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.
Dr. Peter Borten
- https://www.hri-research.org/resources/essentialevidence/use-of-homeopathy-across-the-world/ ; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regulation_and_prevalence_of_homeopathy ; https://homeopathyeurope.org/