by Dana Ullman, MPH
Many people confuse homeopathic medicine with herbal remedies or with the broad field of alternative or natural medicine. As you will learn from this article, homeopathic medicine has its own sophisticated system of using substances from the plant, mineral, chemical, and animal kingdoms. This article will describe--in a modern and even futuristic fashion--this fascinating and powerful method of strengthening the body's own defense system.
The word “homeopathy” is derived from two Greek words: homoios which means “similar” and pathos which means “suffering.” Homeopathy's basic premise is called the “principle of similars,” and it refers to recurrent observation and experience that a medicinal substance will elicit a healing response for the specific syndrome of symptoms (or suffering) that it has been proven to cause when given in overdose to a healthy person.
The beauty of the principle of similars is that it not only initiates a healing response, but it encourages a respect for the body's wisdom. Because symptoms represent the best efforts of our body in its defenses against infection or stress, it makes sense to utilize a medicine that helps and mimics this defense rather than that inhibits or suppresses it. The principle of similars may be one of nature's laws that, when used well, can be one of our most sophisticated healing strategies.
It is important to note that immunizations and allergy treatments are two of the very few applications in modern medicine today that actually stimulate the body's own defenses in the prevention or treatment of specific diseases, and it is NOT simply a coincidence that both of these treatments are derived from the homeopathic principle of similars.
Homeopathic medicine is so widely practiced by physicians in Europe that it is no longer appropriate to consider it “alternative medicine” there. Approximately 30% of French doctors and 20% of German doctors use homeopathic medicines regularly, while over 40% of British physicians refer patients to homeopathic doctors, and almost half of Dutch physicians consider homeopathic medicines to be effective. The fact that the British Royal Family has used and supported homeopathy since the 1830s reflects its longstanding presence in Britain's national health care system.
Homeopathic medicine also once had a major presence in American medical care and in American society. In 1900 there were 22 homeopathic medical schools in the US, including Boston University, University of Michigan, New York Medical College, Hahnemann University, University of Minnesota, and even the University of Iowa. Further, many of America's cultural elite were homeopathy's strongest advocates, including Mark Twain, William James, John D. Rockefeller, Susan B. Anthony, Louisa May Alcott, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Henry David Thoreau, and Harriett Beecher Stowe, amongst many others. (For a more extensive list of famous people past and present who are known advocates of homeopathy, click here.)
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Social Transformation of American Medicine, Paul Starr noted, "Because homeopathy was simultaneously philosophical and experimental, it seemed to many people to be more rather than less scientific than orthodox medicine."
This article will present a strong case for homeopathy in light of the most recent developments in science and medicine. That said, I want to apologize to those people who have an open mind about homeopathy but who have been introduced to it by individuals who have not adequately explained this science and art in a clear and convincing fashion. It is hoped that both skeptics and those open-minded but inadequately informed people will benefit from this overview of the homeopathic system.
The Wisdom of Symptoms—The Underlying Basis of Modern Physiology and Homeopathy
The underlying principle of homeopathy is also at the heart of modern physiology. It is commonly understood in medicine today that symptoms are not just something “wrong” with the body, but rather, they represent the efforts of the body and mind to defend and heal itself from a variety of infective agents and/or stresses. The body creates fever, inflammation, pain, discharge, or whatever is necessary in order to heal itself. While these symptoms represent the body's best efforts to heal, they are not always successful in doing so. Ultimately, homeopathic medicines are some of the most powerful natural drugs available today to help augment the body's ability to heal itself (more on this topic later).
Medical science today is increasingly recognizing symptoms as adaptive responses of the body. Standard texts of pathology define the process of inflammation as the manner in which the body seeks to wall off, heat up, and burn out infective agents or foreign matter. The cough has long been known as a protective mechanism for clearing breathing passages. Diarrhea has been shown to be a defensive effort of the body to remove pathogens or irritants more quickly from the colon. Discharges are understood as the body's way of ridding itself of dead bacteria, viruses, and cells. Even high blood pressure is an important defense and adaptation to the internal and external stresses that a person experiences.
