Are We Fooling Ourselves When We Believe in Alternative Medicine?

Last week I wrote about the theory of homeopathy. Homeopathy is the practice of prescribing specially prepared homeopathic remedies made from extremely dilute natural substances. In many cases, a remedy is used to treat the symptoms that a larger dose of the same substance would cause. For instance, chopping onions may cause redness, burning and tearing of the eyes, and a runny nose. A homeopathic preparation of onion (Allium cepa) is used to treat these conditions, such as when they occur due to a cold or allergies. 

Today I want to clarify some points and explore homeopathy’s conundrum. First, since people sometimes confuse the terms, homeopathic is different than holistic, which refers to any treatment that aims to consider and support the whole individual. Acupuncture and naturopathic medicine are examples of holistic systems, though most acupuncturists don’t practice homeopathy, and homeopathy is usually a relatively small fraction of what most naturopathic physicians do. 

Second, most of the scientific community believes homeopathy is pseudoscience and no more effective than a placebo. Indeed, there are numerous studies that invalidate homeopathy. Advocates of homeopathy point out that the unfavorable studies involve giving subjects a homeopathic remedy matched to a particular symptom or medical condition without utilizing the specificity that’s essential in effective homeopathic diagnosis. Homeopaths contend that when a remedy is matched not only to the dominant symptoms, but the whole picture of the individual, the rate of success is much higher. 

As I said in the last article, I’ve witnessed many cases in which homeopathy did nothing useful – though at least it was entirely harmless and without side effects – and I have also witnessed cases in which it was remarkably effective. Could it have been a placebo effect? Sure. But if it was “merely” a placebo effect, it was a profound placebo effect: a perfect medicine that was entirely beneficial, painless to administer, palatable, with zero downside. One should be asking, “How can we reproduce this?” 

Homeopathy is vastly popular around the world. Its use is especially prevalent in France, Italy, India, Switzerland, Mexico, Germany, England, and the U.S. 29% of the EU population uses homeopathy on a daily basis. About half of Germans have used homeopathic medicines and about 70% say they are satisfied with its effects.1 History shows us that sheer number of adherents doesn’t make something correct or morally right, but we’re smarter than ever and have more options. 

So, what’s going on here? Why do so many people use it if it’s a sham? Well, there are two possibilities. 1) The thousands of practitioners and roughly 200 million people who use homeopathy on a regular basis are fooling themselves. They think homeopathy is useful but it’s just a placebo and/or wishful thinking. Or 2) There is actual benefit to homeopathy which can’t be substantiated by current science and is not accurately reflected by the research. 

Trust me, as a scientist, it’s hard to understand its validity, but I also know what I’ve seen. Are there other systems of medicine with higher rates of success? Probably. To be frank, it is not my go-to modality except for a small number of conditions for which I consistently get good results with homeopathic remedies. However, I’m a mediocre homeopath and I have more training and skill in other forms of medicine. 

But when it works, it works. And I have seen cases where several medicines were tried but only the homeopathic one succeeded, including numerous instances in which the patient was highly skeptical of homeopathy. If it were a placebo effect, why would the other medicines not have produced a benefit equal to that of homeopathy? Why would a skeptical patient have a placebo effect when the basis for a placebo response is an expectation of benefit? Should science have the ability to invalidate someone’s subjective experience of benefit?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. I know some incredibly intelligent doctors who practice homeopathy, and I have seen it and them derided by the medical mainstream. Skeptics’ concern, they say, is that people might not get effective medical help because they’re using homeopathics instead. I agree that if someone isn’t getting a benefit from a chosen medical modality, it might be useful to consider other options. I also believe it’s everyone’s right to manage their health in whatever way they wish – even if it hastens their demise. For perspective, it’s important to note that, according to a recent Johns Hopkins study, 250,000 Americans die each year due to medical errors, making mainstream medicine the third leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer. I have seen people killed by mainstream medical treatments. A modality’s safety is no small thing. 

While there are plenty of people who are averse to biomedicine, we tend to treat the mainstream with a greater degree of respect than is extended to alternative fields. For instance, when we hear that a particular drug or procedure doesn’t work, most people conclude that this particular intervention wasn’t effective. We don’t say, “Well, biomedicine doesn’t work.” In contrast, when an alternative medicine fails to benefit a certain condition, a common conclusion is that the entire modality is worthless. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen an author cite a single failed acupuncture study as proof that acupuncture is bunk. It’s an unfortunate reflection of the tendency for the mainstream to squash its rivals, even when they don’t truly threaten it. 

It’s important, therefore, that we all keep our eyes wide open and practice critical thinking (and not just when it comes to medicine). Be your own advocate, trust your intuition, listen to your body, and don’t assume that just because someone has a degree they know what’s right for you. 

Be well,

Dr. Peter Borten


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8 thoughts on “Are We Fooling Ourselves When We Believe in Alternative Medicine?

  1. Excellent article Peter. Thank you!

    1. Thanks Amy! And you’re welcome. I hope you and your family are all well.

  2. It is a controversial topic.

    A homeopath was jailed in the past couple years for practicing medicine without a license related to vaccinations.

    Personally, my husband and I have studied homeopathy for years.

    It has limits, of course, and it has worked wonders for us, our dog, cat, and chickens.

