Jesica DeHart’s introduction to homeopathy came in an unexpected place–an emergency medical training class. “The instructor told us to put homeopathic remedies in our first aid kit,” she says. DeHart wanted to check it out first on herself, so she took the teacher’s advice and stocked up on arnica, a remedy for reducing bruising and swelling.
When she had cause to use it, she was pleasantly surprised at how well it soothed her bruises. Eventually she added other homeopathic remedies to her repertoire, including one for cramps and another for stomach upset. “Sometimes they were completely effective, other times not,” she says. “But I always felt like it was worth a try.”
Eight months ago, DeHart had a baby and her interest in homeopathy soared. “Having a child makes you hyper-aware of how you treat health problems, and I want a gentle option for my son,” says the 30-year-old stay-at-home mom. Since Emmit was born, she’s used homeopathic remedies to ease his colic and teething pain.
“Homeopathy is non-invasive,” she says. “I like the idea that it’s getting the body to heal itself.”
Whatever homeopathy is, it’s hardly new. In fact, it’s 200 years old. What is new is that people like DeHart are fed up with the side effects, expense, and sometimes poor results of conventional drug therapy and are turning to homeopathy in record numbers. According to one report, published last year in Annals of Internal Medicine, the number of Americans using homeopathy skyrocketed 500 percent in the last decade. One of the most comprehensive government surveys to date on Americans’ use of complementary and alternative medicine found that more than 7.3 million people have tried it.
Government stats aside, everyone knows the real truth is in retail. Last year, Americans spent an estimated $425 million on homeopathic remedies, according to J.P. Borneman, the CEO of Boiron and a spokesperson for the American Association of Homeopathic Pharmacists. As the fourth generation in the business of homeopathic pharmacy, Borneman has seen business ebb and flow with Americans’ love-hate relationship with Western medicine. But the real turning point for homeopathy, he says, came in the 1990s when remedies made the leap from health food stores to chain behemoths like Target, Kmart, and Walgreens.
Still, add up all the statistics, sales numbers, and anecdotal stories, and the fact remains that no one has yet proved how homeopathy works-a fact that emboldens skeptics and causes consternation among practitioners.
“I use it in my clinic, but every time I do, I roll my eyes,” says David Katz, associate clinical professor of public health at the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center. “I wish I knew if and how it works. Maybe the whole thing is a placebo effect.”
Katz’s use of the “p-word” touches on the biggest criticism of homeopathy–that the practice is nothing but a placebo. In the United States, the National Council Against Health Fraud, a non-profit watchdog agency, calls homeopathy a cult and practitioners quacks. In France last September, the Academie de Medecine, the country’s most respected medical authority, denounced homeopathy as mumbo jumbo. That blow was especially low considering the French are the world’s largest consumers; roughly 70 percent of France’s population uses homeopathy, and French physicians routinely prescribe it.
But the cries that it’s only a placebo are weakening. Perhaps the best thing to happen to homeopathy in recent years is the research showing it to be much more than that.
The good press started back in 1997 when the well-respected medical journal The Lancet published a meta-analysis of placebo-controlled studies on homeopathy. In 89 studies rigorously designed to evaluate its ability to treat and prevent various illnesses, the odds consistently showed homeopathy to be more effective than a placebo.
More recently, Wayne B. Jonas, a physician and director of the Samueli Institute for Information Biology, in Alexandria, Va., assembled an even more comprehensive overview of homeopathy studies, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. The paper took into account four different meta-analyses and found homeopathy to be effective in treating allergies, childhood diarrhea, postoperative trauma, and influenza. “The weight of the current evidence right now falls slightly in favor of homeopathy,” says Jonas.
Bottom line: It works
Homeopathic physician Corey Weinstein hasn’t let the discussions about how homeopathy works get in his way. Each year, hundreds of patients flow through his office in San Francisco. Weinstein has practiced homeopathy for 30 years and prescribes homeopathic remedies for everything from colds to cancer. “I’ve never seen an illness or condition that homeopathy hasn’t helped,” he says.
