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Does Homeopathic Medicine Work?

Updated on March 25, 2015

Homeopathy is using natural substances in very diluted doses as a therapeutic method to relieve physical symptoms. There are homeopathic medicine for colds and flu, for sleep aids, for leg cramps, and so on. The question is, "does homeopathic medicine work?"

While my fist inclination is to dismiss it as placebo effect and for the scientific reasons given below, after hearing testimonials about homeopathy I am open to the possibility that it might actually work.

From the book Healing Pain and Injury, Maud Nerman, DO, writes ...

"I can not recommend homeopathy strongly enough. In my thirty years of practice, I have seen it work wonders for all kinds of brain injuries, both chronic and acute. If I did not have homeopathy readily available to tome, I would feel like I'm practicing medicine with one hand tied behind my back."

So do not dismiss homeopathy so readily.

In order to determine whether it is effective or not, we have to study the active ingredients and the amounts in the medicine and how to read the labels. The premise of this article is that homeopathic cold and flu medicine is not effective.

Whatever slight effect it has is likely due to the placebo effect. In general, the medicine is probably not dangerous as it contain very diluted active ingredients. The only danger is that people use homeopathic treatment in lieu of conventional treatment and hence do not get treated properly. Do not give up the conventional medicine that your doctor recommends. There are certain disorders that require proper professional diagnosis and treatment by a doctor. Hence you should seek medical attention as needed and never use homeopathy as a replacement for conventional medicine.

Although this article mainly focuses on homeopathic cold and flu medication, homeopathic medicine in general can be identified by by their extremely low dosage of active ingredients. Homeopathic medicine does not mean home remedy and it is not the same as herbal medication or vitamins or supplements -- many of which works much better than homeopathic medicine.

Homeopathic Cold Medicine
Homeopathic Cold Medicine

What are "3C" in homeopathic medicine?

Homeopathic medicine have ingredients listed not in milligrams, but in much smaller units. The ingredients are listed as "1C", "3C", "6C", "1X", "2X" and so on. You can often tell if a medication is an "homeopathic medicine" by seeing these types of units. What are this amounts?

1X means 1/10 dilution. 2X means 1/100 dilution. 1C means 1/100 dilution. 2C means 1/10000. 3C means 1/1,000,000 dilution. "C" stands for centesimal. The higher the C, the more diluted and lower the amount. This is contrary to the units that we are used to.

Take a look at the ingredients of your homeopathy medicine. Most homeopathy medicine contains dilution of active ingredients in the order of 3C or greater dilutions. 3C means 1 part of the active ingredient and 1,000,000 part of something else -- often sugar such as sucrose and lactose. That is one part in a million. At this concentration, it is nearly non-detectable.

Granted, there are a few homeopathic medication that contain active ingredients that is less diluted. At 1X or 2X, it can be biologically active. Some of these active ingredients in some homeopathic cold remedy may be "zincum aceticum" and "zincum gluconicum". These are basically zinc. According to WebMd zinc is "possibly effective" for decreasing the length of colds -- which according to their scale is less effective than "likely effective" or "effective". However, it does caution that zinc nose spray are "possibly unsafe" and people can lose their ability to smell.

Homeopathic medication has very diluted ingredients

At 4C, that concentration is so diluted that this is the allowable concentration of arsenic in US drinking water -- 10 parts in a billion.[reference]

Looking up "homeopathy" in Wikipedia, it says ...

"Depending on the dilution, homeopathic remedies may not contain any pharmacologically active molecules, and for such remedies to have pharmacological effect would violate fundamental principles of science"

At 12C, this is the dilution that is reasonably likely to contain one molecule of the original substance. Higher dilutions may not even contain any molecule of the ingredient.

The BBC Horizon program did an experiment to see if scientists can distinguish a homeopathic solution with a water solution. They were not able to.

John Stossel of ABC's 20/20 also did a report on homeopathy in which he writes ...

"At 6C the amount is like one drop of medicine in 50 swimming pools."

A joke as mentioned by guest Brian Malow on NPR Science Friday radio episode goes like this...

"how science, most science, on television is so watered down, it's homeopathic."

Here is what the book The Autism Revolution has to say about homeopahty....

"... while these remedies are for the most part low risk ..., their efficacy is not well supported, and the philosophy and training of practitioners can vary widely." [page 102]

Author Dr. Martha Herbert does say that some patients reports benefits from homeopahy and that the possible mechanism of action is that small dose stimulates the immune system so that it can work better and react poperly.

In a TED Talk video, James Randi takes a whole bottle of an homeopathic sleeping pills on stage -- all 32 tablets. Randi is well known for debunking frauds. His point was to demonstrate that homeopathic medication contain nearly no active ingredient that he can take a whole bottle without any effect. In fact, he says that the amount of active ingredient in some homeopathic medicine is like one aspirin diluted into Lake Tahoe. He also gave a talk about homeopathy at Princeton in 2001 (excerpt video found on YouTube on right).

It is no wonder why some homeopathic medication says that it is "non-drowsy and no drug interaction". Others say they have no-side effect. How can you have a drug interaction, if there are no drugs in it? Some instructions of some homeopathic medication says to take very frequent doses -- almost one does per hour. That is because it contains almost no active ingredient.

