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Homeopathy Hocus Pocus

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It’s lovely to have alternatives available for conventional, Western medicine. It’s nice to have an open mind. I make these statements with only a touch of wryness; I do sincerely try to keep an open mind. Nevertheless, I am really rather relieved to read news reports about a group of leading British doctors who have directly challenged the way many National Health Service (NHS) trusts use their funds. As reported by The Times Online:

A group of Britain’s leading doctors has urged every NHS trust to stop paying for alternative medicine and to use the money for conventional treatments. Their appeal is a direct challenge to the Prince of Wales’s outspoken campaign to widen access to complementary therapies. Public funding of “unproven or disproved treatments” such as homoeopathy and reflexology, which are promoted by the Prince, is unacceptable while huge NHS deficits are forcing trusts to sack nurses and limit access to life-saving drugs, the doctors say.

I have very little faith in the NHS, as some of you may already know, but, rather ironically, the aforementioned doctors’ lack of faith towards unproven alternative therapies is increasing my faith towards the doctors.

Some alternative therapies may form a solid support mechanism for suffering patients, but I do think they should be an optional extra — a luxury in a way — not something the taxpayers pay for. If any of the alternative therapies would be scientifically proven to be consistently effective in treating serious conditions, I’d be saying different things. If I have a tension headache, or if I am feeling the pressure of stress, aromatherapy might help. But I wouldn’t dream of making someone else pay for my treatment. If I have an incurable disease for which I am receiving conventional treatment, I might also wish to use some additional therapies. But the additional therapies should be a choice, an extra, and entirely at the expense of the private individual.

Some alternative therapies seem to hover between the line of conventional and alternative. That’s when this whole thing becomes very messy and it’s hard to hold on to a hard line on either side of the argument. The BBC News Online health team has a wonderful set of resources and has been examining these very issues:

Research conducted by the BBC has shown that alternative medicines are becoming increasingly popular. Yet their effectiveness is yet to be proven to the majority of medical practitioners in the UK and there are concerns over safety as many of the treatments remain untested.

My biggest beef is with Homeopathy. You see, it’s utter bollocks. Well, apart from the sometimes, admittedly, very vividly experienced Placebo effect. Let me elaborate (although the above statement sums it all up quite tidily). The original concept of Homeopathy, when explained to a person to whom metaphysical matters are of interest, will sound inviting, promising, and even plausible; to treat the patient with a little bit of what might be making them unwell. From (the utterly scrumptious) Skeptic’s Dictionary:

Classical homeopathy is generally defined as a system of medical treatment based on the use of minute quantities of remedies that in larger doses produce effects similar to those of the disease being treated. Hahnemann believed that very small doses of a medication could have very powerful healing effects because their potency could be affected by vigorous and methodical shaking (succussion). Hahnemann referred to this alleged increase in potency by vigorous shaking as dynamization. Hahnemann thought succussion could release immaterial and spiritual powers, thereby making substances more active. Tapping on a leather pad or the heel of the hand was alleged to double the dilution (ibid.).

So, the original concept seemed to have a little bit of potential, well, to gullible sorts anyway, but good grief. Basing the entire treatment on how much and through which very specific methods it has been diluted?

Let me put this in other terms. Let’s say we start with a few drops of a plant extract. All well and good. I actually do believe that plant-based medicine and treatments can be incredibly effective. After all, much of the now so-called conventional medicine started that way. However, in Hocus-pocus-pathy, you take the plant extracts, dilute, shake, take the diluted mixture, add a few drops of that to a new batch of water and dilute, shake, take the diluted mixture, add a few drops of that…well, so on and so forth, until the final remedy has as many molecules of the original plant as you would randomly find by chance in, say, sea water. Just think about that quietly for a moment.

Various tincture-based elements are then added (alcohol, grapeseed oil, or perhaps something else to give the remedy a medicinal consistency) and abracadabra, a cure-all is ready!

Homeopathy is based on the notion that water has a memory. That its molecules can remember the presence of a substance that, for all intents and purposes is no longer there. Did I mention the word bollocks yet? What homeopathic practitioners do very effectively is provide consultative, holistic treatment to their patients, complete with such apparent (or quite possibly very sincere) care for the well-being of the patient that the experience in itself must be very healing. And I don’t dispute that. I just so wish that people weren’t being told, well, bollocks.

I wish that if a practitioner were to set up a counseling and spiritual support service, they’d just set up one of those, not a charlatan outfit designed to exploit the weak and vulnerable. Homeopathy is the Scientology of alternative therapies and I really don’t think it’s fair to charge people horrid amounts for so-called remedies and therapies when it’s all a bit of a con, really.

