What is homeopathy?

Dr. Greene's Answer

Homeopathy has a rich and controversial history. It began in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, at a time when medical doctors relied primarily on bloodletting, intestinal purging, induced vomiting, and blistering of the skin to treat their patients’ maladies. A brilliant physician named Samuel Hahnemann, M.D. was dissatisfied with the status quo. He was bothered both that current treatments were harsh and dangerous and that they failed to produce good results.

Hahnemann began to recommend exercise, good diet, and fresh air to his patients. He believed that healing came from God and Nature, and that the physician’s role was only to gently encourage this natural process.

Over time, he became increasingly disturbed by the lack of experimental basis for popular conventional therapies.

He believed that each medicine should be tested, to see what it really did, before it was used as a treatment.

He set out to prove the effects of the common remedies of his day. The first experiment was with quinine, known to treat malaria and its raging fevers. When he took quinine while well, it produced a fever. This, and subsequent experiments, gave rise to his Law of Similars — that remedies which produce specific symptoms in well persons are effective in treating ill persons with the same symptoms. This is where the name homeopathy (“like the disease”) comes from.

Hahnemann’s treatments tended to produce an initial worsening of symptoms, often followed by a cure. To make the process more agreeable, he decided to dilute the substances he was using. The surprising result was that the remedies became even more potent. This led to the second law of homeopathy, the Law of Infinitesimals: the smaller the dose of a medicine, the more effective it is in stimulating the body to heal itself.

Over the last two centuries the respect accorded homeopathy has varied widely. Currently, there is a resurgence of its popularity. I greatly admire the gentleness, the reliance on the body’s own healing mechanisms, and the bent toward prevention that are central to homeopathy.

Homeopathy began with a desire to prove the effects of medicines by careful experimentation. Today, the number of well done scientific studies on homeopathic remedies are scarce, especially in children. There are hundreds of controlled trials in adults, and somewhere in the range of a few dozen studies in children. Some homeopathic treatments that have been studied in children include treatments for ADHD, ear infections, influenza, and certain chemotherapy related symptoms. However, most of these gentle treatments are touted based on individual testimonials, in much the same manner as were the barbarous practices of conventional medicine two centuries ago. Many people swear that they work. I hope they are right.

Medical Review on: February 18, 2012
About the Author
Photo of Dr. Alan Greene
Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
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