Last week I mentioned that stress caused my skin to go crazy. Not fun! I was itching SO BADLY that I spent an entire day surfing the net for potential remedies. I found several sites on homeopathy and how apis (bee poison) and urens urtica (stinging nettle) can be used to cure it, so when my local crunchy grocer happened to have urens urtica, I picked some up to try. This got me researching homeopathy because truth be told, other than its status as an alternative therapy that I assumed was like using herbal remedies and related to Traditional Chinese Medicine medicine, I knew nothing about it.
Turned out, even what little I thought I knew was wrong. I was so surprised by what I found, I decided to write about it.
Homeopathy was developed in 1796 by a German doctor named Samuel Hahnemann. Their founding principle, however, which is “Like cures like,” (I’ll explain what that means in a minute) was stated by the Greek physician Hippocrates–as in “Hippocratic Oath”–in the 4th or 5th Century BC. Homeopathic remedies take something that would, in a healthy person, be a low level toxin (like stinging nettle) and introduce it to an unhealthy person to stimulate their body to heal. A doctor selects the remedy based both on the principle of like curing like disease (stinging nettle causes rash, so stinging nettle will cure rash) and also on finding a medicine that is similar to the patient. Here’s a vignette about a homeopathic doctor who used apis, a remedy made from crushed up whole bees or bee poison, to cure hives on a woman. The woman’s life and personality reminded the doctor of a bee, and so she chose apis over urens urtica (stinging nettle) or some other rash remedy.
The second principle is “minimum dose.” Hahnemann realized that by using full strength remedies (which are often toxic), side effects could be a big problem for the patient. So he developed a process of dilution and agitation, called dynamisation or potentisation, that is performed repeatedly based on a scale he created called “C scale.” A remedy sold at 1C would have been diluted by a factor of 100, i.e. 1% original substance, 99% solution (usually alcohol or distilled water). At approximately 13C, nothing remains of the original substance on a molecular level–i.e. if you looked at it with a microscope strong enough to see molecules, you wouldn’t find any of the original substance. Contrary to most medicinal practices, in homeopathic theory, the more diluted a remedy is, the more potent it is considered. Hahnemann recommended 30C as the normal dilution for most remedies. According to The Sage (Wikipedia), purveyor of at least some truth, a 30C dilution would require giving “2 billion doses per second to 6 billion people for 4 billion years to deliver a single molecule of the original material.” I’m not sure where The Sage came up with those numbers, but regardless of their complete accuracy, by the time you’ve diluted something 10−60 times, there’s not much nothing left. Homeopaths believe the essential property of the remedy remains, even if the substance is, chemically, no longer in the remedy. Hahnemann claimed the original substance left behind a “spirit-like” healing force in the dilution.
Regardless of whether or not you buy into dynamisation, it is important to read the ingredients of a homeopathic remedy. The dilution is dropped onto a carrier pill and evaporates, meaning the majority of what you’re consuming is not the substance labeled on the top but the carrier pill. My remedy contained (was composed entirely of?) sucrose and lactose, which may cause problems for people avoiding sugar or dairy.
Another thing to watch out for is the presence of toxicity class 1 ingredients. While stinging nettle is actually edible (boiling the leaves removes the toxin and then it can be eaten like greens), other homeopathic remedies start with more toxic substances–such as petroleum, belladonna, sulphur and arsenic. By the time dynamism has run it’s course–provided it’s been diluted to 13C or greater–the toxicity level shouldn’t be a danger as the original substance is no longer in it. But some homeopathic remedies are created on a lower dilution scale. With names that are not always apparent (Lachesis is the homeopathic term for snake venom), I would advise people to do their research before taking a remedy. Know what you’re getting before you ingest an unknown amount of an unknown substance!
FWIW, I often get frustrated with modern medicine and think complimentary medicine is a fantastic resource. I do yoga (not often enough, but I do believe in its power), I’m into herbal healing, I’ve tried acupuncture (and would again if it cost less), and I totally believe in diet therapy. Basically, I’m into alternative medicine. I firmly believe that just because science hasn’t figured out why something works, doesn’t mean it cannot work. On the other hand, a lot of bad medical practices have happened in the past because doctors didn’t understand why something (like bloodletting) worked and then applied it indiscriminately.
One of the foundational moments for homeopathy was based around Cinchona bark, a natural remedy for malaria used in the 1700s. Hahnemann ingested some and developed fever-like symptoms. From this he built his theory that like cures like. But Cinchona bark doesn’t cure malaria because it can induce fevers (in fact, it doesn’t induce fevers in most people; it appears that Hahnemann was allergic to it!). It cures malaria because it naturally contains quinine, a malarial cure still in use today. Hahnemann seems like he was a serious doctor, deeply devoted to his patients and to medical progress at a time when the medical industry was a struggling to do anything useful. He tried his remedies out on himself and his family, attempting “clinical trials” at a time when most other doctors were bleeding their patients and handing out potions of dubious nature. I give him credit for these things and for working hard to further a field that had oh-so-far to go. But after my research, I don’t find his theories probable.
For further reading, The Society of Homeopaths explains homeopathy and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine discusses the lack of evidence and scientific basis. Anyone out there have any experience with homeopathy? Pro or con is great with me–just keep it civil in the realm! As for me, I think I’m going to spend my limited budget on traditional herbal remedies instead.
~ Featured Image: vials in a frame at a Homeopathic pharmacy Varanasi Benares India by Jorge Royan