It’s been bugging me for some time to know that, in this country, my tax money has gone towards paying for someone’s homeopathic treatments. I would certainly let out a little whoop of delight if NHS dropped that form of alternative therapy from their list of funded services. It is none of my business if people wish to pay for this kind of stuff privately (it doesn’t harm me and I know lots of people get something very real out of it), but I don’t think it has any place whatsoever standing shoulder-to-shoulder with therapies that have been scientifically proven to be effective.

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About Nukapai

I learned to write before I could read and my first story was published when I was only 9 years old. I'm interested in a range of topics - particularly in science fiction, fantasy, horror, illustration, cosmetics industry, consumer psychology, marketing and perfumery. I keep a personal blog at http://www.volatilefiction.co.uk
  • Steve

    New Scientist 8 April 2006

    The Quantum Elixir

    Water. It’s the foundation of life on Earth. But what is it about H2O that gives it this amazing ability, asks Robert Mathews

    IN NEW AGE circles, everyone is talking about it: the magical properties of the colourless, tasteless liquid the rest of us blithely refer to as water. Between frequent gulps of the life-giving elixir, those initiated into its secrets talk reverently of the work of Masaru Emoto, who is said to have proved that water responds to the emotions of those around it. They describe how Emoto has demonstrated that ice crystals made from water blessed by a Zen monk look so much more beautiful than those exposed to messages of hate. Many have bought his best-selling book detailing his findings, and many more have seen his claims covered in last year’s New Age hit movie “What the Bleep!?”

    Many scientists view all this fuss about plain old H20 as standard hippy-trippy nonsense with about as much credibility as crystal therapy. Certainly Emoto’s findings don’t have much to do with the scientific method: they are hand-picked, ad hoc and impossible to replicate. Yet though these views are too far-out to take seriously, the findings of the latest bona fide research are equally bizarre.

    It now seems that the effects of water on living organisms transcend mere chemistry: they are intimately linked to the most basic processes in the cosmos. Put bluntly, you owe your existence to quantum effects in water that make even the wackiest New Age ideas seem ho-hum.

    If cornered, any scientist would have concede that water does have some odd properties that are important for life. The fact that solid water-ice -defies convention being less dense than its liquid state has stopped the oceans from freezing solid from the bottom up and killing all marine life. And the unusual reluctance of water to heat helped the oceans to iron out climatic swings, giving organisms time to adapt.

    The simple chemical formula of water belies the subtleties behind its weirdness. The key to many of water’s properties is not the chemical bonds between the one oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms that make up the molecule. It is the links between hydrogen atoms in different molecules. These hydrogen bonds are at least 10 times as weak as a typical chemical bond, which means that while they can bind molecules together, they also break easily at room temperature.

    A single drop of water is therefore a seething melee of order and disorder, with structures constantly forming and breaking up within it. The result is a liquid with dozens of anomalous bulk properties, from a boiling point more than 150°C higher than that of comparable liquids to a marked reluctance to being compressed.

    All the bonds affecting water molecules are ultimately caused by quantum effects, but hydrogen bonds are the result of one of the strangest quantum phenomena: so-called zero-point vibrations. A consequence of Heisenberg’s famous uncertainty principle, these constant vibrations are a product of the impossibility of pinning down the total energy of a system with absolute precision at any given moment in time. Even if the universe itself froze over and its temperature plunged to absolute zero, zero-point vibrations would still be going strong, propelled by energy from empty space.

    Quantum lifeline
    In the case of water, these vibrations stretch the bonds between hydrogen atoms and their host oxygen atoms, enabling them to link up with neighbouring molecules more easily. The result is the highly cohesive liquid that keeps our planet alive.

    Felix Franks of the University of Cambridge has a nice illustration of the vital role this quantum effect plays. Just take some water and swap the hydrogen for atoms of its heavier isotope deuterium. You end up with a liquid that is chemically identical, yet poisonous to all but the most primitive organisms. “The only difference is in the zero-point energy,” says Franks.

    A growing number of researchers are now investigating the consequences of this deep link between quantum effects and life. Recent advances in theoretical methods, experimental techniques and brute computing power have allowed them to study how water interacts with DNA, proteins and cells in unprecedented detail.