The derivation of the word “symptom” is helpful to better understanding of the disease process and the healing process. The word "symptom" comes from a Greek root and refers to "something that falls together with something else." Symptoms are a “sign” or a “signal” of something else, and treating them doesn't necessarily change that "something else." Just because a drug gets rid of a symptom does not mean that the person is cured. In fact, drugs that suppress or inhibit a symptom tend to provide only a guise of success and usually lead to a longer and more serious illness. Using drugs to suppress symptoms is akin to pulling the plug on your car's oil pressure warning light. Just because the light is turned off doesn't mean that your car's oil pressure is “cured.” In fact, ignoring that light may lead to your car's breakdown.
It should be noted that people often incorrectly assume that conventional drugs have “side effects.” Actually, in purely pharmacological terms, drugs do NOT have side effects; drugs only have “effects,” and physicians arbitrarily differentiate between those effects that they like as the effects of the drug, while they call those symptoms that they don't like “side effects.” This is akin to saying that the effects of a bomb are that it destroys buildings, but its side effects are that it kills people. Needless to say, one cannot truly separate out one effect from the other.
The reason that drugs create “side effects” that are often worse than the original disease is that these drugs tend to suppress the symptoms the sick person is experiencing and push them deeper into the person's body. This observation may explain why people today are experiencing more serious chronic illnesses at earlier and earlier ages and why there is such an epidemic of mental illness (physical disease is suppressed deeply enough that the disease is pushed into the psyche).
Once one recognizes that symptoms are important and useful defenses of the body, it makes less sense to use drugs that inhibit or suppress this wisdom of the body. Instead of using drugs to suppress symptoms, it makes sense to use medicines to strengthen the body's own defense system so that the body can more effectively heal itself. Here is where it makes sense to use homeopathic medicines.
Medicines That Respect the Wisdom of the Body
The use of the principle of similars in healing actually has ancient roots (Coulter, 1975). In the 4th century B.C., Hippocrates is known to have said, "Through the like, disease is produced, and through the application of the like it is cured." The famed Delphic Oracle in Greece proclaimed the value of the law of similars, stating, "that which makes sick shall heal." Paracelsus, a well-known 16th century physician and alchemist, used the law of similars extensively in practice and referred to it in writings. His formulation of the "Doctrine of Signatures" spoke directly of the value in using similars in healing. He affirmed, "You there bring together the same anatomy of the herbs and the same anatomy of the illness into one order. This simile gives you understanding of the way in which you shall heal."
This principle of similars (using a substance to treat the similar symptoms that it causes) is also used in conventional medicine, with immunizations being the most obvious example, that is, small doses of a “weakened” pathogen are used to prevent what larger doses cause. None other than the "father of immunology," Dr. Emil Adolph Von Behring (1906), directly pointed to the origins of immunizations when he asserted, "(B)y what technical term could we more appropriately speak of this influence than by Hahnemann's* word ‘homeopathy'." (*Samuel Hahnemann, MD, 1755-1843, was a renowned German physician and the founder of homeopathy). Modern allergy treatment, likewise, utilizes the homeopathic approach by the use of small doses of allergens in order to create an antibody response.
Conventional medical treatment also uses homeopathy's principle of similars in choosing radiation to treat people with cancer (radiation causes cancer), digitalis for heart conditions (digitalis creates heart conditions), and Ritalin for hyperactive children (Ritalin is an amphetamine-like drug which normally causes hyperactivity). Other examples are the use of nitroglycerine for heart conditions, gold salts for arthritic conditions, and colchicine for gout, all of which are known to cause the similar symptoms that they are found to treat.
