Homeopathy is a system of natural medicine developed by doctor and chemist Samuel Hahnemann over 200 years ago. It is based on the ‘law of similars’, which states ‘let likes cure likes’. This principle was first described in 400 BC by Hippocrates, the father of medicine.
Homeopathy is the leading form of complementary medicine in Europe. In India, it is the sole form of medicine for over 100 million people.
Much of the clinical research on homeopathy that has been published in medical journals has shown positive results. As well as these clinical trials, many basic science studies confirm the biological activity of homeopathic medicines. Perhaps, most importantly, for over 200 years, health professionals and their patients throughout the world have consistently experienced and documented positive therapeutic effects from homeopathic medicines without the numerous side effects associated with conventional drug treatments.
Like many types of medicine, we don’t fully understand how homeopathy works. This has led to some people questioning homeopathy because despite its widespread use, it has long been controversial because of the perception of a conflict between the similiars principle and established scientific principles. Recently, the body of scientific evidence for homeopathy has grown, with increasing information supporting homeopathy’s effectiveness and new studies are beginning to solve the mystery of how homeopathy exerts its biological effects.
How does the law of similars work?
The law of similars states that a substance which can produce symptoms in a healthy person can be used in very small amounts to treat similar symptoms in a sick person. With this approach, homeopathy uses nanodoses (extremely small, but effective doses) of mostly natural substances which are traditionally thought to work with the body, stimulating its own healing abilities and starting the body’s process of recovering from illness.
An example of this principle can be found in the relationship between coffee and insomnia. We know that drinking coffee can over-stimulate the nervous system and cause insomnia. However, a traditional homeopathic preparation of coffee can be used to help relieve insomnia. In a similar way, homeopathic preparations of grasses or pollens may be used to relieve symptoms of hayfever.
How are homeopathic medicines made?
Homeopathic medicines are made by a specialised traditional process, called potentisation. This process, which is unique to homeopathy, involves a stepwise process of diluting and shaking active starting substances which reveals and enhances or ‘potentises’ their medicinal effects.
One part of a therapeutically active substance is diluted in either 10 or 100 parts of a water and alcohol solution. The total amount of alcohol in a dose of any homeopathic medicine is very small and does not affect blood alcohol levels when taken as directed. The diluted solution is then vigorously shaken 30 or more times — a process called succussion. The dilution and succussion process is repeated many times resulting in a nanodose of the original active substance remaining in the medicine and the desired potency is achieved. In the homeopathic tradition, the medicinal effectiveness of the potency results from the sequence of dilutions and succussions rather than from the final dilution, thus the potency is more than just a simple dilution.
This potentisation process was discovered and documented by Samuel Hahnemann as a refinement of the law of similars. Potentisation was designed to enhance the medicinal effects of a starting substance while minimising its side effects. Samuel Hahnemann’s system of homeopathy was based on scientific thinking and accurate documentation of remedies and symptoms, but Hahnemann himself stated that while he could observe the therapeutic effects, he could not fully explain the working mechanism.
How do these very dilute substances actually work?
Although it may be realised that dilution and succussion eventually results in nothing that remains of the original active substance, two centuries of worldwide clinical experience with homeopathic medicines would appear to tell us that something very different is happening. Professor Luc Montagnier, the French virologist who won the Nobel Prize in 2008 for discovering the AIDS virus, recently published research that confirms that the high dilutions used in homeopathy result in modifications to the water’s structure, which mimics the original molecules used to make the medicines. This research has indicated that electromagnetic signals of the original medicines remain in the water and are still able to give rise to biological effects. With more research continuing in this area, it is likely that we will gradually gain a more precise understanding of how homeopathic medicines act as a starting point for the body to begin healing.
The world-wide use and popularity of homeopathy
Homeopathy is established worldwide as a medical system and is used by millions of people in at least 65 different countries. In many countries, homeopathy is considered to be on an equal footing with conventional medicine. Homeopathy is integrated into the public health systems of many European, Asian, African and South American countries. In the UK, homeopathy has been supported by the British National Health Service (NHS) since it began in 1948.