    The results are often unexpected, and challenge simplistic assumptions about how life works. Certainly the fashionable view that the secret of life can be summed up in a catalogue of genes and the proteins they code for looks risibly simplistic. It is becoming clear that they cannot carry out even their most basic functions without direct help from molecules of the colourless, odourless curiosity that comes out of the tap. “Without water, it is all just chemistry” says Franks, “but add water and you get biology.”

    Some of the most impressive evidence is emerging from studies of proteins. Created from chains of amino acids linked up according to the instructions of DNA, proteins are the workhorse molecules of life. They perform a host of key functions, from fighting off invaders to catalysing reactions and building fresh cells. Their precise action depends largely on their physical shape, and water molecules have long been known to be vital in ensuring amino acids curl up in the right way. Only now are researchers discovering the mechanism.

    What they are finding is an astonishingly delicate interplay of proteins and water molecules, orchestrated by those all important hydrogen bonds. In January, Florian Garczarek and Klaus Gerwert at the department of biophysics at the Ruhr University of Bochum, Germany, reported on the role water molecules play in a protein called bacteriorhodopsin, which is found in the outer walls of primitive life forms (Nature, vol 439, p109).

    Bacteriorhodopsin undergoes a simple form of photosynthesis, using light to create a, source of chemical energy. Researchers have long suspected that this process relies on the incoming light shifting protons around the molecule, creating a charge difference that acts rather like a battery. An obvious source of protons is the hydrogen nuclei of the water trapped within the protein’s structure, but no one had shown how this could work.

    Enter Garczarek and Gerwert. They exposed bacteriorhodopsin to infrared light, and found that the behaviour of the water molecules trapped within it was far from that of idle captives. Once struck by photons of light, the shape of the protein changed,
    breaking some of the hydrogen bonds between the trapped water molecules. The pair found that this triggered a chain of events in which fragments of some water molecules and clusters of others interacted to move protons through the protein.

    This sophisticated process is all made possible by the quantum behaviour of the hydrogen bonds in water. “Having bonds that can easily be formed but are not too difficult to break is a big advantage,” says Garczarek. The results suggest that it is no accident that chains of amino acids trap water molecules as they fold up to form a protein.

    Hydrogen bonds are also turning out to have a profound role in the functioning of that other key constituent of life, DNA. As with proteins, new findings suggest it is time for a rethink of the familiar thumbnail sketch of DNA as a double helix of four chemical bases.

    To perform its biological functions, DNA has to carry out various manoeuvres, twisting, turning and docking with proteins at just the right place. No problem for a metre-long stringy molecule like DNA, one might think. Yet on the far smaller scale where the real action takes place – typically a few hundred bases – DNA is pretty rigid. And then there’s the mystery of how proteins meet up with just the right parts of the double helix.

    Biochemists have long suspected water molecules are important: concentrations of them around DNA appear to correlate with biological activity. It turns out that water undergoes radical changes as it approaches the surface of DNA. As the molecules draw near the double helix, the seething network of hydrogen bonds within bulk water becomes disrupted, and the motion of individual molecules becomes more and more sluggish.

    The latest research focuses on what happens around the “troughs” in the double helix formed by specific base pairs. It seems that water molecules linger longer and rotate more slowly around some base pairs than others. Suddenly that link between hydration levels and biological activity doesn’t seem so perplexing. After all, the base pairs on DNA are the building blocks of genes, and their sequence dictates the order in which amino acids are stitched together to make proteins. If water molecules linger longer around some base pairs than others, the level of hydration will mirror the sequence of base pairs.

    Monika Fuxreiter of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences Biological Research Centre in Budapest believes that this explains how proteins and DNA interact. She and her colleagues at BRC’s Institute of Enzymology created a computer simulation of DNA and a protein called BamHI, which uses water molecules to cut DNA at very specific points.

    They saw that adding virtual water molecules to the mix had a dramatic effect. “The water molecules report the DNA sequence to the protein while it is still some distance away,” says Fuxreiter. “Then as the protein gets closer, the water molecules are ejected from the site until it binds tightly to the DNA.”

    According to Fuxreiter the water molecules relay messages to the protein via electrostatic forces, which reflect the varying levels of hydration on the DNA. They can even warn the approaching protein about potential problems with the DNA before it arrives. If the DNA is distorted due to some defect it becomes more hydrated and the protein can’t make proper contact,” says Fuxreiter. “Instead, it moves to another site which is very good biologically.” Fuxreiter’s team is now planning to test just how effective water molecules are in determining where and when proteins bind to DNA.

