Homeopathy: Like Cures Like
Homeopathy is a two-hundred-year-old system of medicine based on the principle of "like cures like." It uses extremely dilute preparations of natural substances to stimulate the body's self-healing mechanisms.
At the end of the eighteenth century, Dr. Samuel Hahnemann first formulated the principles of homeopathy. A well-known German physician, Hahnemann was disillusioned by the harmful medical practices of his day, and set out to find a gentler approach.
In the 1790s, Hahnemann undertook an experiment with Peruvian bark, the source of quinine, which is now used to treat malaria. Twice a day he gave himself a dose of quinine bark, and soon developed symptoms of malaria. When he stopped taking the bark, the symptoms went away. He theorized that the same substance, taken in smaller doses by someone suffering from malaria, might stimulate the body to fight the disease. Thus he developed the Principle of Similars, or "like cures like."
He then successfully experimented with other substances. He called his new system homeopathy, from the Greek words homeo (similar) and pathos (suffering or illness). Emphasis in homeopathy remains in the principle of "like cures like," and the belief that the body's own healing and regenerative capacity can be elicited to restore health.
For the remainder of his life, Hahnemann conducted experiments in which he gave common herbal and medicinal substances to healthy people to see what symptoms they produced. He also began testing his theory on sick people. Hahnemann's subjects sometimes experienced dramatic and uncomfortable symptoms, so he tried giving smaller and smaller doses, to find the smallest amount of a substance that still produced its characteristic effects. For sick people, Hahnemann found that highly diluted remedies were not only less harmful, but also more effective.
Hahnemann's gentle new approach to medicine quickly spread in Europe, and reached the United States in the 1820s. One of the main reasons for the popularity of homeopathy was its success in treating the devastating epidemics of the time. Death rates for some of these diseases were markedly lower among patients treated in homeopathic hospitals. According to contemporary homeopath Dana Ullman, author of Everybody's Guide to Homeopathic Medicine and other books, during an 1849 cholera epidemic in Cincinnati, only 3 percent of the patients treated homeopathically died, compared with 40 to 70 percent among those treated with conventional medicine.
Homeopathy's fortunes began to decline with the growth and political advances of organized allopathic medicine, and by 1930 homeopathy had all but disappeared in America. In Europe, however, homeopathy remained relatively popular. Since the 1970s there has been a revival of interest in homeopathy in the United States.
Homeopathy's underlying theoretical principles appear to contravene the principles of modern scientific medicine. It is largely for this reason that homeopathy is often attacked by the medical establishment. However, proponents of homeopathy sometimes point out that the principle of "like cures like" was the basis for the development of vaccines and allergy desensitization treatments. This analogy, though, is not really accurate, since the substances used in immunization and desensitization are identical or similar to the disease-causing agents, whereas homeopathic remedies are usually substances different from those that cause disease.
Hahnemann believed that homeopathic remedies operate by influencing what he called the "vital force," the organizing, animating principle that maintains health in a living system. There is no concept parallel to vital force in Western medicine, but it is somewhat similar to qi in Chinese medicine, or prana in Ayurveda. A properly selected homeopathic remedy is believed to provoke the vital force, so that the body's own healing power can produce the cure. Homeopaths believe that modern pharmacological medicine may actually interfere with the body's efforts to heal by artificially suppressing symptoms and weakening the vital force.
Today, the leading theoretician and clinical practitioner of homeopathy is George Vithoulkas, author of The Science of Homeopathy, who teaches homeopathy curriculum in Athens, Greece. Training at the Vithoulkas school is limited to conventional physicians and osteopaths only, resulting in clinicians who are well versed in both conventional and homeopathic medicine.
Homeopaths have some two thousand remedies, prepared from plants, herbs, animal products, minerals, and chemicals. Remedies are prepared through a process of repeated dilution.
Classical homeopathy is considered a complete medical system, capable of addressing a wide array of health problems. It can treat acute and chronic illnesses, especially in the earlier stages, before there is tissue damage. Migraines, allergies, autoimmune disorders, arthritis, and chronic viral and bacterial infections have all been reportedly treated successfully. Many lay people also consider homeopathy an excellent method for self-treating minor illnesses, such as flu and colds, and for stimulating general health. In the case of flu, a properly prescribed remedy, such as the popular Oscillococcinum, can provide relief within a few hours to a day or two. Homeopaths do caution that there is no one remedy for the annual varieties of flu, and that self-diagnosis and care are often ineffective. Chronic conditions generally require a longer time, perhaps from a few months to two years.
