The Science of Homeopathy

Taylor LougheedMay 24, 2016 by | 5 comments

water drop

As safe as water, but as effective as medicine?

I’m tired of people saying that homeopathy is without scientific basis. In fact, homeopathy not only has a long history (being created in 1796 by Samuel Hahnemann), but is a perfect example of one of the most recognized and researched scientific phenomenon we know of: The Placebo Effect.

To be clear, homeopathy in its most basic form is based on a number of key concepts, including:
1) Law of similars or ‘like cures like’
2) Law of infinitesimal doses, or that dilution of a chemical increases therapeutic potency

Based on these concepts, homeopathy states an illness can be treated by a highly dilute concoction of what may have caused the illness in the first place. This is an oversimplification of course, as homeopathic practitioners also consider the total patient, including their history and current symptoms. The result is often recommendations for patients to take ultra-diluted liquids or pills that often have no active ingredients detected whatsoever (or in quantities so low as to create no direct physiological effect). What they’re recommending, is essentially a placebo.

The placebo effect is seen when something that has no anticipated direct physiological effect is given to a patient (often without them realizing it is inert), only for the patient to feel that it was maybe helpful with their symptoms. What is perhaps more interesting, however, is that even when patients are told directly that they are receiving a placebo with no expected physiological effect, many patients still report an improvement.1 2 This perhaps highlights the importance and power of the medical ritual – visiting an expert, explaining symptoms, and receiving advice and treatment itself can be therapeutic. Even when no effective treatments are provided it may still be empowering to feel like you are taking charge of your health, and there may be indirect physiological effects.3

Homeopathy has been seeing somewhat of a resurgence lately, and has been touted as a safe and effective treatment for a wide range of ailments ranging from the common cold all the way to HIV 4. A little problem, however, is that outside of small or low quality studies, it has never been proven to be very effective. Recently, the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council reviewed all of the available high-quality evidence and concluded that Homeopathy was not effective for any of these conditions.5 They found not a single condition where homeopathy fared better than a placebo. The key question then, is why are they even allowed to be promoted and sold? On the sunny side of it all, homeopathy can be viewed to be as effective as a placebo. The dark side however, is if homeopathic treatments are used for serious illnesses, they will undoubtedly be entirely ineffective (as we have tragically been hearing in the news lately). At a time when the federal government is talking about evidence-based approaches to healthcare reform, it makes little sense that there remains a relative wild west of misinformation and snake oil products. It is long past time to state that the science of Homeopathy is quite clear: Homeopathy is a placebo at best and deadly nonsense at worst.

 

Agree? Disagree? Feel free to leave a comment below and consider sharing with your colleagues.

 

Photo credit: Tim Geers

Taylor Lougheed

About the Author

Taylor Lougheed is a physician in Family and Emergency Medicine, and passionate about sustainable public healthcare, quality improvement and patient safety, medical education, and global health.

  1. http://www.bmj.com/content/336/7651/999.full
  2. http://harvardmagazine.com/2013/01/the-placebo-phenomenon
  3. http://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/putting-the-placebo-effect-to-work
  4. https://www.homeopathic.com/Articles/Using_homeopathy_for_ailments/A_Homeopathic_Perspective_on_AIDS.html
  5. https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/media/releases/2015/nhmrc-releases-statement-and-advice-homeopathy

5 Comments

  1. Dean Smith

    Spot on. Same general argument applies to much of naturopathic and chiropractic treatments. We need to be very strictly regulating what is allowed on the shelves as “treatments.”

  2. miguel

    This is a huge issue. With an overwhelmed medical field we have seen a huge push by “Complementary and Alternative Medicine” or CAM practitioners to be viewed as a viable alternatives. Diluting water is not on par with countless years of medical education. With publicity and misinformation a lot of vulnerable patients are being lured in to treatment plans that are little more than expensive placebos and could be delaying legitimate therapy. Is the answer regulation? Or does that allow for them to operate under the guise of legitimacy?

    • Andrew S

      I agree! It is not just homeopathy, but these “CAM” practitioners as you call them. Traditional chiropractic care, much of naturopathy, reiki, etc. are all preying on vulnerable patients.

  3. retiredMD

    What about the erosion of the term “doctor’? It seems to me that everyone and their dog can now call themselves doctor after taking a few night classes.

    • Dr. Dog

      “It seems to me that everyone and their dog can now call themselves doctor after taking a few night classes.”

      Woof!

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