    That there is more to water than hydrogen and oxygen is something many researchers welcome. But Rustum Roy, a materials scientist at Pennsylvania State University in University Park goes further. He thinks it is time for a radical overhaul of the scientific view of water – one which, he believes, has been dominated by chemistry for too long. “It’s absurd to say that chemical composition dictates everything,” he says. “Take carbon, for example – the same atoms can give you graphite or diamond.” In a review paper published in Materials Research Innovations in December, Roy and a team of collaborators called for a re-examination of the case against the most controversial of all claims made for water: that it has a “memory”.

    The idea that water can retain some kind of imprint of compounds dissolved in it has long been cited as a possible mechanism for homeopathy, which claims to treat ailments using solutions of certain compounds. Some homeopathic remedies are so dilute they

    no longer contain a single molecule of the original compound – prompting many scientists to dismiss homeopathic effects as imaginary. For how can water with nothing in it act as anything other than water?

    Roy believes this is too simplistic: “It is a naive, chemistry-schoolbook argument.” He argues that water has proved itself capable of effects that go beyond simple chemistry, and these may imbue water with a memory. One way this may occur, he says, is through an effect known as epitaxy: using the atomic structure of one compound as a template to induce the same structure in others.

    Hidden depths
    Epitaxy is routinely used in the microprocessor industry to create perfect semiconductor crystals. And according to Roy, water already exhibits epitaxial effects. “The ‘seeding’ of clouds is the growth of crystalline ice on a substrate of silver iodide, which has the same crystal structure,” he says. “No chemical transfer whatsoever occurs.”

    Roy and his colleagues also point to another effect they believe has been overlooked by mainstream scientists in their rush to dismiss homeopathy: the vigorous shaking of the mixtures used, a process called succussion. The team estimates that shock waves generated by the shaking can cause localised pressures inside the water to reach over 10,000 atmospheres, which may trigger fundamental changes in the properties of the water molecules.

    Roy believes that by taking homeopathy seriously scientists may find out more about water’s fundamental properties. “The problem is that much more research needs to be done to find the right techniques to probe the properties of water reliably,” he says.

    However, many scientists question the very idea of taking homeopathy seriously. The most recent review of the medical evidence found that homeopathic remedies were no better than a placebo in all but a handful of cases (Journal ofAlternative and Complementary Medicine, vol 11, p813). That is likely to put the brakes on research into this aspect of water. “Rigorous experiments need to be done to provide support for all scientific claims,” says theoretical chemist David Clary at the University of Oxford. “I don’t think it is worth spending time on this.” Chemist Martin Chaplin of London South Bank University is more sympathetic: “I think there may be something in it, but we need good experiments – and the best researchers won’t go near the subject.”

    The latest discoveries about the role of water in living processes may change that, however. After decades of research, Franks sums up his view of the simple little molecule we call H20 in terms that will put a smile on the face of New Age hippies everywhere: “It’s the magic ingredient that turns lifeless powders on laboratory shelves into living things.” •

    Robert Matthews is visiting reader in science at Aston University, Birmingham, UK. His latest book, “25 Big Ideas: The science that’s changing our world”, is published by OneworldStS

  • sal m

    first, i love the term bollocks, but being an american it’s very hard to be taken seriously using it in conversation.

    second, i agree with nukapai and think that homeopathy is just another scam. the fact that people pay for it with their own money is bad enough, but to have the government to pay for it is pure folly…and bollocks!

  • Bollocks is actually a fairly respectable word these days, Sal, particularly on our less prudish side of the Atlantic!

    It can also be used to describe the reasoning processes of people like our new visitor Steve. He’s obviously mastered the tricky art of cut-and-paste but not quite yet come to terms with actually understanding ideas.

    Whilst it’s obviously true there is more to water than meets the eye, Steve seems to think that one scientist’s mild contention that more research needs to be done somehow implies that homeopathy is a reliable course of treatment. That, of course, is total bollocks! Probably.

  • Bliffle

    Homeopathy, like most alternative medicines I’ve heard of, is bollocks. But placebo therapy really works! I know, ’cause I tested it on myself. When a psychiatrist gave me zoloft for depression, I walked out of his office and swallowed two with a big gulp of water from the fountain, and 15 minutes later I was happy as a lark! Humming a happy tune, the sky was bluer, the air was fresher, everything was beautiful! Later, I learned it takes two weeks for zoloft to take effect.

    And placebos are a lot cheaper than those alternative medicines.

  • I’m impressed with the copy & paste skills of the first commenter, but nothing else about his comment really does impress.

    I enjoy speculating on both sides of the fence in matters such as these, but there’s a point where you can start using logic and critical thinking ability to make some conclusions.

