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We always used homeopathic teething remedies for our kids, and they certainly seemed to help. But outside of teething, many people don’t understand the wider range of homeopathic remedies and wonder if they really work. And I can’t blame them… the truth is, homeopathic medicine is a little confusing! I did some research to get more clear on homeopathic remedies, what they are, and how they work.
I may not have 100% of the picture (because researchers don’t yet, either!) but combined with my own personal experience, I’m ready to weigh in.
What Is Homeopathy?
Many people think of homeopathy as an umbrella term for natural medicine. But homeopathy is its own unique therapeutic system.
Homeopathic remedies are made from natural substances such as plants and minerals. Some are made from animal products (like snake venom!). These remedies are diluted until there’s hardly any of the original material left. The more diluted the remedy is, the more potent it is thought to be.
Confused yet? I was! Read on…
History of Homeopathy
Homeopathy was created in 1796 by German physician Samuel Hahnemann. The system is based on his doctrine that like cures like.
While translating medical texts, one passage piqued Hahnemann’s interest. It read that Peruvian bark was a remedy for malaria because of its bitter quality.
Hahnemann didn’t believe bitterness was why it worked, since other substances are also bitter. To understand Peruvian bark better Hahnemann took a dose of it. He then had symptoms similar to those of malaria. He reasoned that a substance that causes a certain symptom in a healthy person would also cure that symptom in an ill person.
He then spent his career doing “provings.” These are primitive studies where he and his colleagues gave various substances to healthy people and recorded the symptoms they caused. These recordings became the basis for what each substance could be used to cure.
Why Homeopathic Medicine Is So Popular
At the time Hahnemann was studying homeopathy, allopathic medicine was crude and ineffective. Bloodletting, purging, and using multiple drugs without knowing how they might interact was standard.
Homeopathy, on the other hand, was safe (due to the low dose) and focused on the patient as a whole instead of just pathology. This made it popular with many people.
And it continues to be popular, actually rising in popularity among educated middle-class people, for some of the same reasons. While anecdotal evidence is not as scientifically valuable as clinical studies, it’s still worth something. Many people swear by homeopathic medicine.
How Does Homeopathy Work?
Homeopathic remedies are labeled with their dilution potency. You may have seen homeopathic products with these labels:
- X (1:10 ratio)
- C (1:100 ratio)
- LM (1:50,000 ratio).
These potencies can be further altered by adding a number to represent how many times the remedy was diluted and succussed (shaken). For example, 6C means a remedy was diluted to 1:100 and then shaken and diluted to 1:100 six times.
As you can see, the remedies end up very diluted which homeopaths say makes them more potent. They are so diluted that they no longer contain the original substance.
It’s unclear exactly how homeopathic remedies work in the body. But there are some theories as to how homeopathy works. Here are two main theories:
- Water memory – The water that dilutes the remedy “remembers” the information from the original substance. This is supported by some research which found that a Raman and Ultra-Violet-Visible (UV-VIS) spectroscopy could distinguish between homeopathic remedies and even different dilutions
- Water structure – The structure of water changes when it’s diluted. Some research from South Korea found that there are larger clusters of molecules in diluted solution than in concentrated ones. This was an unexpected finding and may explain why homeopathic solutions that are heavily diluted are still potent (or more so).
Because we aren’t sure exactly how homeopathy works, it’s difficult for many people to believe it does.
Homeopathic Safety Guidelines
Homeopathic remedies are considered safe by much of the general population, but are they really? To monitor the growing number of homeopathic products on the market for everything from a cough to chronic illness, the FDA began a “Risk-Based Enforcement Approach” in 2016. This means some aspects of homeopathic remedies (but not all) are overseen by the FDA.
It is important to note that (according to FDA.gov):
There are no homeopathic drug products marketed in the United States that are FDA-approved. This means that FDA has not evaluated them for safety or effectiveness. Thus, such products may not meet modern standards for safety, effectiveness, and quality.
This puts the burden on the consumer to research the brand and their reputation carefully (always a good idea and the reason I have a day job!).
What Conventional Medicine Says About Homeopathy
Critics of homeopathy argue that it just doesn’t make sense, so it can’t be real. And it’s understandable. There is no clear mechanism of action that is commonly agreed upon and supported by science.
Homeopathy defies the basic laws of physics and chemistry. For example, the amount of dilution. At some point, a solution will be diluted enough so that none of the original substance remains. Many homeopathic remedies go beyond this point. They are essentially just water or alcohol.
Additionally, it’s commonly understood that more of a substance (not less) will create more of a reaction. Homeopathy says the opposite, that less is more.
The provings that Hahnemann performed as much as 200 years ago are also hard to take seriously. These studies were not controlled like quality studies today are.
Critics also say that homeopathy simply doesn’t work. There aren’t any significant medical studies that support homeopathic remedies. In fact, a systematic review of the systematic reviews conducted (yes, you read that correctly) found that homeopathy is not better than placebo.
It’s not hard to see why critics of homeopathy have strong feelings that it is nothing but quackery.