Homeopathic medicine is a long-standing European therapeutic tradition and the leading complementary medicine in Europe. Today, three out of four Europeans are familiar with homeopathy and about 29 per cent of the population, or 100 million people use it for their own health care.5 Homeopathy is especially popular in France, where a 2004 survey found that 62 per cent of French mothers had used homeopathic medicines in the previous year.6 Homeopathy is taught in at least seven French medical schools and in 21 of France’s 24 schools of pharmacy.
In India, over 100 million people use homeopathy as their only form of medical care.7 A 2007 survey in India found that 62 per cent of current homeopathy users have never tried conventional medicines and 82 per cent of these people would not change to using conventional treatments.8
Many highly respected people, cultural heroes and monarchs over the past 200 years have been strong advocates of homeopathy. This system of medicine has been the choice of the British Royal Family and most European royal families, eleven U.S. Presidents, six popes, JD Rockefeller, Charles Darwin, Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi as well as dozens of authors, corporate leaders, sports stars and musicians.9
It is clear that to fully evaluate homeopathy, it is important to look at the complete body of evidence that has allowed homeopathy to exist and grow for over 200 years: this includes clinical results recorded by doctors and their patients, enormous worldwide use, incorporation into public health systems, and the positive results of many basic science studies, controlled clinical trials and meta-analyses of clinical trials.
- Enserink M. Newsmaker Interview: Luc Montagnier, ‘French Nobelist Escapes “Intellectual Terror” to Pursue Radical Ideas in China’. Science; 24 December 2010: Vol. 330 no. 6012 p. 1732. DOI: 10.1126/science.330.6012.1732
- Jonas WB, Kaptchuk TJ, Linde K. ‘A Critical Overview of Homeopathy’. Annals in Internal Medicine; 4 March, 2003:138:393-399.
- Linde K, Clausius N, Ramirez G, et al. ‘Are the Clinical Effects of Homoeopathy Placebo Effects? A Meta-analysis of Placebo-Controlled Trials’. Lancet; 20 September, 1997, 350:834-843.
- Kleijnen J, Knipschild P, ter Riet G. ‘Clinical trials of homoeopathy’. British Medical Journal; February 9, 1991, 302:316-323.
- Ullman Dana. Homeopathic Family Medicine: Evidence Based Nanopharmacology. An ebook. www.homeopathic.com/ebook
- M. Weiser, W. Strosser, P. Klein. ‘Homeopathic vs. Conventional Treatment of Vertigo: A Randomized Double-blind Controlled Clinical Trial’. Archives of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery; August, 1998, 124:879-885.
- Bornhöft G, Wolf U, Ammon K, Righetti M, Maxion-Bergemann S, Baumgartner S, Thurneysen AE, Matthiessen PF. ‘Effectiveness, safety and cost-effectiveness of homeopathy in general practice — summarized health technology assessment’. Forsch Komplementarmed; 2006, 13 Suppl 2: 19-29 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16883077
- Bornhoft, Gudrun, and Matthiessen, Peter F. Homeopathy in Healthcare: Effectiveness, Appropriateness, Safety, Costs. Goslar, Germany: Springer; 2011. http://rd.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-642-20638-2/page/1
- Shaw D (2012). The Swiss report on homeopathy: a case study of research misconduct. Swiss Med Wkly 142: w13594.
- Commission Report to the European Parliament and Council on the Application of Directives 92/73/EEC and 92/74/EEC, Brussels Com (97) 362 final.
- Transactions, Nutrition Business Journal; 7 July 2004.
- Prasad R. ‘Homoeopathy booming in India’. Lancet; 370: 17 November 2007, 1679-80.
- ‘A C Neilsen survey backs homeopathy benefits’. Business Standard; 4 September 2007. http://www.business-standard.com/india/news/a-c-nielsen-survey-backs-homeopathy-benefits/295891/
- Ullman Dana. The Homeopathic Revolution: Why Famous People and Cultural Heroes Choose Homeopathy. Berkeley: North Atlantic; 2007.