Homeopathy: is there any truth to the claims or is it all watery nonsense?

Homeopathy is touted by many homeopaths as being the cure to many ailments without the side effects of many currently available medications. Drug stores across the country are beginning to sell these remedies and people are snatching them up as a natural way to cure whatever ails them. But is there anything to these treatments or are they just expensive sugar pills?

Samuel Hahnemann using his idea that ‘like cures like’ and dilution increases potency developed homeopathy in 1796. In 1796, homeopathy may have been effective in treating people not because it actually treated their disease, but because unlike the old archaic medicine of the time, which included bloodletting, it didn’t do harm to the patients and so didn’t kill them early. But don’t mistake this for actually working.

To begin analyzing homeopathy we will look at the claims behind how homeopathy works and then look at some scientific studies testing the effectiveness of treatments.

Homeopathy’s foundation ideology is like cures like. Seems simple enough but it makes no sense when you think about it. If someone has trouble breathing because their asthma is causing their airways to narrow, I wouldn’t think about giving them something that causes a normal person to feel breathless (like histamine). This would cause that asthmatic person to have an even more difficult time breathing and would likely result in them being hospitalized or their death. What I would give them is something that antagonizes or reverses the narrowing so they can breathe. It is just intuitive. If someone is bleeding too much, you don’t give them something that will make them bleed more. Like does not cure like.

Homeopathic remedies are dilations of various ingredients and it is suggested by homeopaths that diluting something makes it more potent because water has a memory of whatever was diluted into it. Two things:

  1. Diluting something does not make it more potent. That makes no sense. Homeopaths often use a scale of dilutions known as centesimal scale and if you look at remedies you will see the notations 1C, 3C, 4C…200C beside the ingredients. This is an indication of how diluted the substance is and in the case of homeopathy, how potent a substance is (200C is more potent than 100C for example). The science behind this doesn’t hold up however. Arinca Montana pills (commonly used for the treatment of muscle pains) is sold in a 30C concentration. 30C means the arnica has been diluted by a factor of 1 in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (or 1 in 1026). In order to get 1 molecule of active ingredient in arnica, you would need to give someone billions of doses per second for billions of billions of years. Another way to look at it is a 30C dilution is equivalent to having 1 milliliter of Arnica solution in enough water to fill a sphere that is 131 light years in diameter! It is not uncommon for some homeopathic remedies to contain ingredients with upwards of 200C. There is no way that any of these remedies are anything but water. For an example of this, a beer (pint or 568mL) that is 5% alcohol by volume has 28.4mL of ethanol in it. Now if I dilute that beer to 30C it will have 0.0001 yoctolitres of alcohol in it. That is 1 millionth of a millionth of a millionth of a millionth of a liter of alcohol or 0.000000000000000000000000017%. Go ahead and drink it, I bet you won’t get drunk. Another example, because it is just so unbelievable that this stuff would work, the homeopathic remedy for the flu, Oscillococcinum or duck liver, is commonly given as a 200C dilution. In order to get one molecule of duck liver in the final solution, the amount of fluid you would need would be greater than the observable universe, 10320 times larger to be more precise!
  2. Water does not have a memory of anything that has been diluted in it. While it has been shown that water can form short-lived structures that look like cages, these cages do not contain information about what they once contained. The idea of water memory is ludicrous if you think about it. If water has a memory of dilutions and can affect your health then it water remembers all the feces and urine flushed down the toilette daily and you should get sick from drinking it. If water has a memory, then water in a lake should have amazing healing properties because all the plants around the lake are leeching their proteins and chemicals into the water, the very chemicals that homeopaths dilute to insane levels to treat you. Water memory does not exist and you should be glad that it doesn’t.

Now onto some scientific evidence. The gold standard for testing how effective a drug or treatment is the placebo controlled trial where everyone is blind to the treatment being given and the patients are randomly assigned to each group. Anything less than this, including no randomization or lack of blinding, can introduce bias into the results.

