Homeopathic medicine is a type of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). It involves treating people with highly diluted substances (usually in tablet form) to hopefully induce the body to naturally heal itself. Homeopathic medicines are called remedies by homeopaths. It is available on the NHS.
Homeopathy is a type of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). CAMs are treatments that are not based on conventional scientific theories. Other CAMS include:
- acupuncture – needles are placed in certain parts of the body
- chiropractic – physical manipulation of the spine and joints is used to try to relieve symptoms
- faith healing
The principles of homeopathy
Homeopathy was devised by a German doctor called Samuel Hahnemann during the 1790s. Hahnemann had a series of ideas that evolved into the principles of homeopathy.
Like cures like
The first idea was that a substance that would cause symptoms in a healthy person can be used to cure the same symptoms in someone who is ill. For example, if somebody has insomnia, they can be treated with a homeopathic remedy that contains extracts of coffee.
Homeopaths refer to this as the principle of ‘like cures like’.
Hahnemann’s second idea is that the more you dilute a substance, the more you increase its power to treat symptoms that it would otherwise cause.
Homeopaths refer to this as the principle of ‘potentisation’.
Succession and proving
Hahnemann stated that to be effective, the process of dilution had to be performed in a very specific manner.
For example, a substance such as the belladonna herb should be diluted in water or alcohol in a glass. The vessel is then shaken firmly 10 times.
Homeopaths believe that by shaking the vessel you can ‘imprint the healing energy of the medicinal substance throughout the body of water’.
The process of dilution and shaking is then repeated multiple times. Some homeopathic remedies are diluted by one drop in 100, and 30 times over (a 30C dilution). This process is known as succussion.
During the succussion process, a group of volunteers will take six doses of the remedy at different dilutions over the course of two days. They will record any mental or physical symptoms in a diary. Each person’s diary is then collated into a list of symptoms called a repertory. This process is known as ‘proving’.
Therefore, a homeopath will try to match your symptom to one that is caused by a remedy during the proving process.
What homeopathy is used for
Homeopaths believe that homeopathy can help with any condition that the body has the potential to self-repair. They suggest that homeopathy can be used to treat a wide range of acute and chronic medical conditions.
However, homeopaths say that homeopathy should not be used instead of conventional medical treatment, but alongside it.
Homeopaths do not treat serious problems, such as broken limbs, damaged joints or severe physical injury.
Serious, acute (severe), or potentially chronic (long-term), life-threatening conditions should not be treated with homeopathy. Examples of these sorts of conditions include:
- heart attack
- diabetic coma
- epileptic seizure
- asthma attack
Homeopathic remedies are also not recommended as an alternative to vaccination, such as the mumps, measles and rubella (MMR) vaccine.
Issues surrounding homeopathy
The dilution problem
Many critics of homeopathy have highlighted the fact that in most homeopathic remedies the original substance is diluted so much that none of its molecules are left in the remedy.
Homeopaths argue that the critics are missing the point of the succussion process. None of the original substance needs to remain because the succussion process somehow imprints a ‘memory’ of the substance into the water.
The claim that water has a memory is a controversial one, and it is rejected by most mainstream scientists. However, supporters of homeopathy have pointed out that an unusual effect which occurs at the sub-atomic level could explain how water could have a memory (sub-atomic is a term used to describe the smallest particles found in the universe, such as electrons and photons).
If you split a pair of sub-atomic particles, they will both fly off into separate directions. If you then interact with one of the particles in order to change how it moves (known as its quantum spin), the second particle will also change in the same way, even if both particles are millions of miles apart.
This is known as quantum entanglement, which the famous scientist Albert Einstein described as ‘spooky action at a distance’.
Some supporters of homeopathy have argued that a similar process takes place during succession. That is, sub-atomic particles inside the substance become entangled with sub-atomic particles in the water, and this gives water its memory.
However, there is currently no proof that quantum entanglement is involved in homeopathy.
Lack of clinical evidence
The second issue raised by many critics of homeopathy is the lack of conclusive clinical evidence from medical trials to show that homeopathy is effective.
For example, a study published in The Lancet in 2005 looked at more than 100 clinical trials and found no evidence that homeopathy worked any better than a placebo.
A placebo is the unusual psychological effect that sometimes occurs when a person is given a ‘dummy’ medication, such as a sugar pill. They feel better after taking the pill because they think that they are being given real medication.
Supporters of homeopathy have argued that most medical trials are run in a way that makes them inherently at odds with the way homeopathy works.
How medical trials work
In order to better understand this argument, it is useful to know how medical trials work. Most medical trials are what are known as double-blind randomised controls trials (RCTs).
In simple terms, if you wanted to test a new medication for migraines, you would sign up 200 people: 100 people would get an existing medication and the other 100 would get the new medication.
Neither those taking part in the trial, nor the researchers who are running the trial, would know who was getting the old medication or who was getting the new medication until after the trial had finished. This is known as ‘double-blinding’, and it is done to reduce the risk of bias.
For example, if the person running the trial knew who was being given which type of medication, they could deliberately choose people with less severe symptoms to receive the new medication as they are more likely to report that the medication is effective.
After the test groups have received their medication, the researchers use a standardised scale to record the pattern of everyone’s symptoms. For example, a scoring system could be set up where people get a point for every day that they do not have a migraine.
At the end of the trial, the scores are added up to determine which medication worked best.
To summarise, medical trials are:
- randomised – nobody knows who is getting what treatment until the trial has finished
- standardised – everyone receives a similar sort of treatment and their symptoms are recorded in the same way.
Homeopaths argue that the principles of standardisation and randomisation go against the principles of homeopathy as each patient requires an individual approach that has been specifically designed for their individual circumstances.
Availability of Homeopathy
Homeopathy on the NHS
Despite the lack of clinical evidence, homeopathy remains a popular complementary therapy and it is available on the NHS. In the UK, there are several NHS homeopathic hospitals. Some GP surgeries also offer homeopathic treatment. Homeopathy is also practised privately.
There are several associations for practitioners of homeopathy. They have a range of opinions on the integration of homeopathy with orthodox medicine.
Unlike doctors, nurses and other conventional healthcare professionals, homeopaths do not have to be registered with a regulatory body. The ‘Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council’ is a voluntary organisation that practitioners can register with, but they do not have to.
Homeopathy – Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homeopathy
The Society of Homeopaths
A membership organisation governed by a board of directors, who are homeopaths elected by members (as well as two non-homeopath experts).
The day to day work of the Society is undertaken by a team of staff who are mostly office based and homeopath consultants who mostly work from home and offer expertise in their fields, often from previous careers
The British Homeopathic Association
The BHA works to make homeopathy available for everyone through providing useful and factual information but also through supporting education and research.