By definition homeopathy is “the treatment of disease by minute doses of natural substances that in a healthy person would produce symptoms of disease.” (1) In other words, it’s an alternative medicinal practice that uses the smallest possible amount of an active ingredient in order to help treat or cure a disease, even if this same ingredient can contribute to an illness in the first place. Another way to put this concept: “like cures like”!
As of 2012, surveys showed that an estimated 5 million American adults and 1 million children used homeopathy in the previous year alone. Homeopathy dates back to the late 1700s, and today the World Health Organization recognizes it as “the second largest therapeutic system in use in the world.” (2)
Hundreds of different homeopathic remedies are now in existence. Homeopathic medicine comes from a range of natural substances, which can either be plant, mineral or animal-based. Examples of substances that a homeopathic doctor might use to treat a patient include: fresh or dried herbs, activated charcoal, vinegar, garlic, caffeine, mountain herbs, crushed bees, white arsenic, poison ivy and stinging nettle plants. These substances are extracted or processed in another way to create tablets, skin ointments, gels, drops or creams. (3)
What are some commonly-known homeopathic remedies you might recognize? St. John’s Wort, chamomile, calcium carbonate, potassium and silica, for example.
Homeopathic medicine is considered to be a safe practice and remedies have been regulated by the FDA since the late 1980s. (4) While there’s been much debate in the medical community over the years regarding whether or not homeopathic medicines work, many patients are able to find relief from illnesses like food or seasonal allergies, insomnia, fatigue and so on using very small doses of natural, safe homeopathic solutions.
How Homeopathy Works
Wondering why it would be beneficial to use homeopathic substances to help treat an illness or health problem if the same substance seems to also contribute to illness? The idea is that this practice helps stimulate the immune system and the body’s natural ability to heal. As the School Of Homeopathy states, “that which a substance is capable of causing, it is also capable of curing.” (5)
One of the most important principles of homeopathic medicine is that treatments must be “individualized” and tailored to each person’s specific symptoms, history, body and needs. Even if two people are battling the same illness, they can receive completely different commendations from their homeopathic doctors based on their unique situation and how their body would be expected to respond.
What makes homeopathy very different from conventional medicine is that a patient’s emotions and personality are highly important. It’s common for a homeopathic doctor to talk in depth with a patient about their stress levels, relationships, personal characteristics, family and so on. Patients respond differently to a range of doses of homeopathic medicines, some needing much higher doses than others based on their current situation. Homeopathic remedies — whether adaptogen herbs, minerals, medicinal mushrooms or animal products, for example — are diluted to a certain potency depending on the patient’s needs, and the goal is to always use the minimum dose possible that will still offer benefits.
In addition to interviewing the patient, lab tests are also commonly carried out to help the homeopathic doctor learn about the patient’s condition. However, lab tests are not the end-all-be-all: they are always viewed in light of the patient’s symptoms and self-reported. Compared to simply taking blood, urine, hormone or other tests and then prescribing standard medications, the homeopathic doctor’s goal is to learn about the patient’s entire experience and expectations in order to help “holistically” in the most effective way possible.
Here are some key facts about homeopathy and an overview of how this system works:
- Homeopathic doctors first evaluate a patient and identify symptoms of an illness in order to “match” them with a remedy. Symptoms are usually graded depending on their intensity and frequency, and then specific remedies are assigned.
- Because homeopathy is a “holistic” practice, the patient’s entire lifestyle, habits and background are considered. There’s a very strong emphasis on emotional symptoms and conditions that might be contributing to an illness. For example, homeopathy takes into account that emotional stress can trigger tension headaches and a lack of sleep can contribute to digestive issues.
- A core belief in homeopathy is that mental and emotional symptoms are so important that they even outweigh many physical symptoms. The reason for this belief is that someone’s personality, beliefs and mental/emotional symptoms are characteristic of the entire individual and affects their ability to heal.
