What Is Homeopathic Medicine?

table with many homeopathic remedies in bowls
Istockphoto.com/Stock Photo©JanPietruszka

Homeopathic medicine or homeopathy is a form of complementary and alternative medicine that uses very small amounts of natural substances, which in higher amounts would cause a disease. This branch of medicine came into being in the 19th century and was used frequently at the time. Interestingly, the first studies using homeopathic remedies were done on healthy volunteers—similar to many clinical trials done today. While the use of homeopathy has fallen off with the advent of newer conventional treatments, there are over 2000 substances that have been utilized as homeopathic treatments. What exactly is homeopathic medicine, and how is it thought to work? We will look at what the studies say about its effectiveness, how this compares with traditional medical options, and the possible side effects and risks of these therapies.

The Theory Behind Homeopathic Medicine

The theory behind homeopathic medicine is that "like cures like," and that a substance that causes an illness in a healthy person might cure those symptoms in someone who is ill. It's believed by practitioners of homeopathy that a small amount of the substance which causes a disease will stimulate the body to heal itself. Though this may sound far-fetched, the theory is somewhat analogous to the basis of vaccination in modern day medicine; with immunizations, the exposure to a small amount of a killed or inactivated microbe can result in protection against developing the disease. An example would be using a very dilute solution of coffee to treat insomnia.

Homeopathic medicine is based on the theory that "like cures like."

The other theory underlying homeopathy is that of potentization. It's thought by practitioners of homeopathy that the more dilute an ingredient, the more potent it becomes. The thought is that diluting and agitating an ingredient activates the curative powers of the ingredient, thus enhancing its effect. Potency in homeopathic solutions is indicated by an X or C.

  • X: For every dilution, one part of an ingredient is mixed with two parts water. For example, a 1X potency would be a solution that is one part ingredient and 9 parts water.
  • C: Potency may also be described with a C. A 1C solution refers to a solution that is one part ingredient and 99 parts water.

Looking at potentization from a scientific standpoint, many homeopathic remedies may contain very few or no molecules of the ingredient (for example, in a 30C solution). Skeptics have described this as the equivalent of dissolving a tablet of Advil in the ocean and then drinking a few drops. In response, some proponents of homeopathy claim that the molecules of ingredient are not what is important, and rather, the dilution process activates the "vital energy" of the water.

Principles of Homeopathy

There are three main principles behind the practice of homeopathic medicine:

  • The law of similars: The law of similars refers to the "like cures like" theory noted above.
  • The principle of the single remedy: This principle holds that a single remedy should cover the physical, emotional, and mental symptoms of an illness combined.
  • The principle of the minimum dose: Only a small amount of substance is first used in a few doses, followed by an infinitesimal amount over time.

History

Homeopathy was developed by a German physician, Samuel Hahnemann, in 1807. He treated himself with a small amount of tree bark (cinchona bark) that contains the drug quinine used to treat malaria. When he developed the symptoms of malaria, he came up with his law of "like cures like;" believing that drugs that cause specific symptoms can be used to cure the illnesses that cause those symptoms.

Who Prescribes Homeopathic Remedies and Where Are They Available?

Some homeopathic medications are available at health food stores, whereas others are available only through a naturopathic doctor or other specialists in integrative medicine.

Scientific Research Looking at Homeopathic Remedies

Results on the effectiveness of homeopathic remedies have been inconsistent, primarily due to the lack of any widespread regulation of the practice. This makes the “dosage” or amount of a homeopathic medicine present in any particular formulation variable. 

A 2016 review of the literature evaluated the study design and results of studies involving homeopathic remedies to date. The conclusion was that individualized homeopathy may have small specific treatment effects. It's likely that further "evidence-based" studies will fill in more details on both the safety and efficacy of homeopathic remedies in the future. In contrast, a 2017 meta-analysis found that there was no single clinical medical condition for which there was reliable evidence that homeopathy was effective.

A large 2018 review of articles published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, looked at one of the more common claims about homeopathic medicines; that they may play a role in preventing or treating acute respiratory tract infections in children. According to this review, there was no evidence that these treatments were effective. Due to the quality of reporting of possible adverse effects of homeopathic treatments in the studies reviewed, the researchers were unable to draw any conclusions about the safety of these treatments.

