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The Good, Bad and Unknown of Homeopathy

By Russ Klettke

The medicines of ancient cultures—think Chinese acupuncture and Indian Ayurveda—have billions of modern-day patients. Each practice has proven some degree of efficacy over time, despite a great deal of skepticism in a modern world. Homeopathy, largely rejected in the United States, is a routine part of health care in dozens of European, Asian and South American countries.

So does homeopathy work? How does it work, and why don’t we use it more often in America?

Homeopathic medicine has roots stretching back to Hippocrates, but as a formal practice it largely derives from a German doctor, Samuel Hahnemann, who disagreed with the use of primitive and ineffective treatments of the late 18th century. At its core, the practice centers on the idea that the body is often able to heal itself of disease when the homeopath can address a root cause with a homeopathic remedy. In contrast, many of the medicines and surgical procedures of the conventional American healthcare system address symptoms alone, and with imperfect results.

The rise of antidepressant medications provides a good example. In the U.S., prescriptive antidepressants are taken by at least 27 million people, with good and bad outcomes and side effects. And yet studies show that these are taken with little more than a five-minute conversation with one’s physician. More than 200 million Americans take over-the-counter painkillers (aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, ketoprofen) for simple aches and pains—but more than 200 deaths per year are due to unintentional overuse or overdosing.

Both of those drug categories illustrate a stop-the-symptom approach that is anathema to homeopathic practitioners, who instead view symptoms as clues to underlying problems. The interaction between healthcare provider and patient in homeopathy illustrates how it works.

“A first visit with a patient will take two to three hours,” explains Dr. Richard Ezgur, a Chicago-based chiropractic physician and homeopath. “We take a very detailed look at the nature of a patient’s condition, spending time to ask questions that a conventional doctor doesn’t have.”

Homeopathic remedies
From that detailed examination, the homeopath will recommend a remedy (they aren’t called medications) for the patient to try. Remedies are highly diluted substances sourced from an animal, a mineral or a plant. Important to note, what works for one malady in person A may not work for the same condition in person B, so a trial-and-error process is sometimes required. That said, a remedy called arnica, derived from the daisy-like Mountain Arnica flower, is quite often taken to relieve sprains from over-exercise. Another remedy is apis mellifica, made of honeybee venom to treat bee stings and sore throats.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has regulated homeopathic medications since 1938, essentially putting them in the same category as over-the-counter drugs such as cough and cold medicines. They need to meet legal standards for strength, purity, quality and packaging, which includes listing the remedy’s ingredients, dilutions, safe-use instructions and indications (what health problems it may address). Review by the FDA is not to confirm efficacy, the degree to which the remedy works.

Despite scores of published studies indicating the effectiveness of specific homeopathy, it remains largely a backwater of the American healthcare system. Arguably, this may be due to the fact that homeopathy is relatively inexpensive compared to conventional (“allopathic”) medicine—which some say undercuts the profitability of doctors, pharmaceutical firms and hospitals.

Ezgur shares that he generally treats patients for whom allopathic medicines did not work. “Most patients I treat have significant, life-altering chronic conditions,” he says, however he also sees many athletes as part of his chiropractic practice (Ezgur often runs with Chicago FrontRunners and volunteers at AIDS walks). Quite often a patient will have anxiety and depression in conjunction with chronic pain, fatigue and sleep disorders. “Many of them are skeptical, but will try homeopathy because they don’t see other options.”

By treating the whole person for a primary condition (e.g., anxiety), Ezgur says multiple other symptoms diminish as well. “They get better globally,” he says. “We do not claim there is a single remedy to cure everything, but with something like anxiety it is a constitutional issue that can affect many other things.”

Integration with conventional medicine
Ezgur encourages his patients to apprise their allopathic doctors of their homeopathic treatment—as is commonplace in India, Germany and England (the primary physician to the British royal family is a homeopathic doctor). Remedies for depression, for example, often reduce or eliminate a patient’s need for prescriptive antidepressant medicines. But Ezgur can only advise the patient to speak with his or her doctor about making that reduction, as it is the province of the allopathic practitioner.

