Homeopathy is a system of human medicine founded over 200 years ago by a German physician named Hahnemann. It is now practiced by numerous doctors, vets, dentists, nurses and non-medically qualified practitioners the world over. There are over 250,000 medically qualified doctors all over the world, for example. Scientific research has demonstrated the efficacy of the potentised remedies, despite claims otherwise.
Homeopathy is controversial.
Public figures from politicians to comedians frequently make strong statements against homeopathy, but very few people have actually had the chance to read the facts about homeopathy research for themselves.
Common misconceptions about homeopathy
Click on the link boxes below to read further on these ill-judged misconceptions:
By the end of 2014, 189 randomised controlled trials of homeopathy on 100 different medical conditions had been published in peer-reviewed journals1. Of these, 104 papers were placebo-controlled and were eligible for detailed review.
Below are examples of positive high quality RCTs and systematic reviews/meta-analyses testing various types of homeopathy.
To take just one famous example of medical U-turns, in 1982, when Dr Barry Marshall and Dr Robin Warren first put forward their theory that bacterial infection was an underlying cause of stomach ulclers, their idea was ridiculed.2
Critics of homeopathy point to the fact that homeopathic medicines are so highly diluted that there is ‘nothing in them’.
This comes from the fact that the liquids used to make some homeopathic medicines are diluted beyond the threshold known as Avogadros number (dilution 10-23). This means that the liquid is so highly diluted that you would not expect any molecules of the original substance to remain.
Researchers around the world are investigating the mechanism of action of these medicines, which is likely to be based in physics rather than chemistry. Although there are various theories being explored, as yet, we do not understand how homeopathic medicines work.
With any medical treatment there is likely to be some degree of ‘placebo effect’ and in this respect homeopathy is no different, but the theory that homeopathy’s effects are only a placebo response is not supported by the scientific evidence.
If homeopathy is really just a placebo effect, how does one explain:
- The existence of positive high quality placebo-controlled trials?
- Homeopathic medicines having effects in laboratory experiments?
- The fact that homeopathy can work in animals?
How much is spent on homeopathy?
0ut of the total NHS budget of £100 billion a year, it spends £4 million (0.004%) on Homeopathy.1
Approximately £4 million covers the whole service, from running the hospital departments to paying the doctors.1 When considering value for money, it should be remembered that if patients were not treated with the NHS homeopathy service, they would have to be treated by other NHS departments using more expensive conventional drugs.
1Freedom of Information Act request to the Department of Health by the Faculty of Homeopathy. Cost was £11.89 million between 2005 and 2008.
A recent randomised placebo-controlled trial assessed the efficacy of individualised homeopathic treatment, and the efficacy of Fluoxetine (a.k.a Prozac), for moderate to severe depression in menopausal women.1
Both treatments were found to be safe and to have an effect significantly different from placebo. Homeopathy caused greater clinical improvement in symptoms of depression than fluoxetine and also improved the patients’ menopausal symptoms, whereas fluoxetine did not.
1Macías-Cortés ED et al. Individualized homeopathic treatment and fluoxetine for moderate to severe depression in peri- and postmenopausal women (HOMDEP-MENOP study): a randomized, double-dummy, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. PLoS One, 2015 ;10(3):e0118440
1Shang A, Huwiler-Muntener K, Nartey L, et al. Are the clinical effects of homoeopathy placebo effects? Comparative study of placebo-controlled trials of homoeopathy and allopathy. Lancet, 2005; 366: 726–32 | PubMed
There have been 6 such studies on homeopathy:
Five were positive – suggesting that there was some evidence of an effect of homeopathy beyond placebo, but more high quality research would be needed to reach definitive conclusions1,2,3,4,6
One was negative – concluding that homeopathy had no effect beyond placebo. 5
1Kleijnen J, Knipschild P, ter Riet G. Clinical trials of homeopathy. BMJ, 1991; 302: 960 | PubMed
2Linde K, et al. Are the clinical effects of homeopathy placebo effects? A meta-analysis of placebo-controlled trials. Lancet, 1997; 350: 834–843 | PubMed
3Linde K, et al. Impact of study quality on outcome in placebo-controlled trials of homeopathy. Clin Epidemiol, 1999; 52: 631–636 | PubMed
4Cucherat M, Haugh M C, Gooch M, Boissel J P. Evidence of clinical efficacy of homeopathy. A meta-analysis of clinical trials. HMRAG. Homeopathic Medicines Research Advisory Group. J Clin Pharmacol, 2000; 56: 27–33 | PubMed
5Shang A, Huwiler-Muntener K, Nartey L, et al. Are the clinical effects of homoeopathy placebo effects? Comparative study of placebo-controlled trials of homoeopathy and allopathy. Lancet, 2005; 366: 726–32 | PubMed
The idea that a substance can be damaging in large amounts, but beneficial in small amounts is not new to science, in fact this concept (‘hormesis’) has been around for decades and is increasingly well documented in such fields as biology and toxicology.