Homeopathy Not Based on Science

Some homeopathic proponents suggests that this extreme dilution would still work due to "water memory" which is the claimed ability of water to retain a "memory" of the substance that have been diluted in. Scientific double-blind experiments have failed to support this claim.

Others claim that the greater the dilution, the greater the effectiveness. This concept is not consistent with scientific laws.

Others say that homeopathic medicine works by the "law of similars" which means find a natural substance that when taken by healthy people will produce a symptom. Now give this substance to patients with that symptom, and that symptom will be relieved. It is also called ""let like be cured by like". This too is not a true law of nature.

Dr. Joel Fuhrman write in his book Super Immunity ...

"Homeopathy was developed based on theories that are not consistent with accepted modern tenets of chmistry and physics." [page 98]

Paper studying the effective of the homeopathic flu medication Oscillococcinum concluded with the statement ...

"Current evidence does not support a preventative effect of Oscillococcinum-like homeopathic medicines in influenza and influenza-like syndromes."

Some ingredients in Homeopathic Medicine

What are some of the these extremely diluted ingredients in homeopathic medicine? Here are some scientific-sounding names that can be found on the ingredient list and what they really are.

  • Allium cepa - onion
  • Apis mellifica - honey bee
  • kali bichromicum - this is potassium dichromate which is a common inorganic chemical reagent. It is used in cleaning, tanning leather, and an ingredient in cement, and used as an oxidizing agent in various laboratory and industrial applications. It is corrosive and is a carcinogen.
  • Belladonna - a perennial herbaceous plant known as Deadly Nightshade because the foliage and berries are toxic and contains tropane alkaloids.

Nux vomica, gelsemium, and pulsatilla are also plants with toxic parts and alkaloids. Alkaloids is not something you want. Some boxes of homeopathic medicine is quick to point out that it contain less than 10-6 mg of alkaloids. That means less than one part per million of a milligram.

Some of these ingredients sounds quite dangerous. And at high doses, they can be. Maybe that is why some boxes say "Keep out of reach of children" and "If pregnant or breast-feeding, ask a health professional before use".

But remember that these ingredients are so diluted that they are virtually non-detectable in the homeopathic medicine, and hence is not as dangerous as it seems.

Other homeopathic medication list the active ingredient as "Anas barbariae hepatis et cordis extractum" at 200CK dilution. What is that? If you put this phrase into Google Translate to translate from Latin to English, you will find that it is duck liver and heart.

And "CK" means centesimal using the more cost effective Korsakov method.[reference] First of all there is no scientific evidence that duck liver can help alleviate flu symptoms. And at 200C dilution, there is virtually none of it left.

You can do a web search of these ingredients for yourself. A more extensive list is found on Wikipedia.

Placebo Effect of Homeopathic Medication

There are some people who have taken homeopathic medicine and say that it worked for them. But perhaps it only "seem" to work. For example if you have a cold and you take some homeopathic medicine. Then your cold gets better. It might seem that the medicine has worked. But in fact, the cold would have gotten better on its own without any medicine.

There is also the placebo effect. Those people who truly believe that they take something that would work, will cause a self-fulfilling prophecy via the mind-body connection. This is due to the brain's role in physical health and response expectation.

If it doesn't work, then why are they still on grocery shelves? That is because the FDA does not required homeopathic remedies to be proven effective in order to remain marketable. Many would have liked the FDA to enforce stricter standards on homeopathic medicine.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine writes ...

"Homeopathic remedies are regulated in the same manner as nonprescription, over-the-counter (OTC) drugs. However, because homeopathic products contain little or no active ingredients, they do not have to undergo the same safety and efficacy testing as prescription and new OTC drugs."

Placebo Effect for Stress Relief

The placebo effect is a real effect that works via psychology and via the mind-body connection. Conditions such as anxiety can sometimes be modulated by the state of mind. Because stress is a psychological response, homeopathic remedies that supposedly reduces stress may work via this placebo mechanism. But it only works if the person believes it would work. If the person taking the remedy does not believe that it would work, then it ruins the placebo effect.

There are some stress-reduction homeopathic remedies made from flower essences. Flower essences are derived by putting flowers into boiling water or into water with direct sunlight. Their "essences" are then diluted and preserved with an alcohol (such as brandy, etc) and placed into vials.

For example, one such remedy says to put four drops of it into water and drink when stressed. It says "homeopathic remedy" on the box and its active ingredients are listed as follows...

5x dilution of Helianthemum nummularium HPUS, Clematis vitalba HPUS, Impatiens glandulifera HPUS, Prunus cerasifera HPUS, Ornithogalum umbellatum HPUS.

These are five different flowers. And the HPUS means that the product meets standards set by the Homeopathic Pharmacopeia of the United States.

It also contains 27% alcohol. Maybe that is what is producing the relaxed state? However, alcohol is listed as an "inactive ingredient". And with 27% of it in only four drops, it is doubtful that the alcohol would have any physiological effect.

Linked here is an article about one such flower essences homeopathic remedy where it mentions that a study showed that it worked no better than placebo. In Journal of Anxiety Disorder, a paper looked at one such anti-stress remedies and concluded that they "are an effective placebo for test anxiety and do not have a specific effect." It does work in that it decreased test anxiety. But so did taking an non-active placebo.


The above article was written March 2012 and is only opinion at the time of writing. Author is a not a medical professional.


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