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Friday, March 17, 2017

Homeopathy Good, Bad, or Neutral?

Written by  Dr. Eva Hersh, MD

Dear Dr. Eva,

What do you think about homeopathy? I know people who swear by it, but I have also heard that homeopathic medicines are just expensive water.

Natural

Dear Natural,

Considering homeopathy and alternative medicines in general, two facts are important to keep in mind.

1) For many conditions, the success rate of placebo is more than 30%. A placebo, sometimes called a “sugar pill” or a “dummy pill,” is a treatment that has no effect on the illness being treated. Placebo means “I will please” in Latin. So, about a third of patients who take a placebo medication for a medical condition will get better after taking a placebo, as compared with patients who are not given a medication. Placebo effect is the same as the power of suggestion. Some people are more responsive to it than others.

2) Of all the patients who come to see a primary care doctor with a new problem, in about 85% of cases the problem would go away on its own without medical attention.

Keeping those things in mind, now consider homeopathy. Homeopathic medicine is based on two ideas:

First, “Like cures like.” This means that the correct medicine for any problem is a substance that causes the same problem. So, for an itchy rash you might use a cream containing oil of poison ivy or another plant which causes itching. For high blood sugar, you would take medicine containing sugar or honey. For high blood pressure, the medicine might contain salt, which raises blood pressure. If the concept of “like cures like” does not seem logical, it’s because it isn’t logical. It is an idea from the 1700s which has no scientific basis.

The second basic concept of homeopathic medication is, the weaker a medication is, the more effective it is. Homeopathic medications are made like this: Start with a liter of water. Add one drop of an extract, like a salt solution or a plant extract. Mix. Take a second liter of water and add one drop of the first solution. Mix and repeat through 10 or more dilutions. When complete, the medicine is so dilute that it may not contain any molecules of the original extract at all. However, that is fine, because homeopathic theory says that even if there is no medicine (active ingredient) present, the water contains a “memory” of the active ingredient and that memory causes a healing effect. No evidence of water memory has ever been found. If water memory were real, since there is only a certain amount of water on Earth, every molecule of water would have memories of the thousands of chemicals it has been in contact with over the millennia, and we would be taking multiple homeopathic medicines with every drink of water.

The idea that “the weaker it is, the stronger it is” goes against modern biology, chemistry, and physics. Or simply, it does not make sense.

All this adds up to: there is no reason to believe that homeopathic medication works except through the placebo effect. And it is true that homeopathic medicines are just water. They are way too expensive, considering that they have no active ingredients. The question is, can you get the same placebo effect by taking a vitamin and telling yourself it will cure your problem?

Eva Hersh is a Baltimore family physician. Send your comments and questions to her by email at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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