The alternative medical system of homeopathy was developed in Germany at the end of the 18th century.
Supporters of homeopathy point to two unconventional theories: “like cures like”—the notion that a disease can be cured by a substance that produces similar symptoms in healthy people; and “law of minimum dose”—the notion that the lower the dose of the medication, the greater its effectiveness. Many homeopathic remedies are so diluted that no molecules of the original substance remain.
Homeopathic remedies are derived from substances that come from plants, minerals, or animals, such as red onion, arnica (mountain herb), crushed whole bees, white arsenic, poison ivy, belladonna (deadly nightshade), and stinging nettle. Homeopathic remedies are often formulated as sugar pellets to be placed under the tongue; they may also be in other forms, such as ointments, gels, drops, creams, and tablets. Treatments are “individualized” or tailored to each person—it is not uncommon for different people with the same condition to receive different treatments.
How does homeopathy work?
Homeopathic remedies start with substances such as herbs, minerals, or animal products. These substances are first crushed and dissolved in a liquid — usually grain alcohol or lactose — mechanically shaken, then stored. This is the “mother tincture.” Homeopaths then dilute tinctures more with alcohol or lactose, either 1 part to 10 (written as “x”) or 1 part to 100 (written as “c”). These tinctures are shaken, yielding a 1x or 1c dilution. Homeopaths can further dilute these tinctures 2 times (2x or 2c), 3 times (3x or 3c), and so forth. Many times professional homeopaths will use much higher dilutions, because the more diluted the substance, the more potent its healing powers are thought to be.
Homeopathic remedies aim to stimulate the body’s own healing mechanisms. Homeopaths believe that any physical disease has a mental and emotional component. So a homeopathic diagnosis includes physical symptoms (such as feverishness), current emotional and psychological state (such as anxiety and restlessness), and the person’ s constitution. A person’ s constitution includes qualities related to creativity, initiative, persistence, concentration, physical sensitivities, and stamina. The right remedy for a condition will take all of these aspects into account, so each diagnosis and remedy is individualized. That means 3 people with hay fever could need 3 very different prescriptions.
What illnesses and conditions respond well?
Scientific evidence is mixed. In some clinical trials, homeopathy appeared to be no better than placebo. In other clinical studies, researchers believed they saw benefits from homeopathy. More controlled clinical research is needed.
Preliminary evidence shows that homeopathy may be helpful in treating childhood diarrhea, otitis media (ear infection), asthma, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, symptoms of menopause such as hot flashes, pain, allergies, upper respiratory tract infections, sore muscles, and colds and flu. Some professional homeopaths specialize in treating serious illnesses, such as cancer, mental illness, and autoimmune diseases. In fact, several studies suggest there may be a role for homeopathy in symptom relief and improving quality of life among cancer patients. You should not treat a life-threatening illness with homeopathy alone.
Homeopathic medicines, because they are diluted, generally don’ t have side effects. However, some people report feeling worse briefly after starting homeopathic remedies. Homeopaths interpret this as the body temporarily stimulating symptoms while it makes an effort to restore health. Homeopathic medicines are not known to interfere with conventional drugs.
Use in the United States in Human Medicine
According to the 2007 National Health Interview Survey, which included a comprehensive survey of the use of complementary health practices by Americans, an estimated 3.9 million adults and 910,000 children used homeopathy in the previous year. These estimates include use of over-the-counter products labeled as “homeopathic,” as well as visits with a homeopathic practitioner.
The Status of Homeopathy Research
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.
Homeopathy is a controversial topic in complementary medicine research. A number of the key concepts of homeopathy are not consistent with fundamental concepts of chemistry and physics. For example, it is not possible to explain in scientific terms how a remedy containing little or no active ingredient can have any effect. This, in turn, creates major challenges to rigorous clinical investigation of homeopathic remedies. For example, one cannot confirm that an extremely dilute remedy contains what is listed on the label, or develop objective measures that show effects of extremely dilute remedies in the human body.
Another research challenge is that 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.
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