Homeopathic practitioners may use laboratory testing to help establish an allopathic diagnosis or to determine how severe an illness is. This can help to define expectations about the course of treatment. Clarification of the appropriate use of diagnostic laboratory procedures is reviewed in an excellent 1996 book, Healing with Homeopathy, by Dr. Wayne B. Jonas and Dr. Jennifer Jacobs. Laboratory testing is not a major part of homeopathic practice, since prescribing is based on a patient's detailed symptoms rather than on laboratory tests per se. Homeopaths use lab tests much less frequently than do allopaths. According to a survey by Jacobs in 1996 for the American Institute of Homeopathy, diagnostic testing was used among homeopaths less than half as much as by allopaths, 30 percent of the time as compared with 68.5 percent.
For clinicians practicing homeopathy, the two books widely recognized as among the most definitive modern texts are those published by homeopath and conventional physician Dr. Roger Morrison of the Hahnemann Medical Clinic. These books are the Desktop Guide to Keynotes and Confirmatory Symptoms, from 1993, followed by Desktop Companion to Physical Pathology, published in 1998 as a companion volume.
Homeopathy has always been considered particularly helpful for children. It is reported to resolve, gently and effectively, such problems as recurrent ear infections, colic, croup, diarrhea, bladder infections, teething pain, hyperactivity, emotional problems, and even learning disabilities. Children apparently respond very quickly, because their symptoms are often relatively simple and uncomplicated. Many parents prefer homeopathy, since pharmaceutical drugs can have unpredictable and long lasting, even toxic effects on children. Homeopathy is also a valued approach for treating health problems in pregnant women and nursing mothers, since they must avoid many pharmaceutical drugs that could be passed on to the infant.
Homeopaths warn patients about the possibility of canceling out the beneficial effects of a remedy with certain substances. These substances, called antidotes, vary with the individual but are thought to include coffee, camphor, mint, some prescription and recreational drugs, strong-tasting or -smelling substances, electric blankets, and dental anesthetics and drilling. Although coffee does appear to antidote or nullify the effects of homeopathic remedies in some cases, Dana Ullman has noted in The Consumer's Guide to Homeopathy that homeopathy is used widely and effectively in Europe despite the fact that Europeans have tended to drink strong, espresso coffee more frequently than in the United States until quite recently. Although various substances can antidote remedies, they do so quite rarely. Homeopathic physicians often advise patients to avoid these potential antidotes "just in case," especially during and immediately after treatment. Homeopaths disagree as to how great a danger there is of antidoting a remedy. Many believe that a properly selected remedy is less vulnerable to antidoting. Susceptibility to antidoting also varies from individual to individual.
Problems that homeopathy cannot address include broken bones and surgical emergencies, although homeopathy can help to speed the healing process. Genetic illnesses and diseases cannot be cured by homeopathy, and serious infections may require immediate antibiotic treatment, although homeopaths often report treating such infections successfully. Homeopathy cannot replace the insulin required by diabetics, but in some cases may help reduce certain diabetic complications. One of the greatest risks of homeopathy, in the eyes of critics, is that it may discourage a patient from seeking medical treatment.
Surely, the most controversial aspect of homeopathy is the claimed curative power of highly diluted homeopathic remedies. However, homeopaths are not particularly dismayed at the inability of science to demonstrate the postulated principle by which the remedies work. They point out that for many commonly prescribed allopathic drugs, including aspirin and some antibiotics, the mechanism of action remains equally unknown.
In 1990, Dr. Emilio Del Giudice, an Italian physicist, theorized that water molecules form structures that can store minute electromagnetic signals. This theory is bolstered by the findings of German biophysicist Dr. Wolfgang Ludwig, who has conducted preliminary research showing that homeopathic substances give off electromagnetic signals, indicating specific dominant frequencies in each homeopathic substance, according to physicist Dr. Beverly Rubik of Temple University in 1991. Using nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) imaging, a 1968 study demonstrated subatomic activity in twenty-three different homeopathic remedies, while such activity was not found in placebos. Similar NMR findings have been confirmed by Dr. J. L. Demangeat and colleagues in a series of 1992 studies.
Most recently, two research papers by physicist Dr. Shui-Yin Lo and his colleagues at the California Institute of Technology indicated that there are novel, stable structures which occur in water molecules at room temperature and under normal atmospheric pressure. These stable molecular forms occur in water containing "very dilute solutions" through a mechanism apparently similar to the formation of ice crystals at low temperatures. While such basic research is preliminary, it does suggest that a proposed mechanism of dilute remedies as residing in the "molecular memory" of the water molecule may ultimately have a basis in modern physics.
Most recently, several studies conducted in both immunology and chemical engineering at UCLA have replicated Dr. Lo's findings. These results are so new that they have only been reported at conferences and have not yet been published and subjected to peer review.
From THE BEST ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE: WHAT WORKS? WHAT DOES NOT? by Dr. Kenneth R. Pelletier.
Copyright © 2000 by Dr. Kenneth R. Pelletier, Inc.
Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, New York.
Unless otherwise indicated,
Dr. Kenneth R. Pelletier. All Rights Reserved.