During the past few decades homeopathy has seen a resurgence. Most of us may not be aware, but we might have actually applied one of its core principles the morning (or afternoon) after an overly indulgent night on the town – a bit of the hair of the dog that bit you. Its proponents maintain that its merit lies well beyond this somewhat dubious domain, but many still disagree; some quite forcefully. Questions require answering it seems. Does the value of homeopathic medicine remain limited to dodgy hangover cures? Is it a medical peculiarity of the past that merits little more than occasional ridicule for its primitive nature? Or is it of utility? Is there more within this 250-year-old practice that awaits discovery?
A LITTLE HISTORY
The system of homeopathic medicine was founded by the German doctor Samuel Hahnemann (1755 – 1843). Hahnemann created homeopathy as an alternative to the medical approach of the period, which was unregulated, and often resulted in highly unpleasant and harmful side effects. The homeopathic approach is based on what is known as the “law of similars” or the notion that like can be cured with like, hence the origin of the name: “homeos” Greek for similar and “pathos” meaning suffering.
The notion of treating like with like can be traced to antiquity. As far back as 1500 B.C. attempts were made to identify similarities between remedies and the ailments they should cure. Hippocrates (470 – 367 B.C.) observed that certain manifestations of a disease are actually the body’s attempt to combat it. He highlighted the necessity of identifying both useful and harmful symptoms of a condition, so the former could be reinforced and the latter stemmed. Paracelsus (1494-1541) sustained a similar line of thought, “What may be harmful in our hands can be transformed into medicine.” This notion was not isolated to the western world. In ancient China, wearing the clothes of a person infected with small pox was considered an effective method of preventing the disease. Scabs taken from the infected were dried, ground, and stored for a year before being sniffed, also as a prophylactic.
Hahnemann further elaborated the idea and created a system through which it could be applied. Contrary to the orthodox or allopathic (allos = other, different) approach, he believed it was possible to cure symptoms in an ailing person using small quantities of substances that produce similar symptoms in a healthy individual.
The underlying idea is that homeopathic medicine stimulates an indirect self-healing reaction in the patient. This can be accomplished by “matching” substances that elicit symptoms similar to those brought on by the disease requiring treatment. The effects of quinine, for example, resemble the symptoms of malaria and the effects of arsenic resemble the symptoms of cholera. In order to identify the effects of these substances on the healthy, Hahnemann along with a number of willing followers tested the substances on themselves directly. The toxic substance would then be prepared as a medication, or a remedy as it is referred to in homeopathy, by heavy dilution and vigorous shaking (succussion).
A remedy could be effective in some patients but not in others. Depending on the symptoms manifested, previous medical conditions, as well as physical and psychological idiosyncrasies, some patients required an alternate remedy; others a combination of remedies. Consequently the individualization of treatment whatever the condition is central to the homeopathic approach as opposed to the orthodox method.
In most countries, with the possible exception of Germany, there was a mutual rejection between mainstream medicine and homeopathy. The orthodox opposition saw homeopathy as menacing. It called the principles of the current methods and thus the very method itself into question. Homeopathy advocated for the individualisation of treatment, which was enormously more time-consuming.
Apothecaries disapproved of Hahnemann’s prescriptions of single remedies as treatment as well as the fact that he did not propose multiple or repeat prescriptions. Put simply, his method was less lucrative than that of the orthodox doctor’s to whom they had grown accustomed. At times, not only would the apothecaries not correctly prepare his remedies, they would on occasion completely disregard his recommendations and provide his patients with other treatments. As a result, Hahnemann began to prepare and dispense his remedies himself, at the time an illegal act. Consequently, he was arrested in 1820 and forced to leave Leipzig, where he had been based.
In spite of such setbacks, his methods gained increasing support and the discipline continued to grow in the early 1800s. By the middle of the century homeopathy was well known in the majority of Europe, Russia, South America, the U.S., India, and Cuba. Homeopathic journals as well as entire faculties dedicated to homeopathy were established, in the universities of Boston and Michigan for example. Considering that the orthodox methods of the period bordered on the barbaric – the practice of bloodletting, either through the use of leeches or by cutting (often by a barber), as well as the use of mercury were widespread – it comes as no surprise that people sought other options.