    Mine were summed up in the above article, so I won’t repeat them here. 😉

    As for the word “bollocks” – well, it does sound delightfully comical and out of context in serious discussions, which is exactly why I like using it occasionally. The old “splash of cold water on the face”-effect.


  • Oh, just to add: James Randi has an ongoing, valid challenge out for anyone to prove to him (and to the rest of the world) that Homeopathy works – and James has promised to pay the person(s) who pull that off a million dollars. Oddly, nobody has claimed the money… hmm. 🙂

  • Nukapai:
    I’ve always had my doubts about Homeopathy, and I’m an advocate of complementary medicines. I hate the term alternative, it makes it sound like going to the doctor is usless. Which is, of course, a load of bollocks.

    I’ve had some success using herbs to treat something like a cough or a minor bacterial infection, usually just by making a tea and taking it regularly, but I also rely on an MD for my treatments for chronic pain and narcotics for my medication, because they work and nothing else does. Period.

    I had accupuncture treatments save my leg when I had nerve damage so severe it was turning black from the circulation dying, but I’m not going to use it for everything because it’s only appropriate for certain things not others. Hell the pain therapy I’m undergoing is based on premises developed by accupuncture (my doctor calls it nuclear powered accupuncture-trigger point injections into the myofacial sheath surrounding muscles to release areas of muscle that are in permanent spasm. Its a perfect example of how systems of medicine can compliment each other)

    Where I live, Ontario Canada, treatments have to prove they have a track record before they are covered by the government insurance program. In other words they have to pretty much go through the same testing regieme as a drug does.

    The only unfortunate thing is you get a bunch of yo yos setting themself up as “healers” and not only being potentially dangerous to others health, but giving the name of complimentary medicine a bad name. ( A friend of mine went to an ear-candeler and the so called healer set his hair on fire)

    There’s just too much new-age bollocks being asociated with stuff that’s been going on for thousands of years, and being made out to be something it’s not. Nothing is a freaking miriacle cure, and anything that claims it is should be immediatly treated as suspect.

    The reason I liked my accupuncterist the first time I went for treatment was that she offered to treat me for free when she found out my finances were lousy, so she wasn’t in it for just the money, and she said she couldn’t promise anything but she’d do her best.

    If only all doctors had her honesty and integrity. Anything else is just bollocks.

    (I think we need to start a movement to integrate bollocks into regular usage on this side of the atlantic, its a fine old anglo saxon expression, rich and imanginative. It entered my vocabularly when my supervisor for two years was an Englishman, who was able to work it into almost every sentance he used. A true inspiration, although it was like working in a Carry On movie)

  • Ha! The bollocks-movement. All kinds of fun could be had…

    Thank you for your comment, Richard!

    A few points to respond to: use of herbs – as I already underlined in the above article, I do NOT wish to lump herbal medicine and Homeopathy in the same camp. Not at all. Most people know that Aspirin originates from a plant source, or that the prescription drugs for IBS are often nothing but gelatine-coated peppermint oil (and they’re very effective!). Herbs can work, but sadly (or more like: infuriatingly!) Homeopathic “practitioners” often like to associate themselves with “herbal remedies”.

    The wilderness of misinformation is breathtaking and the number of people who happily exploit that is ever increasing.

    Another comment I’d like to add is that I completely understand WHY people seek out “alternatives”. Most conventional doctors work under such pressure to meet quotas, or are just too darn clinical and matter-of-fact (and dare I say narrow minded) in their approach that the vulnerable human being trying to find someone who would just LISTEN and take CARE will turn to just about anyone… I’ve been there, I’ve experienced it, but my choice was to seek a second medical opinion, not to run to a Homeopath. In fact, if I had done the latter, I could conceivably have suffered fatal complications from my medical issues at the time.

    Homeopathy and other cons like these can be dangerous and I really feel strongly about that.

  • ostrova

    I was treated for a number of years by a homeopath, who was also an MD. My understanding is, that’s the way it has to be in the USA: to practice as a homeopath one must also be an alleopathic physician. Incidentally, the University of Michigan’s med school was at one time homeopathic. If you read “Little Women” you can find references to homeopathic remedies, and not as quaint little teas but as pain-killers. Yeah, you can buy some off the shelf at a lot of health food stores but there’s more to it.I found out I was getting better results than friends who tried to treat themselves that way or who didn’t cut out foods that negated remedies (mints, for ex). You don’t have to enlist but knock off the sneering, OK?

