Holistic medicine is popular right now, and many people gravitate toward alternative treatments in the belief that they are gentler, more natural, or even more effective. Many people think that homeopathy is just another way of saying holistic. But homeopathy is really something quite specific, and it’s important to understand what it is—and it isn’t—before you spend money on it.
Disease Caused by Symptoms
Homeopathy was founded on the premise that symptoms cause disease rather than disease causing symptoms. It was established in 1796 by Samuel Hahnemann, before the discovery of the role of germs in disease and a very long time before scientists knew about DNA and the effects of mutations in causing or worsening diseases.
Hahnemann believed that what appears to be disease begins as no more than a collection of symptoms, and if you treat the symptoms, then the symptoms to not progress into an actual disease and the patient is cured. He also believed that the medicine of the day only suppressed symptoms, actually causing the disease it sought to cure.
The symptoms themselves were caused by miasmas. (The miasma theory was actually one of the most widely accepted theories of the cause of infectious disease at the time. It was later replaced with germ theory.)
Poison Cures—But Diluted Poison Cures Better
Furthermore, Hahnemann believed that the best way to treat a symptom was to give someone a drug that produced the same effects as the symptom if given to a healthy person. He believed that the fact that a substance causes vomiting in a healthy person was an indication that the same substance would cure vomiting if given to someone who had a stomach disease. He would have thought that poison ivy would be an ideal treatment for an itchy rash.
He began giving these remedies to his patients, and over time, he noticed that the less of the cure that he gave them, be more likely they were to recover. He believed that diluting the cures imbued them with a greater spiritual essence of the drug, and the more dilutions that a drug underwent, the more the “spirit-like medicinal powers” were coaxed from the “crude substances.” In fact, the levels of dilution that he considered the best were so extreme that an average dose of a homeopathic medicine would not contain a single molecule of the original cure. Hahnemann did not know about atoms when he was putting forward his theories, but his followers asserted that water has a memory of the substance that was once in it, and it was this memory that cured people, not the actual substance itself.
Later, people began selling homeopathic tablets in place of liquid cures. These are generally sugar pills or powders made with the homeopathic water, which was then evaporated off. The manufacturers maintain that the memory of the water is transferred to the pill as it evaporates.
What Homeopathic Remedies are Sold Today?
There are a number of remedies that are sold as unregulated supplements that carry a homeopathic label. Zicam and Cold-Eeze both have several ingredients (listed as inactive on the label) that are traditional homeopathic remedies. They also both have zinc in amounts that are too high for an actual homeopathic medicine.
If it’s homeopathic, why does it have so much zinc? Zinc has been shown in some studies to potentially shorten the duration of certain types of cold, and both companies are using the cover of “homeopathy” to sell an actual drug outside of the bounds of FDA’s regulations. Using drugs that haven’t been carefully tested can have serious consequences. Around 1,000 people permanently lost their senses of smell by using Zicam’s nasal spray before it was banned because of the toxic effect of the zinc.
AZO Pro-Biotic also uses two “inactive” homeopathic ingredients to get the homeopathic label and avoid regulation for their medical claims, while containing distinctly non-homeopathic levels of a “good” strain of intestinal bacteria. Probiotics have shown signs of reducing future yeast infections and in decreasing irritable bowel syndrome in some studies, so the actual cure in this case may work. The ingredients are also generally regarded as safe, so complications are very unlikely.
Hyland’s is the most well-known and widely distributed homeopathic company that follows actual homeopathic principles, though there are a number of others. The ingredients are most often stated to be diluted to 1 part per million (before the water is evaporated away), though occasionally up to 1 part per 10 followed by 400 zeroes is claimed. There is no name for this number. If for every atom on Earth, you had a planet the size of Earth, and then for every atom in all of those planets, you had another planet the size of Earth….well, then you would only be about five trillion trillion times away from having enough mass to dilute a single atom of the original substance. (This is physically possible because you can dilute the substance first to 1 part per 10,000, then you take one ten thousandth of the result and dilute it to 1 part per 10,000, repeating many times.)
Should You Take Homeopathic Medicine?
There are really two questions in that one. First, should you take unregulated drugs that use homeopathy to skirt FDA regulations? There is a fair chance that zinc might actually shorten some types of cold. It’s also certain that zinc use, following package instructions, has had life-long side effects. In contrast, the probiotics that are generally used in products like AZO are, at the worst, harmless, and some show possible benefits. If you have a “touchy” stomach after a bout of illness or after taking an antibiotic for a while, AZO could very well be worth a try. But if you choose to use a homeopathic drug with potentially pharmacologically active levels of ingredients, you should seriously consider whether potential risks are worth the potential benefit.
Second, should you take genuine homeopathic treatments? It depends on whether you believe in the reasoning behind the cures. If you believe that homeopathy’s theory of disease and cures are correct, then it would make sense for you to take a homeopathic treatment. If you have an interest in holistic medicine but don’t think that homeopathy can be true, then you have no reason to believe that a homeopathic cure can have any positive effect. With genuine homeopathic remedies diluted to 1 part in a million or fewer, the chances of negative side effects are vanishingly low.