How Does Homeopathy Work
It's Homeopathy Awareness Week!
April 10-16 2014 is Homeopathy Awareness Week
Visit http://www.homeopathy awarenessweek.org/ to learn more about homeopathy and homeopathic remedies.
In February 2003, a 43-year-old Australian woman named Penelope Dingle was diagnosed with colorectal cancer after a colonoscopy found a large tumor in her rectum. Medical specialists advised her to remove the tumor surgically and undergo chemotherapy and radiation treatments to fight the cancer.
Dingle instead chose to rely on the advice of a homeopath named Francine Scrayen, who prescribed a change in diet, vitamin supplements, positive attitude, and homeopathic remedies to treat the cancer. Hoping to one day write a book about how her cancer was cured by alternative medicine, Dingle chose to forgo all conventional medical treatment until October 2003, when the tumor began obstructing her bowels and she had to be rushed to emergency surgery.
Though the surgery did save her life, the cancer had already spread beyond all hope of a cure. Penelope Dingle finally died in August 2005, the homeopathic cancer remedies having utterly failed to treat the disease.
This tragic case is not an isolated incident. There are dozens of other cases - some involving children and infants - in which curable diseases became debilitating or fatal because the patient, or patient's legal guardian, chose homeopathy instead of medical treatment.
What Is Homeopathy?
Homeopathy was first invented in the late 18th Century by German physician Samuel Hahnemann. While translating a Scottish medical book into German, Hahnemann became intrigued by a passage on cinchona bark , which was used at the time as a treatment for malaria. Experimenting on himself, he began taking cinchona bark twice a day for several days. Hahnemann observed that the symptoms the bark produced were similar to the early symptoms of malaria.
From this experience, Hahnemann deduced the Law of Similars - the principle that "like cures like," which is the basis of all homeopathic medicine. Hahnemann continued to experiment with different substances, concentrations, and symptoms over the next few years, compiling his results in the 1810 book The Organon of Homeopathic Medicine. At the time of its publication, Hahnemann's work was nothing short of a revolution in medicine, and was considered to be a humane alternative to bloodletting and other barbaric medical practices of the day.
Homeopathic medicine is based on three basic principles:
- The Law of Similars: The cure for any ailment is a small dosage of a substance that causes similar symptoms in a healthy person.
- The Law of Infinitesimals: The strength of a homeopathic remedy increases with dilution in alcohol, distilled water, or milk sugar.
- The Importance of Psora: Seven-eighths of all disorders, from epilepsy to cancer to scoliosis, can be traced to psora, or skin itches.
The Dilution Delusion
Perhaps most unbelievable of these principles (next to the idea that itchy skin causes cancer, which even the strongest modern supporters of homeopathy reject) is the counter-intuitive idea that diluting a substance increases its potency. However, this dilution is critical to preparing homeopathic remedies, as Hahnemann noticed during his research that strong doses of symptom-exacerbating and toxic substances tended to exacerbate patients' symptoms and were often toxic.
Homeopathy uses the centesimal or C scale to measure the dilution, or potentisation, of a homeopathic remedy. Beginning with a pure "mother tincture" of the substance to be potentised, it is then mixed with water at a ratio of one part substance to 100 parts water. The resulting mixture, a 1C concentration of the original substance, must then be succussed - vigorously shaken ten times in order to release the "vital energy" of the diluted substance.
After this, the dilution process is repeated. One part of the diluted substance is mixed with a further 100 parts water, resulting in a 2C or 1:10,000 part mixture, then shaken again. Next is a 3C dilution, resulting in a 1:1,000,000 ratio of substance to water. A 4C dilution results in one part substance to 100,000,000 parts water, and so on.
Most commonly-available homeopathic remedies are available in concentrations of 6C or higher, a ratio of one part per trillion. Hahnemann recommended a 30C dilution for most substances, a ratio of one part substance to 1060 parts water. Over-the-counter homeopathic remedies are also available in 200C potencies, equivalent to one part substance in 10400 parts water.
At dilutions greater than 12C, it is unlikely that even a single molecule of the original substance remains in the dilution. At concentrations of 30C, one would need to take a dosage ten billion times the volume of the Earth to ingest just one molecule of the mother tincture. Since there are an estimated 1080 atoms in the observable universe, concentrations of 200C would require the patient to drink the universe many times over in order to have a measurable effect from the dissolved substance.