- Many homeopathic remedies have names written in Latin (after their animal, mineral or plant source) and are assigned a number and ratio to describe how strong the solution is.
- It’s common for homeopathic medicines to be called “tinctures” or “mother tinctures,” which are simply solutions made from either grinding, distilling or extracting active ingredients in to some sort of carrier (usually either alcohol or water).
- Based on the number of “potentization steps” needed, a homeopathic remedy is diluted to a certain degree and assigned based on intensity of symptoms. Decimal potency numbers or ratios are given to each remedy, in order to state the ratio of active chemical ingredients in relation to either water or alcohol.
- In homeopathic medicine, there is an important distinction between “potency” and “strength” of a remedy. A remedy is not always considered to be stronger or better if it’s more potent, since each person’s reaction to a potency will be different.
- Many homeopathic substances are capable of causing toxicity, poisoning or negative reactions if taken in high enough doses (like mercury, arsenic or even snake venom, for example). Therefore, very low doses are usually administered — even doses so low that the substance itself if practically unidentifiable due to be being heavily diluted.
Who Benefits from Homeopathy the Most?
Homeopathy has been used most widely in patients suffering from: (6)
- migraines and tension headaches
- anxiety disorders
- dermatitis and other skin disorders
- thyroid or autoimmune disorders
- digestive problems like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Effectiveness of homeopathy: wondering if homeopathy really works?
- At least 142 trials have been published in scientific journals regarding homeopathy. The School of Homeopathy has found that up to 85 percent of random-controlled trials demonstrate that homeopathy is more effective than placebo. (7)
- There have been five meta-analyses reviewing homeopathy trials to date, including one that appeared in the European Journal of Clinical Pharmacology in 2005. (8) Four analyses showed that overall homeopathy worked better than placebos.
- A six-year study released in 2005 from Bristol Homeopathic Hospital reported that 70 percent of 6,500 follow-up patients experienced improvement in their health after receiving homeopathic treatments.
Some speculate that homeopathy medicines are so diluted with water that they are incapable of having any effects. However, these remedies have been used for centuries and decades of anecdotal evidence shows that many people’s symptoms do, in fact, improve after receiving homeopathic medicines. It is true that because homeopathic treatments address many aspects of a patient’s life (emotional health, personality, eating habits and medical history), it can be very hard to measure progress and improvements.
Studies that have been done investigating homeopathy’s effects have been mixed overall: Some show effectiveness and reductions in symptoms, but others do not. According to a report published by Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City, several challenges exist regarding studies of homeopathy. One challenge is that to date there haven’t been many long-term, well-controlled clinical trials conducted investigating the effects of homeopathic treatments. Because of this, many homeopathic doctors claim that there isn’t enough evidence to rule out these remedies’ effectiveness without more well-controlled studies. (9)
One theory that’s presented by homeopathic doctors in response to the claim that homeopathic remedies are too diluted to even work is this: Even when a homeopathic remedy is very low in strength, it’s still possible for even a slight amount of the active ingredient to remain present and to have an effect on the patient. Homeopathic experts point to studies showing that water molecules can take on a physical form where extremely small particles of an active chemical, gas or certain types of light can become embedded and have an effect on the patient. This theory has not been fully proven, but some studies using methods like microscopy and spectroscopy have shown that active ingredients do remain even after much dilution.
5 Benefits of Homeopathy
1. All Aspects of an Individual Patient Are Considered
Homeopathy does not view an illness as just a collection of symptoms, but rather a reaction to a unique patient’s situation. Homeopathy treats all symptoms experienced by a patient including those that are “spiritual, emotional, mental and physical.” This means homeopathic treatments take into account things like chronic stress and beliefs about one’s ability to get better, which we now know are hugely important for overall health.
2. Low Doses of Natural Products Are Used
Homeopathic remedies are not made using man-made drugs or chemicals, but rather made from things found in nature like trace minerals and herbs. They are normally used in very low doses, and are “gentle, subtle and powerful.” Compared to prescription drugs they carry a very low risk for addiction and only very rarely cause any negative side effects.