  • There is no sneering. I fully appreciate that people believe in Homeopathy and have had very real results from it, as stated above. However, it is due to Placebo effect and it angers me to see that there is so much bullshit spread about what is essentially a very large and complex hoax.

  • Orchid

    Before dismissing homeopathic remedies because their results can’t be proven, skeptics might want to look into the provability of many medical treatements that are recognized as having “proven” results. For instance, for those with back problems, the rates of improvement are equal for no treatment (aside from talking to the doctor), surgery, and non-invasive treatment (talking to the doctor, pills, massage).

    A lot of medical procedures, particularly in the case of obviously diseased or damaged tissues, are clearly helpful but the types of problems homeopathy is often used to address (chronic pain, for instance)do not have “proven” treatments in conventional medicine.

    At the very least, most of the treatements have not been shown to be greater than the effect of a placebo. In such cases, you’re saying it’s better to pay the much higher expense of conventional medical treatment to get the placebo effect than to pay the generally lower cost of a homeopathic treatment.

    The bottom line is that the best way to lower costs is to teach people that the power to heal is often largely within themselves (hence the reason the placebo effect works) and they don’t need a doctor, witch doctor or healer to help them get better in most cases. Unfortunately, this isn’t a mindset those who scoff at homeopathy and endorse conventional medical treatment are fostering. In fact, you are, in essence, reinforcing the notion that only a doctor can be trusted to effectively heal a person.

  • Orchid posted: “In such cases, you’re saying it’s better to pay the much higher expense of conventional medical treatment to get the placebo effect than to pay the generally lower cost of a homeopathic treatment.”

    No. I am saying that it is better not to put any of the taxpayer’s money on something that is known to be a hoax.

    I have no doubt that there are many “medically approved” treatments that do not offer particularly good results. I would be totally in the favour of re-examining the effectiveness of those.

    I have no doubt the entire system of medical treatments is flawed.

    But just because something else is also flawed does not make Homeopathy any more real. It’s still hocus-pocus.

    I know thousands, even millions of people will have excellent anecdotal evidence of Homeopathy’s wondrous results. But then, thousands, or even millions of people also believe that the world has other quite magical and mystical things going on, which also amount to hocus-pocus. People always look for patterns, connections – and they love being able to believe in things. Homeopathy offers comfort for many.

    What makes me angry is the con aspect of it. If you set out a service to offer comfort and to offer councelling, or hope, then call it that. Don’t call it “herbal medicine”. Don’t spread mis-information. There are enough lies in our world; I really don’t like when more of them are perpetuated.

  • Oops, forgot to add a reply to this:

    “In fact, you are, in essence, reinforcing the notion that only a doctor can be trusted to effectively heal a person.”

    I did not set out to reinforce such a notion. I wonder why you have interpreted my article in such a way?

  • I love this article for your great detail on how homeopathy works, or rather, doesn’t. One thing not mentioned in this piece, though, is the opposite end of the spectrum on the “medicines” offered through homeopaths: TOO MUCH of an extract. Because homeopathic remedies aren’t regulated (at least here in the U.S.) the way regular medications are, the amount and the quality of the ingredients often vary widely.

    As a nurse, I have worked with too many patients who believed they weren’t in any danger by taking “natural” elixirs, only to wind up in kidney or liver failure.

    It’s one thing to use some complementary therapies as adjuncts to traditional medicine, but not in lieu of them. In treating a patient, one must tend to the whole person, not just the physical. Relaxation helps the healing process and can be achieved via many routes.

    Nice job on the article.

  • Thank you, Joan.

    It sounds like you might be referring to other alternative therapies (that’s a huge generalisation, I know) in your example of too much of an extract being given; in Homeopathy there really aren’t any “active ingredients” left by the time the tincture or pills are administered. What you’ll normally find is an alcohol content, or a lactose pill base with various other base ingredients to make up the “remedy”…

    In some herbal medicine and certainly in cases of over-zealous supplement-popping general public there seems to exist an awful lot of ignorance on what is safe to take and what isn’t. I understand that many practitioners of complimentary/alternative therapies might be dealing in and selling a variety of remedies, so they might be providing homeopathic consultations as well as recommending supplements.

    It is of course very dangerous to take too much of something that is, say, fat soluble and becomes toxic in larger doses (like vitamin A for instance). There isn’t enough easy to understand information out there on these issues and the malpractices of exploitative charlatans (or if not exploitative, then at least ignorant!) – well, they lead to the sorts of results you describe. It’s worrying and could potentially harm those people who wish to purchase potent, REAL supplements (such as mineral and vitamin supplements) through legitimate means.