Homeopathic Medicine and Cancer

As with other medical conditions, the role of homeopathic remedies for people with cancer is largely unknown. Animal studies have found that homeopathic remedies—when used along with conventional therapies—may have an inhibitory effect on cancer and also reduce symptoms and improve ​quality of life. At the current time, however, we don't know if these studies on animals can be applied to humans, and further research is needed to address this question.

A 2018 study looked at the feasibility of homeopathy to help control symptoms in an integrative cancer treatment program. Of 124 patients, 75 percent found homeopathic remedies to have a beneficial effect. Benefit was more commonly reported among women, those with breast cancer, and people coping with either chemotherapy-related peripheral neuropathy or hot flashes.

Side Effects and Safety of Homeopathic Medicine

Homeopathic remedies generally have a reasonable safety profile since only a small amount of an active substance is used in high dilution. Individuals who are pregnant or receiving treatment for a serious medical condition should talk with their physicians before using these remedies, as well as any other form of alternative medical care.

The Danger of Homeopathic Medicine

It is extremely important to point out that homeopathic remedies do not replace the need for conventional medicine for most medical conditions. For example, with regard to cancer treatment, there is no evidence that these substances have any effect whatsoever.

If homeopathic remedies are used instead of traditional treatments that have been found to be effective in well-designed clinical studies, these remedies have the potential to increase rather than improve pain and suffering.

While many of these treatments are unlikely to be detrimental when combined with conventional treatments, it is important to talk to your doctor about any and all homeopathic or nutritional supplements you wish to use. We do know that some vitamin and mineral supplements may interfere with cancer treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

Contrast With Conventional Medicine

Homeopathic medicine differs from allopathic medicine (or mainstream, traditional, or conventional medicine) which uses agents (medicines, chemotherapy, surgery, etc.) that produce a different effect than the disease.

A relatively new approach in medicine has been using a combination of conventional therapies to treat a disease and alternative practices to help control symptoms. This is now referred to as integrative medicine.

What Conventional Medicine Can Learn From Homeopathy

While the homeopathic remedies prescribed have not found to be helpful for any disease, practitioners do offer a service that is currently lacking in conventional medical care: time and listening.

A visit with a homeopathic provider may last for an hour or more, compared with the brief visits with many alllopathic physicians. The opportunity to have someone listen to concerns in an empathic manner can't be understated.

And while any improvement in symptoms is often dismissed as simply the placebo effect we are learning that the placebo effect may actually have a physiological basis at times; with chemical changes such as a release of endorphins (the body's natural painkillers) and even brain scans demonstrating objective changes. Homeopathic providers may also take more time to discuss healthy lifestyle practices.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

  1. Mathie, R., Van Wassenhoven, M., Jacobs, J. et al. Model Validity and Risk of Bias in Randomised Placebo-Controlled Trials of Indiviualised Homeopathic Treatment. Complementary Therapies in Medicine. 2016. 25:120-5. doi: 10.1016/j.homp.2017.07.003.

  2. Mathie, R., Rampersad, N., Legg, L. et al. Randomised, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trials of Non-Individualised Homeopathic Treatment: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Systematic Reviews. 2017. 6(1):63. doi:10.1186/s13643-017-0445-3

  3. Hawke, K., van Driel, M., Buffington, B., McGuire, T., and D. King. Homeopathic Medicinal Products for Preventing and Treating Acute Respiratory Infections in Children. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2018. 4:CD005974. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD005974.pub5

  4. Frenkel, M. Is There a Role for Homeopathy in Cancer Care? Questions and Challenges. Current Oncology Reports. 2015. 17(9):43. doi:10.1007/s11912-015-0467-8

  5. Samuels, N., Freed, Y., Weitzen, R. et al. Feasibility of Homeopathic Treatment for Symptom Reduction in an Integrative Oncology Service. Integrative Cancer Therapies. 2018. 17(2):486-492. doi:10.1177/1534735417736133