Homeopathy: How 200-year-old junk science created junk medicine and lasted until this day
Not too long ago, homeopathic formulas were only sold in health food stores. You might have seen them: Little blue vials with tiny little pills in them. You might have thought good things come in small packages. Then homeopathy hit the mainstream, and became available in just about every drugstore. One of its biggest selling points is the lack of side effects, the way it works naturally with your body, how clinically effective it is. The lack of side effects is true enough—because there are no effects, other than placebo ones. A recent study out of Australia definitively stated that homeopathy is not an effective treatment for any medical condition.
After reviewing 225 research papers on homeopathy, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has seemingly closed the case for using homeopathic treatments. Although not, it appears for everyone. Those “medicines” are still on the shelves, and there are still people who swear by them. And there are still more people who think that the debunking of homeopathy is likely some plot.
The foundation for the “science” of homeopathy is so bizarre it bears closer examination. The idea is that you treat a disease by ingesting tiny amounts of a substance that in larger amounts will cause those very symptoms. For instance, if you are trying to treat sleeplessness, you might try a homeopathic agent composed of tiny dilutions of coffee or a coffee-like substance. Homeopaths refer to this as treating “like with like,” also known as the law of similars. Samuel Hahnemann, a German doctor, founded homeopathy over 200 years ago. His goal was noble enough; he was searching for a way to treat patients less harshly than the treatments of his day, which often included bloodletting, leeching, purging, and harsh poisons like arsenic. He believed that disease was actually an itch, a disturbance in the ability of the body to heal itself, a suppressed “evil spirit” he called psora.
Hahnemann and his followers conducted what they called provings. They administered substances to healthy patients, including themselves, and observed the patients over time. These observations were compiled into a book of “provings” called the materia medica, still the basis for homeopathic treatment today. The “provings” do not match substance to disease. That is left to the homeopath to decide, after talking to the patient and discussing the symptoms. Here’s the first clue to homeopathy’s weak foundation: there is no scientific testing of substance to disease, only these so-called provings, observations of a person after taking a substance.
So, for instance, a healthy individual might be given some homeopathic agent and then be observed over the course of a specific amount of time. During that time, the person might sneeze, catch a cold, become gassy. That observation is now part of the proving. There is no scientific way to match those observed symptoms to the substance other than they happened after the substance was ingested, but now, when the homeopath consults his or her materia medica, that proving is the possible basis for treating a disease. Pretty random.
Since the substances Hahnemann gave his patients were often toxic, he began to dilute them more and more, and as he did, he found that they were supposedly more effective in smaller and smaller doses. This became his “law of infinitesimals.” The more diluted the dose, the more powerful the result. Given there is no modern science behind homeopathy, no controlled patient studies, there is no way to know for sure whether or why Hahnemann’s patients seemed to improve after homeopathic dosing. Likely it was what we now know as the placebo effect, where the mind can trick the body into recovering, or perhaps it was simple recovery on its own merits (most doctors today will agree that many, even most, non-life threatening diseases will eventually improve on their own with little or no treatment).
In any case, because homeopathy was preferable to being leeched, bled or otherwise medievally assaulted, it caught on. At its height in America, there were over 14,000 homeopathic physicians and 22 schools teaching the practice. As the 20th century progressed, however, and science found far more effective means to treat disease, the practice waned, with the last school closing in the 1920s.
Homeopaths not only treat patients by matching up their symptoms to substances causing similar symptoms, but also by taking into account their “type.” Are they nervous types, are they aggressive types, do they have blond hair? Brown eyes? Are they independent? Romantic? Etc. All these factors go into finding the right homeopathic medicine for the patient. In today’s world it is hard to see how a person’s eye or hair color will affect their response to a medicine.
Then there is the matter of dilution. Hahnemann thought that the smaller the dose, the more effective the response. So he diluted. Then he “succussed” the dilution (shook it vigorously, which he believed increased the effectiveness of the dilution). And diluted. And succussed. And diluted. And succussed. Most homeopathic remedies are diluted between 6X (1 part per 1,000,000) and 30X (1 part per 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000). To get even one theoretical molecule of substance in a 30X remedy, you would need to down 2 billion pills. Some remedies are diluted as high as 30C (1 part per 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000). To put it in perspective, a 30X dilution would be the equivalent of one drop of medicine placed into a container of water 50 times the size of the Earth. A 30C dilution would mean 1 drop in a container 30 billion times the size of the Earth.
There is a component in chemistry called Avogadro’s number, which basically says that after a certain number of dilutions, there is nothing left of the original substance. Not one molecule. Hahnemann’s way around this? He theorized that by succussing the medicine after diluting, the water took on the “memory” of the substance. So, when we consume a homeopathic remedy, we are getting tiny little sugar pills with nothing else in them, just the “memory” of a substance long diluted out of it. Not really explained is how the water knows to take on the memory of the homeopathic substance, and not the memory of a dust mote, or any other number of molecules, viruses, bacteria, skin cells, etc. that are impossible to separate from the water.
A popular cold and flu remedy these days is the homeopathic product Oscillococcinum. This product is prepared using, believe it or not, duck liver and duck heart. The dilution for Oscillococcinum is 200C. This would mean 1 part per 1-followed by 400 zeroes. Ducks need not fear extinction due to this popular medicine, since, at this extreme dilution, only one duck liver per year is needed to produce this multimillion-dollar selling product.
“It’s not fair to advertise something as having a physiological or medical effect when it is simply a gram of sugar,” says Paul Offit, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, in a video posted on the website Medscape. When challenged by the makers of Oscillococcinum, citing clinical tests showing its efficacy, Dr. Offit responded, “When studies are performed that supposedly show a difference between Oscillococcinum and placebo, one is faced with the question of how 1 gram of sugar can have a clinical effect that is detectably different from 1 gram of sugar (placebo). Although there are many things in nature that we don’t yet understand, the chemistry of water isn’t one of them. And the structure of water does not change because there was at one time the heart and liver of a Burberry duck somewhere in its distant past. (Frankly, given that there is a limited amount of water on earth, you don’t want to know where it’s been.). I would challenge the makers of Oscillococcinum to submit their product to independent chemical testing. If it contains something other than 1 gram of sugar—and preferably something that one could imagine would have an effect on flu-like symptoms—I will change my stance.”
Dr. Offit’s challenge was not accepted.
As the NHMRC report has shown, there have been no reasonable scientific studies of homeopathic medicines that have borne out any of its claims. Studies that have been pointed to by homeopaths as proving their effectiveness have invariably been scientifically flawed. The Food and Drug Administration has not recognized any homeopathic medicine as “safe and effective.”
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, states on its website: “Most rigorous clinical trials and systematic analyses of the research on homeopathy have concluded that there is little evidence to support homeopathy as an effective treatment for any specific condition.”
Some people will swear that homeopathy has cured them or in some way improved their particular condition. The brain is a powerful organ, and the placebo effect is a real and often powerful process. If there is any medicinal value in homeopathy, it is that fact. Money spent on sugar pills is money spent to fool your mind into curing you. For real medicine, look to actual science to cure what ails you.