    In Europe, there has been a lot of discussion on what should be allowed to be sold over the counter and in health food stores. I would be upset if we, as a society were more and more geared towards having to go to the doctor even if we just needed some extra iron – but that’s where we’re (ironically) heading, if the alternative therapies aren’t curbed, regulated in some way and curtailed to the ones that are a bit more than a con.

  • -E

    Congrats! This article has been selected as one of this week’s Editors’ Picks.

  • Thank you very much indeed! I am very happy about that! Wow 🙂

    James Randi would be happy too, perhaps. Heh.

  • Jerry

    Nukapai seems to be a salesman for the drug companies.

  • Rajesh

    Hi! Well, I dont have a concrete scientific explaination but my own experience. I took Antidepressants for many years but to no effect. Life completely changed for me after being treated by a homeopath. If homeopathy is simply a placebo and if placebos can be so incredibly effective, let us promote placebo.

    Also, I loved to book by Amy Lanky–The impossible cure. Both of us did our PhDs from Stanford in CS and we are too bright to be fooled by any fraud

  • Rajesh, indeed, I’ll be first to admit that Placebo IS in fact the most powerful medicine in the world! Most doctors would agree.

    Jerry may have missed the subtle point I was trying to underline. That I would like to call spade a spade. If placebo is what’s been sold, then let’s call it that. I hate spin and mis-information.

  • Interesting debate. But I struggle to see what the problem is. Let’s say homeopathy is bollocks, at least in so far as when it works, it’s as a placebo. Presumably the placebo effect is enhanced by the symbolism and ritual involved in preparing and choosing the remedies, ie a placebo chosen based on some mythology, notion or metaphor is more likely to work than just being handed a sugar pill. But surely if it IS working for some people (alleviating actual suffering) that’s OK – how would suppressing or undermining something that works (albeit on the basis of bollocks) to protect some abstract notion of scientific method be improving the lot of humankind? Or am I missing something?

  • Thank you for the comment – and for getting to the core of the moral dilemma in this issue. I’m glad you’ve raised it.

    Basically – the dilemma is as follows:

    – Doctors are supposed to follow a certain moral code with their patients, which includes the code of honesty. In other words, doctors are not allowed to lie to their patients

    – When selling or advertising goods or services, there are bodies such as advertising standard authorities that monitor claims made by sellers and advertisers. If something is sold on false claims (or claims that can’t be verified), the claim has to be withdrawn

    – The above becomes a big problem when tax payer’s money is put towards funding a placebo-based treatment option

    … I hope you’ll see what I was getting at?

  • I think I do. From this perspective the issue seems to be the communication that happens around homeopathy more than homeopathy itself. Many things are advertised (and prescribed, for that matter) without offering precisely quantified, cause-and-effect results. What about other unpredictable treatments like cognitive behavioural therapy – which works (when it does) through an exchange of purely symbolic, unquantifiable entities, ie language?

  • I’m yet to hear of a CBT therapist who wouldn’t openly admit to the results being difficult to quantify (for the sorts of reasons you describe) and as such, difficult to replicate in an exact way (because in CBT the major part of the therapy relies on engagement and effort from the patient – in other words, the patient is his or her own CBT therapist and the learned expert merely provides the instruments and encouragement). In many ways, CBT therapists have to be more explicitly clear about the pitfalls in their form of therapy from the very start – because if you don’t do the straight talking part where you explain that CBT will only work if the patient is willing to do a great deal of work themselves – then it’s pointless to even start.

    Whereas, Homeopathy is shrouded in deliberately misleading metaphysical poppycock to make things seem magical and mysterious. In fact, I would hate to see what would happen to a, say, anxiety patient when one form of avoidance and totem-like attachment to “safety objects” or rituals is replaced with those of the Homeopathy trade (rather than dealing with the underlying crisis that is causing the anxiety in the first place).

    To draw a comparison, it’d be like the CBT therapist stating, deadpan and earnestly: “Now then, Mr Jones, your panick attacks will be greatly eased if you take a side-step every 10th pace when walking because the anxiety energies can leak out of your walking rhythm into the invisible cloud of despair and stop bugging you.”

  • Actually, to REALLY simplify this argument, consider this:

    – Is it morally acceptable to make personal gain (i.e. money) from deceiving others?

    Then we’d have to consider:

    – Do all or some practitioners, manufacturers and re-sellers of Homeopathic treatments and remedies KNOWINGLY deceive others?