    1. Thanks, Karen.
      Yes, it’s controversial, and I don’t feel just one way about it. Should someone be required to have some kind of medical license in order to give medical advice to others? I think so. Have people without medical licenses given excellent medical advice? I’m sure. Have people with a medical license given harmful and even lethal medical advice? We have the numbers. 🙁
      Be well,

  3. Great read – thank you for always sharing your insights.

    1. Thanks, Heather, and you’re welcome!

  4. Thank you, Dr. Peter Borten, for the interesting and thought-provoking article.

    The definition you provide of homeopathy, seemingly straight from WebMD, is perhaps one interpretation. As a recent TCM graduate (DACM,) I learned the “like treats like” of homeopathy has more to do with how herbs and plants treat similar organs in the human body. For example, walnuts can help the brain, as they look like brains. This is another, and more practical, interpretation.

    The herbs used in TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) formulas, are the natural version of pharmaceutical drugs, which are essentially the synthesized and extracted versions. Because they contain the entire plant, and not just the synthesized component, herbs are often powerful without the deleterious side-effects, as there are components of the herb to mitigate the side-effects, components which are lost when the herb is synthesized and concentrated. Herbs, however, are still drugs and some will interact with pharmaceuticals.

    Based on the definition of homeopathy I learned, Licensed Acupuncturists (LAcs) use it all the time, and have used it for over 2000 years.

    You mention it is considered pseudoscience by most Western medical practitioners but, according to your definition, aren’t most (if not all) vaccines homeopathy?

    There are so many variables to consider when judging whether a homeopathic remedy is effective. There are all the variables associated with the patient, the herb or plant (where it’s grown, etc,) and the practitioner’s skill. When you mention studies, am I correct to assume published, peer-reviewed clinical research studies? If the study invalidated homeopathy, one must consider potential bias, statistical relevance, and a host of other variables.

    As a DACM student, I found it particularly interesting a compendium of both Western and TCM practitioners found evidence of efficacy equally as reliable for both types of medicine. One should know also there are perhaps thousands of studies proving efficacy of TCM which have never been translated to English. One can never discount placebo effect, or even white-coat effect, whatever the practitioner’s training.

    I completely agree with your last paragraph. An informed and open-minded patient is (almost always) a healthier patient.

    1. Hi Deborah,

      First, as for my definition of homeopathy, I just shorthanded it in this article. The previous article goes more into it, and you’re welcome to check it out. I hear you that it’s “one interpretation,” but the term itself was coined by Samuel Hahnemann, the founder of the system of homeopathy, with a specific meaning. So, when I said “most acupuncturists don’t practice homeopathy” – I was referring to the science of homeopathy as most people understand it.

      Homeopathy doesn’t exactly mean “like treats like”; it means “like the disease.” I, too, was taught to use walnuts for the brain and other expressions of what I think of as the “doctrine of signatures,” whereby something about the characteristics of a medicine indicate how it might be used therapeutically (e.g., to generalize … yellow herbs for the systems that process yellow fluids, light herbs and peels to treat the surface, seeds to treat the reproductive system, etc.), and this can be extended to consuming glands and organs to support those same glands/organs. For example, I had teachers who recommended their diabetic patients consume soup made with pig pancreas. Strictly speaking, this isn’t homeopathy as Hahnemann defined it. He was prescribing (at least at the start) substances that were capable of causing symptoms that resembled what he was treating (e.g., my red onion example above) – hence the construction of his term from the word parts homeo (like) + path (disease).

      Walnuts don’t resemble a disease but a part of the body. That said, the doctrine of signatures and concept of “like treats like” can, of course, pertain to either a pathology or a particular region or system of the body we wish to support. Take the case of those yellow herbs — they also (generally) treat “yellow” conditions, meaning dark yellow urine, jaundice, yellow tongue coating, yellow phlegm, and other expressions of pathological “heat,” and in this way, we’re getting closer to something like Hahnemann’s definition. That said, if our methodology for prescribing yellow herbs for a heat condition is to diagnose a condition of, say, “lung phlegm-heat” and then to use a yellow herb like Huang Qin (Scutellaria baicalensis) – which also has a “signature” of resembling lung tissue – because it cools and dries, this is, by Hahnemann’s definition, an example of allopathy (or heteropathy), i.e., creating a condition that is the opposite of the pathology, and we do this all the time in herbal medicine. (I’m not especially concerned about what label someone applies to the medicine I practice as long as my patients are happy and getting healthy.)

      If you’re interested in more examples of the doctrine of signatures and “like treats like,” you can search for “signatures” on my materia medica site: (I probably didn’t use the term “doctrine of signatures” every time I mentioned it, so you’re unlikely to get an exhaustive list.) Also, the author and teacher Matt Wood has many brilliant examples of signatures.

      As for people dubbing homeopathy “pseudoscience,” and the idea that vaccines could be seen as homeopathy, yes, you’d have to take it up with those skeptics, but I see your point. Indeed, while homeopathy doesn’t exactly use vaccines, there is a whole category of homeopathic remedies called “nosodes” which are made from pathogens and/or their exudates, such as Tuberculinum, made from tuberculosis, Medorrhinum from gonorrhea, and Syphilinum from the syphilis infection.

      Be well,

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