Alternative medical systems are as popular as never before among Americans. The Mayo Clinic points out that almost 40 percent of Americans are already using some sort of complementary and/or alternative medicine (CAM for short). Furthermore, an increasing number of health professionals are seeking out CAM approaches as well. As a matter of fact, doctors, nurses, medical assistants, health technicians and healthcare administrators are even more likely than the general public to use alternative medicine options, according to a 2011 study. The rising popularity of CAM is not only limited to human medicine. According to Carrington College, more and more veterinary medicine professionals are turning to alternative therapies to treat their animal patients.
One of the most popular and best-known CAM systems is homeopathy. Homeopathy is an alternative medical approach that was developed in Germany in the late 18th century. Homeopathy involves two major tenets: “like cures like” – meaning that a disease can be treated with a substance that produces similar symptoms; and “law of minimal dose” – the idea that the lower the dose of the medication, the greater its effectiveness. As a result, many homeopathic medications include a highly diluted form of a specific substance, to the point where the remedy doesn’t contain any molecules of the original substance.
These remedies are derived from natural sources like plants, minerals or animals. Examples are red onion, arnica, crushed whole bees, white arsenic, poison ivy, belladonna or stinging nettle. They often come in the form of sugar pellets to be placed under the tongue, but are also sold as ointments, gels, drops, creams or tablets. While homeopathic medications highly diluted and unlikely to harm, some homeopathic products can still contain active ingredients than can cause side effects and drug interactions. As with any medical treatment, you should consult with a health care professional first. The same precautions and research should be taken whether you’re taking Lipitor or a homeopathic remedy for hypertension.
Homeopathy has been popular for quite a while now, but so far there’s no scientific consensus on how (and if) it works—just plenty of theories. The basis for homeopathy are thought to be rooted in Hippocrates’ work around 400BC, as well as Paracelsus’ pharmacological findings in the 16th century, but modern homeopathy as we know it has been around for a little over two hundred years. Homeopathic practitioners often suggest that the water with which the substance has been diluted “remembers” the efficacy of the substance. Others invoke abstract physical notions like quantum entanglement, relativity theory, and chaos theory. Overall, the diluted substances are supposed to trigger the body’s natural healing powers. According to the European Committee of Homeopathy, some of the benefits include:
- Costs less than traditional treatments
- Minimal side effects and low levels of toxicity
- Probable efficacy
There are several non-profit organizations such as Be Well Now that promote homeopathic treatments. For instance, Be Well Now names several therapeutic indications for homeopathy including first aid, acute conditions, learning disorders, and developmental disorders. However, there are not yet any conclusive studies supporting the effectiveness of homeopathy concerning specific conditions.
Some people choose to treat their ailments with homeopathy only—but that’s not necessarily a good choice for everyone. Critics maintain that many of the key concepts of homeopathy contradict fundamental laws of chemistry and physics. For example, it’s impossible to explain scientifically how a very small or even non-existent amount of an active ingredient can have any effect. In 2012, Edzard Ernst, professor of Complementary Medicine at Exeter University, asserted in an interview that homeopathy simply doesn’t work, and it should be banned because it’s dangerous in certain instances. Some risks cited by Ernst include:
- The administration of placebos, which can only work if practitioners don’t tell their patients that they were given a placebo
- The lack of clinical studies that have rigorously tested
In addition, some homeopathic medications include heavy metals like mercury or iron that aren’t highly diluted and can have adverse effects. Certain liquid homeopathic remedies contain alcohol, which are allowed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to have higher levels of alcohol than conventional drugs. Some homeopathic products, “nosodes” or “homeopathic immunizations” are advertised as alternatives to conventional vaccines, but there’s no data that supports these claims.
It’s also important to note that while the FDA regulates homeopathic treatments, it does not test them for safety and effectiveness. Research on homeopathy has been challenged as homeopathic remedies typically contain little or no active ingredients, thus making it difficult to attest to their effects. Furthermore, homeopathic treatments are highly individualized and there’s no uniform prescription standard, so developing a rigorous clinical study is almost impossible.
If you have considered these facts and are still interested in exploring homeopathic care, choose a reputable health care professional who is well-trained in homeopathy or an integrative MD or naturopath skilled in different modalities. Word of mouth is one of the best sources of referral, so check out practitioners’ reviews online and ask for recommendations. You may also consult with reputable associations like the North American Society of Homeopaths, the American Institute of Homeopathy, the National Center for Homeopathy or the Society of Homeopaths in order to find a licensed practitioner.
Monica Gomez is a freelance health and healthcare writer. She enjoys helping people live healthier and happier lives. You can follow her on twitter @monicagomez53.
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