The decline of homeopathy in the west began when the orthodox medical establishment began to get its act together. The development of anaesthesia, antibiotics, and painkillers as well as the progression in diagnostic and surgical techniques contributed enormously. The shift in influence, however, was not uniquely a result of such developments.
Both in Europe and the U.S., systematic efforts were made to stifle and discredit homeopathy. In 1846, two years after the American Institute of Homeopathy was founded, the American Medical Association was established; one of their key objectives – counter the spread of homeopathy. Consequently, measures such as refusing membership to homeopaths and expelling members that consulted homeopaths were enacted. Additionally, college rankings were also manipulated to ensure that universities with faculties teaching homeopathic medicine would receive lower rankings. By 1920 no universities in the U.S. taught homeopathy. The situation in Europe was fairly similar. A failed attempt by the French Royal Academy of Medicine to put a stop to the success of homeopathy in 1835 was followed a century later by the establishment of the Superior Council of Doctors (1940) an entity that refused to recognise the practice of homeopathy.
Adding to the external factors lined against the homeopathic approach, the discipline had begun to splinter following infighting amongst its practitioners. Areas of disagreement included the correct dilutions to use, the appropriate number of remedies, one or multiple, as well as the very basis of diagnosis; namely whether to treat a patient on the basis of the symptoms presented or the disease as a whole. Such inconsistencies made it difficult for physicians outside the field to learn the approach. As the proverb goes, a house divided cannot stand.
A LOT OF HOSTILITY
Presently, in Switzerland, Germany, France, and Italy the homeopathic approach is quite accepted. In other countries, such as the U.K. and the U.S., scientific acceptance is steadily growing, but still lacking. Despite this, the number of naysayers is still
Despite similarities to orthodox medical approaches, many in the scientific community consider homeopathy more akin to witchcraft than science. A key aspect in the current resistance to the use of homeopathic methods is the way in which homeopathic remedies are prepared. A central principle in homeopathy is that the more a substance used in a remedy is diluted, the less its toxicity and the greater its potency.
Many of those that oppose homeopathic medicine maintain that in ultrahigh dilutions, as they are referred to in homeopathy, the probability that a single molecule of the diluted substance is present at all in a remedy is extremely low. Accordingly, the fundamental notion regarding the negative relationship between the potency of a remedy and the quantity of the substance present following dilution is not possible; the final conclusion being effects that result from the administering of homeopathic remedies are nothing more than an ordinary placebo effect.
Without doubt, there can be no progress. Nonetheless, detractors within the scientific community that categorically shrug off any potential usefulness of homeopathy may perhaps be in the throes of some sort of collective memory loss. Homeopathic medicine has been highly successful in treating epidemic diseases such as Typhus, Cholera, and Scarlet Fever. To provide a clearer idea of the potential efficacy of the approach, during a Cholera outbreak in Leipzig during the 1800s, the death rate reported by orthodox practitioners was between 40-80%. That of homeopathic practitioners was 9%. More recently, in Buenos Aires during the mid 1950s, cases of polio were prevented following the administration of a homeopathic remedy to those that displayed initial symptoms.
Furthermore, the underlying logic is similar to one of the central tenets of immunology: a disease can be treated with its cause. A vaccine teaches the body to fight the real disease. It is not the vaccine itself that directly defends against the disease. Rather it stimulates an immune response in the body that leads to the production of the necessary defences. Similarly, although the exact mechanism is yet to be discovered, proponents maintain that homeopathy stimulates a natural healing process in the body. Specifically, in a manner that addresses the root of the disease, rather than simply eliminating symptoms as many orthodox medications tend to do.
Recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in homeopathy in Europe, Asia, and the U.S. The individuation of treatment and the fact that current orthodox methods do not provide all the answers are leading more and more patients to seek alternative solutions. However, a great deal of testing is still required. To further muddy the waters, studies that do exist often offer up conflicting results.
Simply discounting as quackery without proper examination that which does not adhere to current modes of thought is unbecoming of those that present themselves as proponents of progress. Despite the many advancements of modern medicine, it would be unfortunate to not even consider other alternatives that may complement and contribute to the furthering of scientific knowledge.