NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Call it a cross-border attack on homeopathy, the disease treatment that fights maladies with tiny doses of natural substances. In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently held hearings on homeopathics where a parade of representatives from Big Pharma - the name brand pharmaceutical companies - denounced the treatments. In the U.K., meantime, the National Health Service has said it will review its funding for homeopathics after numbers of medical doctors attacked the costs as wasteful.

What’s up? Are homeopathics snakeoil? Or a low cost, comparatively safe treatment that typically involves few or no side effects? Or is the FDA in cahoots with Big Pharma to drive out bargain priced alternatives? The questions are easy to frame. The answers not so much.

Know too that this fight gets loud and nasty -- but there are those who insist homeopathics work and those who call BS.

Note: there are vast differences between homeopathics and herbal cures. The former involve microscopic doses. The latter often use big doses, and they can interact, badly, with prescription drugs. That is not usually so with homeopathics.

For a starter homeopathic, meet Nux Vomica, about $7.50 for 80 pellets at Walgreen’s for the product made in France. That provenance matters. Homeopathics are deeply entrenched in French and German medicine, and, in both countries, many citizens will reach for a homeopathic instead of a U.S.-type over-the-counter remedy, even prescription medicine.

A common use for Nux Vomica: shake out a few pellets to treat a hangover. Also indigestion. It is good for remedying excesses, say practitioners.

The source of Nux Vomica is the strychnine tree and, yes, that’s a poison used to kill rats and, in English mysteries, unwitting victims. The difference is that those killing doses are big. A homeopathic dose is minute, and homeopaths believe that tiny doses trigger reactions that let the body heal itself. Their motto is “like cures like.”

Traditional physicians snort at such claims. Among the skeptics is Brett Kotlus, a board-certified surgeon practicing in New York City who conducted a clinical study published in a peer-reviewed journal on a homeopathic medication called Arnica Montana, which is used in recovery after eyelid surgery. 

"I found there was no benefit to this preparation," he said. "In fact, there is no scientific evidence that homeopathic medicine works. The principle that the more dilute a substance is, the more powerful is completely unfounded.”

Many other physicians say likewise. Homeopathics, they insist, are worthless medicine that separates the unwitting from their money and, perhaps worse, leaves their diseases untreated.

But not all doctors feel that way. In Hurst, Texas, Dr. Mary Ann Block said, “Homeopathy is safe and effective.” She added that she often prescribes homeopathy for allergy treatments, also for sore throats. “My patients swear by this," she says. "It works. I’ve seen it.” Block said that in her practice about half the time she prescribes conventional pharmaceuticals, half the time she recommends homeopathics. She added: “I see prescription medicine causing harm every day. I have never seen homeopathics causing harm.”

“After of years of using homeopathy personally on myself and family with impressive results, I decided I had to add it into my toolkit for my clients," added Veronia Anderson, a physician in New Jersey. "Homeopathics have been used for over 200 years and have the advantage of being low cost, and safe and do not interact with other therapies a person may be taking. Homeopathy also has effective therapies in areas in which conventional medicine falls short, such as cold and flu symptoms.”

Even proponents acknowledge homeopathics are not quick fixes. Kathy Gruver, author of “The Alternative Medicine Cabinet,” said that for the patient, “patience is necessary, homeopathics do not usually work as quickly as do pharmaceuticals.” The doses, recall, are very low. “They work if you give them time,” said Gruver.

So, who’s right? The FDA, for its part, now has announced it will review if more aggressive regulation of homeopathic cures is needed. That decision has won applause from Big Pharma.

Homeopathics defenders insist the government regulators are in league with the Big Pharmas, which, they say, want to stamp out the competition.

That is hard to prove or disprove.

But Gruver made one point succinctly: “If I want to go to the store and spend $8 on a substance that won’t kill me I should be able to. Who determines what I can put in my body?”

Of course, she had an addendum. “If you don’t think it works, don’t do it,” she said. 

—Written by Robert McGarvey for MainStreet

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held TK positions in the stocks mentioned.