Last week we wrote an article about an Australian research which concluded that homeopathy is nothing more than a placebo. I’ve received a myriad of emails, ranging from skeptical to downright violent (which was somewhat disturbing), all of which were accusing us of spreading false science and not understanding just how good homeopathy actually is. This will be a lengthy article in which I will describe the proposed mechanism behind homeopathy, and discuss the scientific information on it – read it, and make up your own mind afterwards.
The mechanism behind homeopathy
Homeopathy is a system of alternative medicine created in 1796 by Samuel Hahnemann, based on his doctrine of like cures like – basically, the same thing which makes you sick can be used to heal you; he believed that all diseases are caused by miasms, and homeopathy can be used to eliminate the miasms. Not familiar with the term? The word miasm means a cloud or fog, and as I said, in homeopathy, all diseases are caused by miasms. The reason why you’re probably not familiar with it is because it’s been proven wrong over 200 years ago. But let’s move on a bit – maybe some homeopaths don’t believe in the so-called miasm theory, but still think homeopathy is a strong tool.
The active substances are stuff which cause symptoms similar to that of a disease, in the belief that if the body recognizes the symptom, it will start to fight the real disease. Hahnemann reported that undiluted doses intensified the symptoms and exacerbated the condition, sometimes causing dangerous toxic reactions. He therefore specified that the substances be diluted, due to his belief that succussion activated the “vital energy” of the diluted substance and made it stronger.
So the proposed cures are prepared by dilution. You take the active substance (whatever that may be) and usually dilute it by putting one drop of it in 1 liter of alcohol or distilled water, and then you mix it. Then, after the mixing, you take 1 drop of this newly obtained substance and put it in another fresh liter of alcohol or distilled water, and you rinse and repeat many times, until well past the point where no molecules of the original substance remain – the more diluted the substance is, the more effective the “cure” will be. The idea is that the alcohol or distilled water will somehow “remember” the molecule and have an impact on your body – I have to say just off the bat, this has no scientific basis whatsoever, but I’ll get into more later.
But wait, you’ll say, how can you be sure that there is no more molecule in the substance? Well, we’ll have to get a little familiar with Avogadro’s number. Avogardo was a brilliant chemist (not related to homeopathy in any way). He showed that for every mole of a substance, there are 6.02214129(27)×1023 constituents (atoms or molecules). For example, in a mole of OH, there are 6.02214129(27)×1023 molecules of OH – and the same goes for every substance. Don’t ask how he got to that conclusion, that’s a different discussion, but his number is one of the very foundations of modern chemistry.
So if you have a substance, and you dilute it up to the point where its concentration starts to outweigh Avogadro’s number, you end up with no more molecules of the initial substance; say, if you take a gram of a substance and you put it in a kilogram (1000 grams), the concentration will be 10-3. If you take a gram of the new substance and put it in another fresh kilogram, it will be 10-6 and so on. If you do this 8 times, you reach a concentration of 10-24, which outweighs Avogadro’s number – and that’s when you don’t have any more molecules of the initial substances. Homeopathy often goes way past that number.
What science says about homeopathy
There is little room for discussion or interpretation here – there is no scientific foundation for homeopathy. In the “homeopathic cures” you take, there is literally no active substance, and the claim that the water/alcohol still has a “memory”, remembering that the active substance was once inside it is bogus. There is nothing whatsoever to suggest that this were the case, and if this were proven true, then chemistry and physics would be turned on their heads, and we’d have to rewrite everything that was discovered in the past 150 years.
Just imagine, in its history, water will have gotten into contact with literally millions of other substances, and by this thought process, it has a memory of all of them – so just drinking a glass of regular water should make you immune to a swarm of diseases, right?