Homeopaths are not discouraged by such numbers, however, as they claim that the potency of the diluted substance comes not from the substance itself, but the lasting effect it has on the vital energy of the water. In other words, the water "remembers" the mother tincture, even if none of its molecules ever came into contact with it.
Books on Homeopathy
Does Water Have Memory?
Since basic physics and chemistry eliminate the possibility that highly diluted substances can have any biochemical effect on a patient, homeopaths have taken to asserting that the water retains some of the "vital essence" of the diluted substance. This is in line with Hahnemann's philosophy - and indeed the predominant medical understanding of the late 18th and early 19th centuries - that disease was caused by "bad humors" and imbalances in one's "vital force."
In the 21st century, even after the introduction of germ theory and cell theory and science-based medicine, homeopaths continue to assert that water retains a memory of the "vital essence" of the remedy substance. How the water has forgotten the many thousands of times it has been in cat urine or raw sewage, but still remembers a few molecules of duck liver or white arsenic that were once in contact with it, is a yet-to-be explained mystery.
Some researchers have even tried to prove the mnemonic properties of water scientifically. In 1988, a study published in Nature by French immunologist Jacques Benveniste claimed to have demonstrated "water memory." Benveniste and his colleagues began by diluting human antibodies in water well beyond the point at which an antibody molecule could be expected to be found in any given quantity. They then reported that human white blood cells responded to the ultra-diluted antibody solution just as they would have to the antibody itself, suggesting that the water somehow retained the memory of the antibodies.
While this result was widely promoted by homeopaths as vindication of their practices, the results were challenged by other researchers when follow-up studies failed to reproduce the same results. The positive result appeared to occur only when the study was conducted in Benveniste's lab, and then only when his technicians - two of whom were being paid for by a French homeopathic company - knew which specimens contained antibody dilution and which were the controls. When the experiment was conducted in a fully-blinded manner, with only outside observers knowing which vials were which, the water failed the memory test. Despite the fact that these new results invalidated the original study, Benveniste continued to assert his water-memory claims, even arguing that the memories of water could be stored digitally and transmitted from water to water over the phone or via the Internet.
While there are some occasional studies published that appear to show homeopathic remedies to be slightly better than a control in treating maladies from allergies to cancer, these studies are usually methodologically flawed, unreproducible, and suffer from confirmation bias. The overwhelming majority of studies on homeopathy find it to be no better than a placebo - a dummy medication given to the control group of participants in a double-blind study.
How Does Homeopathy Work?
Despite the lack of empirical evidence that homeopathy works, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence - friends or colleagues who took homeopathic remedies for a cold or flu or other illness and then got better. However, anecdotes are not data, and certainly not controlled. Based on a single observation that, for example, a neighbor cured her influenza with 200C-diluted duck liver pills, it is not possible to determine whether the homeopathic remedy cured the flu, or whether the cure was simply her body's own immune system doing its job.
Given the lack of conclusive evidence in favor of homeopathic remedies having any effect whatsoever, the facts strongly point to the latter.
Comedian Tim Minchin Explains Homeopathy
Sources and Further Information
- How Does Homeopathy Work?
Get the facts about how homeopathy works
- Woman sues homeopath over sister's cancer death - The West Australian
Penelope Dingle's sister is suing the homeopath who persuaded the cancer victim to ignore conventional treatment in favour of fighting the deadly disease with alternative medicine.
- Are the clinical effects of homoeopathy placebo effects?
A. Shang, MD, et al. Comparative study of placebo-controlled trials of homoeopathy and allopathy. The Lancet, Vol 366 August 27, 2005.
- What's the harm in homeopathy?
These are stories of people who have been harmed by not thinking critically about homeopathy. This includes deaths, injuries, hospitalizations, major financial loss and other damages.
- CSI | The Memory of Water
While the practice is indistinguishable from ritual and witchcraft, the modern homeopath would like to cloak himself in the respectability of science.
- Science-Based Medicine: Homeopathy and Its Kindred Delusions
Note: The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) is publishing a new series of e-books. The first two offerings are an excellent new book on critical...
- Why is Homeopathy Successful? | The Quackometer Blog
Just before Christmas, Lia Burkeman and Stephanie Kramer, wrote an article for Urban Times that asked the question, Homeopathy: Can it be a Success Stor...
- homeopathy - The Skeptic's Dictionary - Skepdic.com
If homeopathy works, then obviously the less you use it, the stronger it gets. So the best way to apply homeopathy is to not use it at all. --Phil Plait