The first study we look at was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Surgery shows that in a meta-analysis of studies that used proper placebo controlled studies, Arnica Montana was no better than placebo at treating a variety of disorders (including muscle soreness, acute trauma and stroke).

The next study, published in the Lancet, found a small effect of homeopathy over placebo but that they could find no clinical evidence for the effectiveness of homeopathy for the treatment of any single clinical condition. The authors of this study published a follow up a few years later and said that in light of new studies with negative results, homeopathy is likely ineffective or the effects are grossly overestimated. They also acknowledged that studies with better-controlled methodology and less bias were more likely to show negative results for homeopathic treatments.

Another study from 2008 from Cochrane reviews showed that for the treatment of asthma, no strong evidence existed that homeopathic treatment of asthma is effective. In a study from 2005 in the Lancet it was shown that when accounting for biases in homeopathic remedies and conventional medicine, the clinical effects of homeopathic remedies were likely placebo and were less effective than conventional treatments.

Even researchers who are sympathetic towards homeopathic treatments have a hard time proving its effects. A study from 2006 in the Journal of Alternative Medicine showed that homeopathic treatments did not reduce the duration or severity of diarrhea in Honduran children.

While there are a few studies showing positive effects of homeopathic treatments many of these have problems of bias, including lack of true randomization, lack of placebo treatment or problems with small sample size. The small sample problem is a big one as it can lead to results that may look real but likely are not. Take a coin flip as example. You would expect if you flipped a coin 20 times that heads would come up 10 times and tails 10 times. When you actually flip the coin 20 times, heads may come up 14 times and tails may come up 6 times. Does that mean that heads is a more common outcome than tails? No, it just means you haven’t done enough flips to take out the variable of random chance. These studies suffer a similar problem, look at 20 people and there may be by chance a response to homeopathic remedies.

Another problem with homeopathic treatments is regression towards the mean. This is a term used to explain how outliers in data or situations tend to return to normal values the more they are tested. Think of regression towards the mean this way, a hockey team normally scores 3 goals a game until one game they blow up for 8 goals against a team. Is it reasonable to assume that the next game and the game after that they will have 8 goals? No, it is more likely that the one game was a statistical blip on the radar and that their next game they will be back to their average. A similar thing occurs with illness and homeopathic treatments. People usually look for treatments when their pain or health is worse than it normally is and so many times they assume that they feel better because of the treatment. In actuality, pain and illness will normally return to an average level over time because that peak in pain is known as an outlier. Say your headaches normally cause you to suffer pain that you would rate a 5 on a scale of 1-10. Now today you get a particularly bad one that is a 9 on a scale of 1-10 and so you start taking a homeopathic remedy to prevent these bad ones in the future. Your next few headaches are not as bad and so you think the remedy is work, but is it? It is much more likely that you have just returned to your normal type of headache pain and that the one-day was a blip in the radar. This is why the testing of any new drug requires a placebo control (sugar pill). No drug is effective if it does not improve symptoms or speed recovery more than a sugar pill does.

In order for homeopathic treatments to be accepted as effective treatments, homeopaths and homeopathic researchers need to provide quality data. This includes not only clinical trials but also hard-core scientific evidence. If you say a homeopathic treatment can affect wound healing, show it in a science lab using cells and identify proteins affected by the treatment. Other medications go through a rigorous scientific analysis to determine how the drug functions, homeopathic remedies should be held to the same standards.

Not everything from the homeopathic way of treatment is bad. The way homeopaths take the time to learn all of patient’s symptoms and behaviors is something all healthcare practitioners should learn. Rather than trying to throw medication at the problem, we should be learning the history of the problem and trying to treat the underlying problem or preventing it. The difference is doctors will use medication that actually works, and not just water.

One final way to know homeopathy doesn’t work, Arnica Montana is also known as Wolfsbane and contains a toxin helenalin. Helenalin causes gastrointestinal inflammation and internal bleeding when eaten in large enough quantities. Take a whole bottle of Arnica (30C) homeopathic remedy and nothing will happen….nothing at all. Above all else, avoid scummy sales people like this guy who claim that homeopathy can cure anything under the sun.

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