Homeopathy is a natural health approach that uses extremely dilute solutions of natural substances to stimulate or encourage a person’s inherent healing responses. It is thought of as an energy medicine in that the remedies are believed to act upon the body’s energy fields to generate this healing.
Homeopathy traces its roots to at least 2,400 years ago when the Greek physician Hippocrates taught about an obscure principle called the law of similars. This principle holds that "like cures like" – that is, a substance that triggers a certain symptom of illness in a healthy person can also help alleviate that same symptom in a sick person.
This principle was re-discovered in the 1790s by the German physician Samuel Hahnemann. Through experimentation on himself, Hahnemann found that Peruvian bark, which contains quinine, a substance used to treat malaria, caused malaria-like symptoms if taken by a person who did not have the disease. Hahnemann found that other materials from plants, animals, and minerals could also cure the same symptoms they would cause.
Homeopathy was quite common on the American medical scene at the turn of the twentieth century, when about 15 percent of physicians were homeopaths(1). Its stature then diminished considerably with the tremendous advances in pharmaceutical drugs and technological medicine. In recent years, however, with the movement toward holistic, natural, and drug-free approaches to medicine, homeopathy has undergone a resurgence of public interest. Sales of homeopathic medicines over the counter in drug stores, supermarkets and health food stores have grown by more than 1,000 percent since the 1970s(2).
There are between one and two thousand homeopaths practicing in North America, including 500 MDs(3). A 1998 study estimated that 1.8 million Americans had visited a homeopathic practitioner in the preceeding 12 months(4).
Remedies. Homeopathic remedies are drawn from natural sources, including herbs, animal products, and minerals. "Succussing," a process of repeatedly diluting and agitating the substance in water or alcohol until only an extremely tiny portion of the original material remains produces the remedy. Remedies are usually administered in the form of drops or small pills that are dissolved under the tongue.
Homeopathic theory holds that a more dilute remedy will act longer, be more effective, and require fewer doses. Remedies can be diluted to such a degree that there may not even be any molecules of the original substance left in the solution. It is believed that the beneficial effects of the remedy are brought about by the subtle energetic qualities of the substance that remain, rather than by its chemical components. Thus, homeopathy is a form of energy medicine, not an approach in which remedies are based on their biochemical interactions. How the remedies work is not fully understood at this time. Practitioners have approximately 2000 remedies available from which to choose.
Key to classical homeopathic theory is the concept of individualization. Unlike conventional medicine, remedies are tailored to the individual, not just to the condition being treated. Thus, two children with, for example, asthma might receive two very different remedies.
The Vital Force. The vital force is believed to be the organizing, invigorating, life energy that keeps us healthy – a concept somewhat similar to "Qi" in Chinese medicine, or "prana" in Indian Ayurveda. Western medical science has no parallel concept. One of the theories of homeopathic medicine is that the energetic characteristics of the remedies influence the vital force, stimulating or prompting it to restore harmony and balance among all the systems within the body, thereby eliminating symptoms naturally.
Antidotes. In homeopathic medicine, antidotes are substances whose energetic qualities are thought to destroy the beneficial action of a remedy. Examples are coffee, camphor, mint and other strong tastes or scents, many prescription or recreational drugs, electric blankets, and even the drilling done during a dental procedure.
Homeopathic remedies have been studied in clinical trials with animals as well as humans. In fact, homeopathy is used widely in veterinary medicine. Studies in humans have found beneficial effects for a variety of illnesses. For example, in a study of 487 patients with influenza, those treated with homeopathy were 70 percent more likely to recover within 48 hours than those who received a placebo(5). Similarly, in a study of acute diarrhea in 81 Nicaraguan children, those who received homeopathic remedies recovered significantly more quickly than did those given a placebo(6). And, of 28 patients with allergic asthma, those receiving homeopathy had significantly reduced symptoms and better respiratory functioning over the next eight weeks compared to those on placebo(7). While there are many studies indicating benefits of homeopathic medicine, there is some controversy as to the validity of the findings. A review of 89 controlled clinical trials concluded that patients given a homeopathic remedy were, on average, 2.45 times more likely to receive benefit than those who received a placebo(8). However, when stricter criteria for evaluating published studies are applied, evidence of homeopathy’s benefits becomes less convincing(9). Researchers continue their efforts to evaluate the contributions of this form of medicine.
What Are the Potential Uses of Homeopathy?
Homeopathy is most commonly used for acute or chronic illnesses, particularly in the earlier stages, or where there is not severe tissue damage. Migraine and other headache conditions, immune-related illnesses such as allergies, and autoimmune diseases are often treated successfully with homeopathy, as are many chronic viral and bacterial infections. Throughout its history, homeopathy has been regarded as particularly effective with children's ailments such as croup, acute diarrhea, bladder infections, teething problems, hyperactivity, some emotional disturbances, and even some behavior problems, though the latter may take many months of treatment to produce results.
While research findings in homeopathy for specific illnesses tend to be mixed, positive results have been found in some studies for the following(10):
Bacterial and viral infections
Digestive system disorders
Recovery after abdominal surgery
Pain or trauma
Duration and complications of delivery
Pain of dental procedures
Migraine and tension headaches
Who Practices Homeopathy and What is Their Training?