  • Roy

    I wonder if deceive is the right word. My take on the process is that users enter into a consensual belief system which sometimes has beneficial effects (eg my colleague’s painful skin condition clearing up.) This involves ‘metaphysical poppycock to make things seem magical and mysterious’, though to some this is akin to the small print that comes with the proper drugs – you know it’s there, but don’t take much notice. I concede that the issue of funding via the NHS is problematic. However, I don’t see the harm – furthermore, let’s say your argument prevails – my colleagues painful skin condition would not have been fixed, so is there a greater good that would justify his particular suffering continuing?

  • So you’re saying the end justifies the means?

    I would say “sometimes”.

    I just have a particular problem with dishonesty for profit.

  • There are some wonderful success stories on the above website that includes animals, which vet wanted to have put to sleep. One was a dog that broke its shoulder bone, jaw and teeth, had a collapsed lung and various cuts and abrasions when it was knocked down by a car. And another one where a dog lost all its fur but with the help of ONLY homeopathy is now recovering.

    Conventional vets are jealous of the fact they’re unable to cure such cases. Thankfully homeopathy can and at a fraction of the cost.

  • Eanna

    Don’t believe everything that you read. Much of the medical research is funded by the drug companies, and you can guess what the outcome will be. Drugs are big business, and the drug companies have a vested interest in discrediting alternative medicine. Try homeopathy for yourself, and see what you think.

  • I wish the staunch defenders of Homeopathy would take their own advice (in not believing everything) and I also wish they would add something new to this discussion.

    We have already established that there is plenty of anecdotal evidence for Homeopathy and that there are plenty of strong believers in its ability to heal.

    There is, however, no actual scientific evidence for how it could work (in any other way than by a complex combination of placebo and other environmental factors).

    Defenders of Homeopathy tend to favour emotional appeals, conspiracy theories and the old “ah, but it’s been said to work on animals, so it must work.”

    But such defenders rarely argue based on reason, logic or evidence.

    I can post links too:

    Ben Goldacre:

    “Time after time, properly conducted scientific studies have proved that homeopathic remedies work no better than simple placebos. So why do so many sensible people swear by them? And why do homeopaths believe they are victims of a smear campaign? Ben Goldacre follows a trail of fudged statistics, bogus surveys and widespread self-deception.

    Ben Goldacre
    The Guardian
    Friday November 16 2007”

    Full article here.

    TIME magazine.

    “Millions of people around the world swear by the alternative medicine homeopathy. In Britain, the Royal Family endorses and uses it. But that hasn’t deterred the editors of The Lancet, the prestigious British medical journal, which has launched an all-out attack on homeopathy. In its current issue, The Lancet published a massive study that compared the results of 110 trials of homeopathy with the same number of trials of conventional medicine. The conclusion: benefits attributed to homeopathy were, at best, placebo effects.”

    …. but then, posting links to material that others have written does not really accomplish much.

    Especially not in the Homeopathy arguments, where we could be at this until we grow old.

    I can’t force a person to consider things reasonably if they refuse to do so. That’s why I know that trying to have a debate about Homeopathy with one of its advocates is, ultimately, a bit futile.

    Finally, I’d like to add that throwing Homeopathy into the large category of “alternative therapies” is a bit like throwing Scientology into the larger category of “Spiritual thought”.

    I am by no means pro-huge drug companies. I don’t agree with much of what they’re up to either. I also really don’t see why calling Homeopathy to prove itself on scientific ground or stop being sold as “medicine” somehow defaults me into the pro-drug company position. Those aren’t naturally opposing positions.

    What if I’m anti-bullshitting consumers, regardless of where the bullshit comes from?

  • Dr. Nancy Malik

    Homeopathy cures where Conventional Medicine fails

  • Good article.
    I do agree with you but do my words.
    There are many people who have chronic diseases, wether it is back pain, stress, skin disorders etc..
    For these, traditional medecine can only offer limited relief. For that kind of pain/problems alternative therapies can go a very long way to provide much more comfort to these people.

    Hope that makes sense

  • Steve W

    Great article and though a little old now, I’d still like to add something to the table.

    Perhaps water may have some properties that are not fully understood yet, but I always find it funny when believers in homeopathy keep on giving the argument that water may have a long term memory for substances.

    If we were to run with that idea of water having a long term memory, isn’t it wonderfully convenient that it remembers the substance which, in its incredibly diluted form, will do you some good and that the water has luckily got amnesia when it comes to all the excrement, urine and other nasty stuff that has been in it which, y’know, might just skew the desired effect just a bit.