Homeopaths in the U.S. speak cautiously about where the practice can help people with serious, life-threatening diseases such as cancer and HIV. Typically, a remedy will be seen as a complementary or palliative strategy, such as to alleviate pain and depression while conventional medications are also used. But in India, where the cost of HIV medications is prohibitive, homeopathy is in widespread use to forestall the onset of AIDS. A 1998 study of 62 patients receiving homeopathic treatment alone revealed that 88 percent were asymptomatic 5 to 7 years after infection, 80 percent were able to gain weight and 78 percent had CD4 counts above 500. Subsequent studies—using randomized and double blind methodologies—have confirmed these and similar positive results.

So why so much controversy around homeopathy?
The use of honeybee venom to treat a bee sting neatly illustrates a fundamental principle of homeopathy, one that is not readily accepted in American culture. It is called the “law of similars,” where a remedy that creates symptoms similar to the disease is the cure. Another example is a remedy based on onions, which typically causes watery eyes and runny noses. In dilution, allium cepa (an onion derivative) is found to alleviate cold and hay fever symptoms. Each remedy reportedly triggers the body to heal itself.

The practice of homeopathy has been studied extensively, with scores of clinical research studies published in peer review journals. The British Homeopathic Association offers a comprehensive look at 142 randomized controlled trials at its website, with a summary of those studies as follows: 44 percent of studies show a positive effect from homeopathy; eight percent show a negative effect, and 48 percent of studies provide inconclusive results.

Still, there remain many doubters who feed the sense that homeopathy holds no place in the American healthcare system. Their arguments and proponents’ counter-arguments:

  1. The mechanism of homeopathy’s law of similars is unproven. Homeopaths agree on this point, but argue that conventional medicines such as aspirin ware used for years before their mechanisms were understood. When science cannot fully explain something, the results remain no less valid.

  2. Ultra dilution of extracts in homeopathy renders the remedy meaningless. This is perhaps the most controversial part of homeopathy, that greater potency comes from increased dilution, based on a not-fully-explained concept of imprinting substances on water. The 2004 movie, “What the Bleep Do We Know?,” a New Agey study of quantum physics and consciousness, hints at mysteries unexplained in water—90 percent of body weight is water—which might have something to do with this (admittedly a stretch for anyone who requires proof before belief).

  3. Observed positive results in homeopathic patients are simply cases of the placebo effect (if you believe the medicine works, the belief alone will improve health). The Lancet, a leading medical journal, reported in 1997 that clinical results from homeopathic remedies are 2.5 to 3.0 times greater than with placebo effects in conventional medical studies.

So is homeopathy something you would consider for yourself? You have to be someone who is open to health approaches that diverge from the conventional (in 2009 alone the FDA recalled 1,742 conventional prescriptive and over-the-counter pharmaceuticals, suggesting that our all-science approach to illness is far from perfect). If you are open to trying it, Dr. Ezgur cautions that you seek out a practitioner who is a board certified doctor—of medicine, osteopathy, chiropractic or naturopathy—and that the extensive intake process be a part of the treatment.

Or, as alternative medicine guru Deepak Chopra wrote in his own defense of homeopathy, “each of us needs to consider our own bodies, our own life history, and our own susceptibility. Mainstream medicine constantly tries to sell its one-size-fits-all position, and it shouldn't.”

About Russ Klettke: Russ Klettke is an ACE (American Council on Exercise) certified fitness trainer and also the author of “A Guy’s Gotta Eat, the regular guy’s guide to eating smart” (Marlowe & Co., 2004, with Deanna Conte, MS RD LD), available where books are sold and in more than 100 public library systems in the U.S., Canada and Europe. For more information, see http://RussKlettke.com.