But even if there were any active substance, something that causes symptoms similar to the X disease doesn’t cure the X disease! Again, this is just wishful thinking, and there is nothing to suggest that this is real. The scientific consensus is pretty strong on this case, and I’ll mention just a few studies here:
Smith K (2012). “Homeopathy is Unscientific and Unethical“
Tuomela R (1987). “Chapter 4: Science, Protoscience, and Pseudoscience“
Baran GR, Kiana MF, Samuel SP (2014). “Chapter 2: Science, Pseudoscience, and Not Science: How Do They Differ?“
Shang A, Huwiler-Müntener K, Nartey L, et al. (2005). “Are the clinical effects of homoeopathy placebo effects? Comparative study of placebo-controlled trials of homoeopathy and allopathy“
UK Parliamentary Committee Science and Technology Committee – “Evidence Check 2: Homeopathy“
Shaw, D. M. (2010). “Homeopathy is where the harm is: Five unethical effects of funding unscientific ‘remedies’“
Stephen Barrett: “Homeopathy: the ultimate fake”
David M. Shaw – “Homeopathy is where the harm is: five unethical effects of funding unscientific ‘remedies’”
I could go on way more than this, but other studies come up with similar results. If you truly are more interested, I can provide more studies. The bottom line is: at best, homeopathy works like a placebo – which is, indeed, a very powerful healing tool, as has been shown numerous times. But as expected, its principles are flawed, and don’t really work.
OK, but quoting some of the emails I’ve gotten “this worked for me”, “it worked for millions of people”, “how can you say it doesn’t work”? Well, here are some explanations:
a) unassisted natural healing – your body is awesome at self-healing. Some are better than others, but generally speaking, your body heals itself all the time. It can eliminate even strong diseases on its own.
b) the placebo effect – simulated treatments are surprisingly efficient in many cases. Combine this with your self-healing, and you get quite a powerful tool.
c) the consultation effect – modern research has shown that just if you go to the doctor and receive a consultation, the care, concern, and reassurance a patient experiences when opening up to a compassionate caregiver (read: homeopath) can have a positive effect.
d) unrecognized treatments – an unrelated food, exercise, environmental agent, or treatment for a different ailment, may have occurred. Maybe you drank a lot of green tea, or that trip to the ocean did wonders for your lungs.
e) regression towards the mean – many diseases and conditions are cyclical – the symptoms get naturally stronger and weaker in time. Since patients tend to seek care when discomfort is greatest, it’s pretty likely that the symptoms will naturally get weaker.
f) cessation of unpleasant treatment – many times, homeopaths recommend the ceasing of conventional treatments – this is extremely dangerous and should never be done without consulting an actual Medical Doctor. Oftentimes, the conventional treatment causes some unpleasant side effects, perhaps even more so than the disease’s symptoms. When you stop taking the treatment, the side effects may go away, but the diseases remains and gets worse and worse.
But even so, what harm can homeopathy actually do?
You may try to go for a win-win strategy, and take both conventional treatments and homeopathic treatments – what have you got to lose, right? Well, it’s your time and money you’re wasting, but other than that, there’s nothing inherently wrong. Homeopathy doesn’t do anything bad to you directly because… well… it doesn’t do anything!
The main problem is using only homeopathy as a treatment. This can be very dangerous, as has been shown numerous times; when homeopathy is used in place of real medicine, the risks are real. From Calgary, an avoidable child death has been linked to the use of homeopathy instead of medicine. In 2002, 1 year old Isabella Denley was prescribed medications for her epilepsy. Instead of using them, her parents consulted an iridologist, an applied kinesiologist, a psychic and an osteopath. She was being treated purely with homeopathic medication when she died. The infant girl, Gloria Thomas, died of complications due to eczema which were treated only with homeopathy. Eczema! This is an easily manageable disease, and her parents were declared guilty of manslaughter – and rightfully so. By the time she died, she was the weight of an average three-month-old, her body was covered with angry blotches and her once black hair had turned completely white.
I’m not cherry picking these cases, providing isolated examples or something. Using homeopathy instead of real treatments is dangerous, and you should not do it! If you are rejecting medicine and treating your child only with homeopathy, you are a bad parent! That’s the bottom line, and there’s no going around it. You are putting your child at a serious risk! As Bad Astronomy’s Phil Plait puts it, it is “perhaps the most ridiculous of all “alternative” medicines, since it clearly cannot work, does not work, and has been tested repeatedly and shown to be useless“. Even as this relatively simple and highly manageable disease killed his daughter, Thomas Sam stood by his beliefs in homeopathy – don’t do the same mistake!
I’d like to make a special mention for homeopathic vaccination – not taking your (or your child’s) vaccines is especially dangerous, and, as other treatments, homeopathic vaccinations don’t do anything.
A note on natural remedies
From a lot of your emails, I think you are confusing natural remedies (herbs, teas, plants, etc) with homeopathy. You should consult with your doctor or pharmacist before taking them, but generally, they are very good complements to conventional treatment; emphasis: complements, not replacements.
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