3. Helps Treat Allergies & Asthma
Homeopathic treatment are used to treat allergies and asthma in a very similar way to conventional treatments, by giving a patient a small amount of the same substances that causes their allergies to begin with.
In one study conducted by researchers at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, 80 percent of asthma patients who received customized, very small “homeopathic” doses experienced significant relief and improvements in symptoms within the first week of treatment. Patients were given very small doses of substances that they were allergic to in order to stimulate the body’s immune system and help them heal. Compared to the homeopathic group, the control group receiving a placebo only experienced improvements about 38 percent of the time. (10)
4. Can Help Reduce Anxiety & Depression
Homeopathy is often used along with traditional forms of psychotherapy, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, to help treat symptoms of mental disorders, including physical ailments. Many people with anxiety and depression experience problems like insomnia or trouble sleeping, fatigue, muscles aches, headaches and digestive upset. A homeopathic doctor addresses all symptoms associated with mental disorders, both physical and emotional, which can help a patient recover faster.
A 2006 meta-analysis done by the School of Integrated Health in London investigated homeopathy’s effectiveness for anxiety and found that “several observational studies reported positive results including high levels of patient satisfaction.” (11) However, these studies are not well-controlled and some lack randomization and a control group, which makes it hard for researchers to draw definitive conclusions.
Overall, surveys suggest that homeopathy is quite frequently used by people suffering from anxiety and offers many patients benefits with very little risk, but more qualitative studies are still needed to confirm this finding.
5. Helps Control Pain
Certain studies have found that people suffering from chronic pain can benefit from homeopathic treatments, without the need for risky procedures or medications.
One controlled, randomized prospective study involving 43 patients suffering from chronic lower back pain assessed symptoms at the beginning and end of an 18.5 month period. During the trial period, patients received homeopathic therapy based on their unique symptoms. The results were statistically evaluated and showed that at the end of treatment, many patients experienced a significant decrease in pain.
The conclusion of the study was that further research would need to be done to confirm these findings, but that “homeopathy was well accepted by most of the patients…nothing can be said against attempting treatment of chronic low back pain by means of homeopathy.” (12)
Homeopath Vs. Naturopath: How Are They Different?
Both homeopathy and naturopathy are complementary (or alternative) health care modalities that are practiced by thousands of trained practitioners around the world. Today “naturopathy” is used mostly as a broader, umbrella term for many different types of natural or holistic therapies, including: acupuncture and other Traditional Chinese Medicine practices, herbal medicine, massage, nutrition, Ayurveda and also homeopathy. (13)
Like homeopathy, naturopathy is based on using nature as a source of healing. The American Association of Naturopathic Physicians states that naturopathy “combines the wisdom of nature with the rigors of modern science”. (14) Naturopaths usually give their patients dietary advice, supplement recommendations and herbal medicines to try, sometimes along with prescription medications.
Some medical doctors choose to practice both conventional medicine and homeopathy or naturopathy simultaneously. Between the two practices, naturopaths are more likely to be qualified as medical doctors and considered “General Practitioners.” Qualifications differ from state to state, but most states require that naturopaths receive a four-year degree similar to one that would be obtained through medical school. Naturopathic physicians typically work in private practices, hospitals, clinics and community health centers.
Overall, these two modalities have a lot in common and tend to overlap, but naturopaths usually use many natural treatments in their practice, while homeopaths more commonly only use homeopathic medicines.
History of Homeopathy
The practice of homeopathy has been around for more than 200 years and is still practiced in one form or another in nearly every country on earth today. The creation of homeopathy dates back to a man named Samuel Hahnemann, who in 1796 used ideas originating from Ancient Greek medicinal practitioners to form his theory of homeopathic medicine.