While he doesn’t hold any romanticized notions that homeopathy is a cure-all, he does think it’s too valuable to dismiss. “The idea that for homeopathy to be good science we have to understand how it works is absurd,” he says. “If that were the case for everything allopathic medicine offers, we never would have OK’d the use of aspirin.”
Like cures like
Developed in the late 18th century by the German physician Samuel Christian Hahnemann, homeopathy is based on the “law of similars.” After noticing that a common remedy for malaria, cinchona, produced malaria-like symptoms in people, Hahnemann came up with the idea that “like cures like.”
The premise is that illness can be treated with small doses of a substance-animal, vegetable, and/or mineral-that mimics the malady’s symptoms. The last thing you’d think to give a stressed-out person, for example, is caffeine, yet that’s the primary ingredient in a common homeopathic remedy for promoting relaxation. According to Hahnemann’s theory, homeopathy jump-starts the body’s own healing process by introducing tiny amounts of the right substances.
Jonas, author of Healing with Homeopathy: The Complete Guide, is also trying to decipher the riddle of homeopathy. Scientists in his lab recently discovered that in a vial of water, there are interactions between the water and the glass; when you shake the vial, the silica comes off the glass and produces various chemical subspecies, some of which may be biologically active. “That kind of chemistry could be producing some of the effect we’re seeing in homeopathy,” he says.
Another theory centers on the importance of the practitioner/patient relationship. Corey Weinstein’s initial appointment with a patient, for instance, can easily last an hour and a half. The goal is to ascertain what remedy, out of the thousands available, might best address the person’s complaint.
Could it be that patients simply feel better once a health care provider listens raptly to their woes? Jonas thinks it’s a real possibility, but that doesn’t detract from homeopathy’s power, he says. “If that turns out to be a major reason for the effects of homeopathy, it’s still a huge contribution to medicine.”
Needless to say, this idea is unpopular among homeopaths, who don’t appreciate being seen as glorified therapists doling out sugar pills.
What about people whose symptoms improve with over-the-counter homeopathic remedies? When Sheri McGregor injured her tailbone a few years ago, the pain was debilitating. The San Diego resident swallowed over-the-counter pain relievers, to no avail.
Finally, she tried hypericum, a homeopathic remedy for treating nerve injuries. Following the label’s instructions, she dissolved several tablets under her tongue every 15 minutes. Within two hours, the pain was gone. By the end of the day, she’d stopped using the remedy, and never experienced another twinge from her troublesome tailbone. “It was spectacular,” she says. “It turned me on to homeopathy for life.”
When does it make sense to treat yourself and when you should seek professional help?
Most health food stores stock rows of homeopathic liquids, pellets, and tablets. Each is labeled to treat a very specific condition, from overwork-induced stress to a wet cough with clear nasal discharge. So is it safe to treat yourself?
Yes, says Wayne Jonas, a physician and author of Healing with homeopathy. “Homeopathy isn’t going to be directly harmful or toxic,” he says. “Just make sure you go see someone if your symptoms don’t improve, and you’re using a good product.” Unlike dietary supplements, homeopathic remedies are regulated by the FDA, which has strict guidelines for strength, quality, purity, and labeling.
Even with these guidelines in place, though, not all companies are created equal. For a list of homeopathic manufacturers that meet the FDA’s guidelines, visit the American Association of Homeopathic Pharmacists at homeopathyresource.org.
But self-care has its limits. If you try a store-bought remedy and an acute condition (like an earache) doesn’t improve within two days, or a chronic problem (like a rash) doesn’t respond within a week, make an appointment with a homeopath, practitioners advise. A good one can not only help you narrow down treatment options but also prescribe more targeted remedies than what’s available over the counter.
How to find a practitioner
Locating a good homeopath can be daunting because any health care professional-chiropractors, dentists, and acupuncturists-can complete a weekend course and hang out a shingle. Although degrees don’t always denote the most qualified practitioner, they do offer a starting point. To begin, look for a homeopath who is also a medical doctor or an osteopath, because he or she is most likely to have studied homeopathy as a postgraduate specialty. Another good bet is a naturopath, since the training includes homeopathy. For a list of local practitioners, visit either the American Institute of homeopathy or the National Center for homeopathy.
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