For a historical discussion of various homeopathic drugs that have been incorporated into conventional medicine, see Dr. Harris Coulter's Homoeopathic Influences in Nineteenth Century Allopathic Therapeutics as well as his more detailed book on homeopathy's history, Divided Legacy: The Conflict Between Homeopathy and the A.M.A.
It should be acknowledged that although the conventional medical treatments mentioned above may be homeopathic-like, they do not follow other fundamental principles of homeopathy. Immunizations and allergy treatments are given to prevent or cure special ailments, while homeopathic medicines are substances individually prescribed based on the overall syndrome of body and mind symptoms the person is experiencing, and therefore a homeopathic medicine is thought to strengthen the person's overall body-mind constitution, not just to prevent or treat a specific illness. Also, these conventional medical treatments are not individually prescribed to the high degree of selectivity that is common in homeopathy, and they are not prescribed in as small or as safe a dose.
And speaking of dose, this subject is vital, and homeopaths have uncovered an amazing and initially confusing power of the human organism. Homeopaths have found that sick people develop hypersensitivity to substances that cause the similar symptoms that they are experiencing. Further, by giving very small doses of this substance, a person can and will experience an immunological and therapeutic benefit without a toxic burden.
Determining What a Medicine Can Cure
For over 200 years, hundreds of thousands of homeopaths throughout the world have carefully catalogued and now computerized the idiosyncratic physical, emotional, and mental symptoms that thousands of substances have caused in healthy people (Note: There are now simple computerized programs as well as sophisticated expert system software to help provide highly individualized prescriptions to people based on their specific and unique symptomatology). Homeopaths have thereby created the most extensive body of toxicological information available today, though this information focuses on the symptoms that these substance cause, not on the dose in which they cause them. Homeopaths have found and verified that whatever a substance has been found to cause, it will also cure in specially prepared homeopathic doses.
Thousands of substances have undergone toxicological studies, which homeopaths call “drug provings.” These experiments are conducted on human subjects, not animals, to determine what various substances from the plant, mineral, animal, or chemical kingdom cause in overdose. Homeopaths have found that these experiments lay the foundation for what symptoms each substance causes, and thus, what affinity each substance has to the human body.
Then, when homeopaths see patients, they obtain the unique and detailed symptomatological history of each patient, and seek to find the specific substance from the plant, mineral, animal, or chemical kingdom that would cause the similar syndrome of symptoms that the patient is experiencing. It is not surprising that large numbers of homeopaths throughout the world today use sophisticated expert system software to help them individualize medicinal substances to their patients.
After finding a match between a substance's toxicology and the patient's specific symptom pattern, the homeopath gives a specially prepared microdose of this medicinal agent. The details of how homeopathic medicines are made are described below. It is now time to direct our attention to homeopathy's most fascinating and most controversial observation…the power of homeopathic “nano-doses.”
Homeopathic Medicine: Nano-doses, Powerful Results
Homeopathic medicine presents a significantly different pharmacological approach to treating sick people. Instead of using strong and powerful doses of medicinal agents that have a broad-spectrum effect on a wide variety of people with a similar disease, homeopaths use extremely small doses of medicinal substances that are highly individualized to a person's physical and psychological syndrome of disease, not simply an assumed localized pathology.
Homeopathic medicines are so small in dose that it is appropriate to refer to them as a part of the newly defined field of “nanopharmacology” (the prefix “nano” derives from Latin and means dwarf; today, the prefix is used to refer to “nanotechnology” or the “nanosciences” which explore the use of extremely small technologies or processes, at least one-billionth of a unit, designated as 10 -9). To understand the nature and the degree of homeopathy's nanopharmacology, it is important to know the following characteristics of how homeopathic medicines are made.
Making Homeopathic Medicines
Most homeopathic medicines are made by diluting a medicinal substance in a double-distilled water. It should be noted that physicists who study the properties of water commonly acknowledge that water has many mysterious and amazing properties. Because homeopaths use a double-distilled water, it is highly purified, enabling the medicinal substance to solely infiltrate an