
  • Sore throat
  • Mouth ulcers/blisters
  • Skin rash on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet; it may also appear on the knees, elbows, buttocks or genital area
  • Dehydration if unable to swallow enough liquids

A homeopath might, after an hour of asking a variety of questions about your child’s symptoms, behavior, and personality, prescribe a remedy like borax. Borax, or sodium tetraborate is a naturally occurring substance produced by evaporation, and most of us know it as a gentle but common household chemical used for home cleaning, laundry washing, and as an insecticide. When ingested, it’s considered harmful, and according to the NIH it can produce symptoms including, but not limited to (you may be able to guess this):

  • Fever
  • Lack of desire to do anything/malaise
  • Ulcers/blisters
  • Skin rash
  • Less urine output (via dehydration)

Borax might be preferred by a homeopathic specialist over another potential remedy for this condition because of the child’s refusal to speak due to their sore throat and mouth blisters, and their dry mouth from dehydration. But as referenced above, it causes the very symptoms it’s purported to treat.

What is the difference between homeopathy and taking an herbal remedy?

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Common homeopathic remedies, including belladonna and arsenic.

One might reasonably point out that they’ve understood homeopathy to be no different than taking an herbal supplement. And aren’t herbs the same as pharmaceutical drugs in that they can change the physiology of our bodies, and thus might ameliorate a symptom or even cure a disease? Using the Borax example, since it’s a naturally occurring alkaline compound, isn’t it supposed to promote health when used in extremely small doses, as a range of herbal/homeopathic sites purport? Could proponents of homeopathy have stumbled onto a successful remedy every now and then even if their rationale is pre-scientific nonsense?

There is a nugget of truth to this. The key difference, however, is that prescription and over-the-counter drugs consist of isolated active chemicals that have been tested and regulated for safety and efficacy in specific doses, rather than the less precise and unsupervised use of whole plants or plant parts. In the case of many so-called herbal remedies, the potential active ingredient is unknown and often unproven.*

To be clear, homeopathy at its origin was no different than herbal medicine. But it is very different in its current state, today. What would come to be known as the second law of homeopathy renders arguments connecting the two moot. And why that is, might surprise you.

Why homeopathy is not the same as medical treatment, or herbal medicine

After his invention of homeopathy, Hahnemann “discovered” what would come to be known as the Law of Infinitesimal Doses. Worried about the side effects of his remedies when taken in large amounts, he experimented with increasingly diluted doses. He noticed that dilution reduced the side effects and that the patients seemed to get better more quickly, This is a perfectly plausible outcome considering the substances were causing symptoms, and likely because a lack of those adverse symptoms allowed for more significant placebo effects to occur.

Hahnemann took this to ridiculous extremes, and many homeopathic remedies are so diluted that all of the molecules of the original substance have been removed. Often, when you are taking a homeopathic remedy from a homeopathic specialist, you are literally taking nothing at all.

It can be quite comical to apply this to the real world. The commonly prescribed 30C dilution is so diluted for example, that a suffering patient would have to ingest all of the atoms in the solar system in order to be certain that they get even one full molecule of the original substance! In response, proponents have resorted to claiming things involving “water memory” and quantum mechanics. Hahnemann, who practiced before we could figure such things out with actual science, is off the hook for the lack of sense of this practice, but modern practitioners have been forced to hide behind blatant pseudoscience to support their practices.

It’s no wonder that homeopathy isn’t effective because its two core principles violate fundamental laws of physics and chemistry! Even without the piles of negative studies (too numerous to list here), which have wasted millions of dollars of taxpayer money, the plausibility of homeopathy is as close to zero as is allowed in science. Homeopathy is, when you think about it, belief in magic.

How has homeopathy evolved over the years?

Depending on where you live, you can still schedule a visit with a practicing homeopath and go through their lengthy process of figuring out what remedy best matches your complaints. In the United States, the vast majority of homeopathy happens in the form of over-the-counter products bought at the local pharmacy. Instead of an intense session where the ideal concoction is prescribed, parents can simply self-diagnose their child and pick up a corresponding treatment by just reading a package label.

There are hundreds of these products available for stressed out parents. They focus on common, and usually self-limited, concerns such as infant colic, teething, and cold symptoms to name just a few. All are equally unhelpful beyond placebo effects but are allowed to be labeled as effective because of a legal loophole protecting homeopathic remedies from regulation since the 1930s. Some may be safe if they’re made along the diluted framework mentioned above, and some may not be, depending on if a parent takes them into their own hands and attempts to concoct a remedy themselves. Above all, they’re not harmless, however. Anything that might lead to a delay in the appropriate evaluation of an ill child can result in a bad outcome.

*Editor disclaimer: natural supplements and cures such as using peppermint for stomach upsets, or eating more vitamin-rich foods for certain types of anemia, as recommended by your M.D. or D.O. is not the same as “herbal remedies” purporting to cure ailments that require medical supervision, attention, or intervention.

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Categories: Science 101 + Mythbusting