Why Homeopaths Disagree
Proponents of homeopathy disagree despite the damning evidence above. And they have a pretty good argument too.
Clinical Studies Not Reliable
According to an article from the University of Minnesota, clinical studies are not as valuable when studying homeopathy. Lab research looks at one ailment and one medication. Homeopathy never does a one-size-fits-all treatment. For example, people who suffer from joint pain would be lumped into a clinical study. But homeopathy sees each of these people (with the same symptom) individually. They all have different overall presentations, constitutions, levels of vital force, etc. They would then be treated with different homeopathic remedies.
Research that looks at this individualized “prescription” finds benefits in homeopathy. One 1989 study included only those patients whose homeopathic evaluation indicated the remedy Rhus Tox. It concluded that there was a significant improvement over placebo under those conditions.
Mechanism of Action
Critics say homeopathy is impossible. But proponents say that the mechanism of action is not impossible because the explanation for how homeopathy works is reliant on quantum physics, not basic (classical) physics.
If you know anything about quantum physics, you’ll know it’s bizarre (and fascinating). One of its cornerstone ideas is that one particle can be in two places at once. Quantum physics, in many ways, is impossible according to classical physics. Therefore, proponents of homeopathy believe that the mechanism of action is just not fully understood yet.
Additionally, they argue that the mechanism of action for some pharmaceuticals are also unknown, yet are prescribed anyway. According to Wikipedia, there are 67 medications with an unknown mechanism of action.
Dilution Does Not Make a Substance Less Beneficial
Homeopaths argue that there are many pharmaceuticals that work in a similar way to homeopathy, but no one says that those are quackery. Some pharmaceuticals have one effect at a small dose and the opposite effect at a large does as some research published in 2009 suggests.
Homeopathy Despite the Lack of Research
More tailored research is needed to know for sure if homeopathy really works, but that doesn’t stop people from using it anyway.
A Harvard study in 2016 (explained in this article) found that Americans who use homeopathic remedies see a benefit from homeopathic remedies. This is especially true if they see a homeopath for their remedies. But critics might argue that it’s a placebo effect.
Another point to weigh: according to this NBC article, 13 percent of doctors use antibiotics as placebos. Homeopathic remedies, even if they don’t work at all, are a placebo choice that at least won’t wreak havoc on the all-important gut microbiome.
Additionally, many people use homeopathic remedies as a last resort when other things aren’t working. Other times people use homeopathic remedies as part of a holistic natural health regime they come up with after deciding to avoid conventional treatments (like vaccines or chemotherapy). They have already made the choice to avoid those treatments (whether or not homeopathic remedies exist or work). Choosing to use homeopathic remedies is usually only one part of a holistic health regime.
Some critics think homeopathy is risky because it keeps people from using conventional treatments. But in this case, we should consider whether those people weren’t going to use conventional treatment anyway.
My Take on Homeopathic Remedies
We may not know for sure if homeopathy works until there is more research that looks at homeopathy as a system of medicine that can’t be measured the way conventional medicine can. In the meantime, there are a lot of strong opinions on both sides.
For minor ailments or where other treatments have failed, some people would say there’s nothing to lose in trying it.
As a mom of 6 children, I’m confronted daily with toothaches, growing pains, rashes, scrapes, stomachaches, and otherwise mysterious ailments. If I can give them something with a long established record of general safety to help them calm down, go to sleep, or feel better, I’m more than willing to do that!
My take on this topic as it currently stands is this: Even if we don’t understand everything about how homeopathics work, in my experience they seem to help. And science does show that placebos can have real physical effects if we believe they will. That being said, I did my research (and always recommend everyone does their own as well) and make sure to buy a quality brand.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Scott Soerries, MD, Family Physician and Medical Director of SteadyMD. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
What do you think? Does homeopathy work? What is your experience?
- Rao, M. L., Roy, R., Bell, I. R., & Hoover, R. (2007, July). The defining role of structure (including epitaxy) in the plausibility of homeopathy. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17678814
- Samal, S., & Geckeler, K. E. (2001, November 07). Unexpected solute aggregation in water on dilution. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12240122
- A systematic review of systematic reviews of homeopathy. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1874503/
- Is There Good Scientific Evidence for Homeopathy? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/explore-healing-practices/homeopathy/-there-good-scientific-evidence-homeopathy
- Effect of homeopathic treatment on fibrositis (primary fibromyalgia). (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1837216/
- Category:Drugs with unknown mechanisms of action. (2014, November 21). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Drugs_with_unknown_mechanisms_of_action
- Aspects of the Relationship Between Drug Dose and Drug Effect. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2695574/
- Harvard Study Has Good News for Homeopathic Medicine. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.integrativepractitioner.com/practice-management/news/harvard-study-has-good-news-for-homeopathic-medicine
- Half of U.S. doctors often prescribe placebos. (2008, October 23). Retrieved from http://www.nbcnews.com/id/27342269/ns/health-health_care/t/half-us-doctors-often-prescribe-placebos/