From the flu to chronic pain, homeopathy has been used to treat a wide range of illnesses in its adherents for hundreds of years.
"I don't really understand how it works, and I really don't care. I just know it does," Rebecca Burbank* of New Orleans says, who has been using homeopathic remedies to ameliorate her mood for the past 18 months. The practitioner who treats Burbank, Robin C. Myers of Baton Rouge, La., explains that a correctly chosen homeopathic remedy often provides patients with healing on more than a physical level.
Although the word is now commonplace, many are not familiar with the broad effects of the practice. As Myers explains, it "fully embraces the patient, at all levels, and allows for graceful wellness to become the norm, instead of a faint possibility."
Homeopathic medicine was created more than 200 years ago by Samuel Hahnemann, a German physician who did not agree with harsh conventional 18th century medical practices such as bloodletting.
His quest to truly understand the nature of disease and find a scientifically sound methodology of treatment resulted in the system he dubbed "homeopathy," from the Greek word
, meaning similar, and
, or suffering. It is a form of alternative medicine that is widely used today in the U.S., Europe, Japan and India. The practice, though, is not without its skeptics who question its effectiveness and say its benefits have not been verified by scientific and clinical studies.
The deep healing so many proponents speak of comes from the core philosophy of homeopathy: Hahnemann believed that the root cause of acute and chronic diseases lay in a disturbance in a person's vital life force (also known as
in traditional Chinese medicine), and that in order to cure a patient , homeopath needed to take into account all aspects of a patient -- not just their symptoms and complaints -- to find the appropriate rebalancing remedy.
The Law of Similars
Both the medical system of Hahnemann's time and our current system of Western medicine are described as allopathic: diseases and complaints are treated with substances which suppress the symptoms by creating the opposite effect. For example, allopathic medicine often treats arthritis (an inflammatory condition) with an anti-inflammatory drug.
*The name has been changed.
Homeopaths, however, achieve restoration of health by administering a highly diluted remedy, made from a substance that in its natural state would cause the inflicting symptoms in a healthy person.
Hahnemann dubbed this phenomenon "The Law of Similars" or "like cures like," and it remains the central tenet of homeopathy today.
These heavily diluted remedies also form the center of much of the controversy surrounding homeopathy. Since its inception, homeopathy has been at odds with allopathic medicine; in fact, homeopaths were initially banned from the American Medical Association at its inception in the mid-19th century. Though many homeopaths are also physicians -- and the
American Institute of Homeopathy is entirely comprised of physicians, nurses and dentists who are also certified homeopaths -- many Western doctors continue to doubt its efficacy.
Critics of homeopathy claim that since the remedies are so diluted, any positive effects are not quantifiable. However, numerous studies comparing homeopathy to placebos have appeared in top medical publications from the
, many of these inconclusive, and some admitting that homeopathy shows ameliorative effects, even in the face of rigorous scientific evaluation.
Additionally, commercial homeopathic remedies continue to sell well, especially for French remedy giant
Borion, which saw income growth of 35% and $428 million in sales in 2006.
There are an estimated 3,000 homeopathic remedies available to consumers today, from allium (onion extract) to calendula (marigold). All homeopathic remedies sold in the U.S. are regulated by the FDA to ensure safety and quality control. Even though some are derived from toxic materials, like arsenic, so little of the actual substance remains that they are not dangerous, nor do they have any adverse side effects.
Remedies are sold over the counter in the forms of sugar pills, tablets, creams or liquid tinctures. They're labeled with a number and letter that indicates how much of the ingredient has been diluted. Lower numbers indicate a less diluted remedy, but paradoxically, the more diluted a remedy is, the stronger its effect. Thus higher numbers, such as 200c, are much more diluted, yet more potent.
Those wishing to try homeopathy have two options: self-treatment with remedies sold at health food stores and pharmacies, or seeking out a
certified practitioner. These domestic homeopaths have completed training programs, ranging from 700-900 hours of instruction over the course of three to four years, during which they are mentored by more experienced homeopaths.
Though it is unlikely that commercially sold combination remedies will cause any adverse effects, homeopathic remedies can be powerful and caution is advised when self-treating. Ideally, Hahnemann's original method -- a detailed patient interview with a homeopath, and carefully selected single remedy -- provides the most significant benefit.
An initial consultation with a homeopath runs between one and three hours and costs between $100-$250.
Designed to give the homeopath a more complete picture of their patient, the lengthy consultation is essential in selecting the best remedy. Additional visits may be required to fine-tune the remedy or the dosage. "It's a science, but it is not an exact science," Myers says. "It's a science and an art."
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Penelope Dane is a writer and sociologist living in Baton Rouge, La. She is currently working on her M.F.A. in fiction and conducting research on teen poetry.