Most practitioners are licensed primary care providers, and the greatest number are MDs. Others include chiropractors, naturopaths, acupuncturists, nurses, nurse practitioners, physician's assistants, pharmacists, dentists, and veterinarians.
In the United States, there are also "lay homeopaths" – unlicensed practitioners who have taken training in homeopathy. Many have spent a great deal of time and effort to learn homeopathy, and are highly skilled. However, they are not medically qualified to diagnose or treat disease. They function in the role of consultants and educators, rather than practitioners.
Homeopathy is taught in many conventional and naturopathic medical schools. There are also several independent homeopathic institutes and education programs, with varying lengths of training, which teach already-licensed health care providers as well as lay people. There is no single universally accepted credential for determining the skill level of a homeopath, however, passing the written and oral examinations administered by the Council for Homeopathic Certification is required for registration with the North American Society of Homeopaths.
In choosing a practitioner, you should inquire about the length of their training, where they received that training, and how long they have been practicing.
Is Homeopathy Safe?
Homeopathy is generally considered to be non-toxic and safe due to the extreme dilution of the remedies used. While some toxic substances, such as arsenic, cadmium, and mercury, are the basis of certain remedies, the dilutions are ordinarily so extreme that they cannot reach toxic levels in the body. However, there have been a few cases reported in which low dilutions – lower than would ordinarily be recommended – were used, and toxic levels were found. Low dilutions of some substances can also cause allergic reactions. As you would with any health care provider, always inform a homeopathic practitioner of any known allergies. There are no documented cases of homeopathic remedies interacting with drugs.
Finally, in some cases, the remedies can cause "homeopathic aggravation" – a "healing crisis" – in which symptoms are temporarily exacerbated before improvement is seen. This is viewed as a normal part of the healing process.
The primary contraindication to the use of homeopathy is that it should not be substituted for appropriate and effective conventional medical treatment of any serious or life-threatening condition. Consult a licensed health care provider, such as your primary care physician, before choosing this form of treatment.
What to Expect in a Practitioner’s Office
Some practitioners use homeopathy within the practice of conventional Western medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine, osteopathy, chiropractic, naturopathy, or Indian Ayurveda. In these cases, an office visit would entail whatever is routine in those traditions.
Others practice what is called "classical homeopathy." This involves an in-depth initial interview that may last from one to two hours. Its purpose is for the practitioner to get to know the patient on as many levels as possible — psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, as well as physically – in order to gain a clear enough picture to make a diagnosis and choose an appropriate remedy. Most practitioners of classical homeopathy choose to use only one remedy at a time, which will, theoretically, have a gradual yet broad impact on the patient’s entire set of symptoms. There are also those who practice "non-classical" homeopathy, who may prescribe more than one remedy at any given time. All practitioners have approximately 2,000 remedies available from which to choose, many of which are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.
Reference books and computer databases filled with descriptions of remedies assist the homeopathic practitioner. Many will refer to their computer screen during the initial interview for help in finding a remedy.
Typically, once a remedy is chosen and treatment begins, the patient will be evaluated again in six to eight weeks. If progress has occurred, no additional remedy is given, and the patient may be seen once more in four to six months. The challenge of selecting the right remedy is largely a matter of the skill and experience, and even the most skilled practitioners do not always get it right the first time. Often there is a period of trial of two or three remedies, and sometimes more, before the most effective one is found.
William Collinge, Ph.D., M.P.H.
1. Coulter H. Divided Legacy. Washington, DC: Wehawken, 1977, vol. 3
2. Herbal and homeopathic remedies: finally starting to reach middle America? OTC News and Market Report, July, 1991, pp. 223-38
3. American Institute of Homeopathy, 1585 Glencoe, Denver, Colorado 80220, 303/898-5477
4. Eisenberg DM, Davis RB, Ettner SL, Appel S, Wilkey S, Van Rompay M, Kessler RC. Trends in alternative medicine use in the United States, 1990-1997: results of a follow-up national survey. JAMA 1998 Nov 11;280(18):1569-75
5. Ferley JP et al. A controlled evaluation of a homeopathic preparation in the treatment of influenza-like syndromes. British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, 27:329-35 1989
6. Jacobs J, Jimenez LM, Gloyd SS, Gale JL, Crothers D. Treatment of acute childhood diarrhea with homeopathic medicine: a randomized clinical trial in Nicaragua. Pediatrics 1994 May;93(5):719-25
7. Reilly D, Taylor MA, Beattie NG et al. Is evidence for homeopathy reproducible? Lancet, December 10, 344(8937): 1601-6 1994
8. Linde K, Clausius N, Ramirez G et al. Are the clinical effects of homeopathy placebo effects? A meta-analysis of placebo-controlled trials. Lancet, 350:834-43 1997
9. Linde K, Melchart D. Randomized controlled trials of individualized homeopathy: a state-of-the-art review. J Altern Complement Med 1998 Winter;4(4):371-88
10. Jonas WB, Jacobs J. Healing with Homeopathy. New York, Warner Books, 1996.