His philosophy and practice were based on the idea that the body has the ability to heal itself naturally, and that symptoms are its way of showing a patient what’s wrong and going on internally. Homeopathy is, therefore, different than conventional medicine because it views symptoms of illness as normal responses from the body as it attempts to regain health.
Symptoms are viewed as “messengers” and are meant to be interpreted, in addition to being treated. At the time of his original work, Hahnemann didn’t base his theory on many scientific studies or facts, but rather on his own logic, observations of patients and reasoning. The laws of homeopathy originally devised by Hahnemann are still in use by homeopaths practicing around the world today.
How to Find a Good Homeopath
The American Institute of Homeopathy offers resources on their website that help connect patients to qualified practitioners. Doctors are listed by state along with contact information to make finding a doctor easy for patients. The National Center For Homeopathy (NCH) also offers similar resources. The NCH Practitioner Directory contains listings for professionals that practice homeopathy, which includes some doctors who exclusively practice homeopathy and others that use a combination of practices.
Always look for a reputable doctor and do your research. Keep in mind that self-identification with certain titles does not guarantee any scope of the practitioner’s license or that they have the right to prescribe medicines, make a diagnosis and treat all illnesses. You can choose to contact your state’s licensing board for particular information on homeopathic license requirements, training programs, qualifications and professional societies.
Precautions Regarding Homeopathy
Concerns with Homeopathy’s Effectiveness
Not every health expert agrees that homeopathy is safe or effective. What’s considered to be the most comprehensive review of homeopathic treatments ever conducted was published in 2005 in The Lancet, after researchers investigated dozens of studies and case reports regarding the practice’s effects. In the researchers’ opinions, their conclusion was that most of the benefits patients experienced from homeopathic treatments were likely due to placebo effects. In other words, because the patients believed they were getting better and were receiving substances that would help cure them, they wound up feeling better as a result of their own beliefs.
After the analysis an independent organization called The Cochrane collaboration examined much of the same medical research and also came up with the same conclusion as The Lancet. Today, the National Center For Complimentary & Integrative Medicine also states that “There is little evidence to support homeopathy as an effective treatment for any specific condition”. (15)
The choice will ultimately be up to you whether you choose to try a natural, holistic homeopathic approach to resolving symptoms. If you do decide to try homeopathy, you face little risk and stand a high chance of feeling better, as many have reported they do.
Potential Risks & Side Effects
Most homeopathic remedies are highly diluted and, therefore, very low-risk, but some might be mislabeled and problematic when used in high doses. Always read directions carefully and check for the species name of the active ingredients. It’s possible that certain homeopathic products may cause side effects or drug interactions, so if you take other prescriptions consider only taking remedies under the supervision of a doctor.
According to The U.S. Department of Health & Human Service, the biggest risk seems to come from taking remedies made with heavy metals like mercury or iron. Liquid homeopathic remedies can also contain alcohol and caffeine, so shouldn’t be taken by pregnant women or those with sensitivities unless under supervision. While homeopathic remedies are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the FDA does not evaluate the remedies for safety or effectiveness.
One thing to be aware of is that some homeopathic practitioners expect some of their patients to experience “homeopathic aggravation.” This is a temporary worsening of existing symptoms, that is usually goes away once the patient starts to heal. If you’re ever concerned that you’re having negative reactions, visit a doctor and talk about all medicines and supplements you’re taking.
Final Thoughts On Homeopathy
- Homeopathy dates back to the 18th century and is a holistic medicinal practice that uses low doses of natural substances to help improve the body’s natural healing abilities
- Patients suffering from arthritis, allergies, asthma, anxiety, depression and digestive issues might be able to find relief from visiting a homeopath
- Many clinical trials and studies have found that homeopathic remedies work better than placebos, but there are challenges regarding a high percentage of these studies and more research is still needed
- Overall the risk of homeopathic remedies is very low, as these substances are considered mostly safe, are easy to use and are non-addictive like many prescriptions
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