There are even examples of ‘like cures like’ in conventional medicine, e.g.:
- Digitalis in high doses causes arrhythimias, but this drug is used routinely in low doses to treat this condition
- The stimulant amphetamine-based drug Ritalin is used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Small doses of allergens such as pollen are used to de-sensitise allergic patients.
However an important difference in homeopathy is that the medicinal doses given are so small that toxic side-effects are avoided.
Low potency homeopathic medicines (up to 12c or 24x potencies) will contain molecules of the original substance they are made from. For this reason, in most countries, remedies made from toxic substances are only available in higher potencies, from the ‘first safe dilution’ upwards.
It is the higher potencies, which do not contain molecules, which are most controversial as we do not yet understand their mechanism of action.
Variations of acetylsalicylic acid have been used to treat pain and fevers since ancient times, beginning with preparations made from its natural forms – the leaves and bark of willow or poplar trees.1
In 1899 an artificially synthesised form of the active ingredient passed clinical trials and the drug ‘aspirin’ as we know it today was launched.
Similarly, homeopathy has a long history of traditional use. This has led to our clinical understanding of what homeopathic medicines can do being ahead of our theoretical understanding of how these medicines have a biological effect.
Finding the mechanism of action of homeopathic medicines will be fascinating and many teams around the world are carrying out fundamental and basic research to investigate this important question.
1Norn S. et al. [From willow bark to acetylsalicylic acid].[Article in Danish]. Dan Medicinhist Arbog., 2009;37:79-98 | Abstract
2Bottling RM. Vane’s discovery of the mechanism of action of aspirin changed our understanding of its clinical pharmacology. Pharmacol Rep., 2010; 62(3):518-25 | Abstract | Full text
3Dr. Karsten Schrör, Head of the Institute of Pharmacology and Clinical Pharmacology, Heinrich Heine University, Düsseldorf. Medical News Today website Oct 2005
Whether we are discussing conventional or homeopathic medicine, science is much more of a grey area than we might wish.
Analysis by the British Medical Journal’s (BMJ) Clinical Evidence1 shows that just 11% of 3,000 commonly used NHS treatments are known to be beneficial:
The amount of research carried out in conventional medicine is vast compared with the relatively new field of homeopathy research, but when you look at the balance of evidence – the percentage of trials which are positive, negative or inconclusive – they are remarkably similar for the two disciplines.
Research must continue in all fields to help policy makers, patients and clinicians make the best possible decisions, but at the moment, many decisions cannot be based on scientific evidence, because there is just insufficient data.
1BMJ Clinical Evidence, Efficacy Categorisations. 2017. Available from http://clinicalevidence.bmj.com/x/set/static/cms/efficacy-categorisations.html [Accessed 25 Sept 2017]
In fact, scientists in highly respected universities, research institutions and hospitals around the world are carrying out research into homeopathy using the same research techniques as those used to investigate conventional medical treatments.
Homeopathy research is a relatively new field, but the number of articles published in peer reviewed journals has risen significantly over the past 40 years.
This lag behind conventional medicine is hardly surprising when one considers the lack of funding available e.g. in the UK less than 0.0085% of the medical research budget is spent on research into complementary and alternative medicines.1
Well-qualified scientists in respected institutions are now carrying out high quality basic research, clinical research and veterinary research in homeopathy, and are reporting positive results which are published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. Therefore the only basis for the argument that it is ‘pseudoscience’ is that we do not know how homeopathy works.
Usually, when a phenomenon is observed which cannot be explained by what ‘science’ already knows, this triggers fresh scientific enquiry – it is not dismissed as ‘unscientific’ purely because it has yet to be understood.
Read full article here (link to hri-research.org)
1Lewith GT.Funding for CAM. BMJ., 2007; 335(7627):951. | Link
“Let likes cure likes”, is the cornerstone of Homeopathy. When any substance is given to healthy human volunteers, a physiological reaction is provoked, be it watering eyes when peeling an onion, stomach ulcers with chronic use of aspirin or becoming thirsty after salt. If a homeopathic remedy is given to healthy (human!) volunteers, symptoms are, likewise, provoked. This is called a ‘proving’ of the remedy. The strongest of the symptoms from the proving are then recorded. If, later, the doctor or vet is then confronted with disease that matches the symptoms recorded in the proving, then that remedy can be given therapeutically.
This stimulates a healing response in the body which in turn removes symptoms, regardless whether they come from infection, breakdown or reaction to the environment. The body’s healing mechanisms have been, in some way, enhanced and focused to more rapidly return to greater health.
Veterinary homeopathy uses human remedies in exactly the same way. A full history of the nature of the condition and the nature of the patient is noted. This is analysed by the homeopathic vet to find the closest possible remedy match. The remedy selected is then administered to the animal in tablet or drops on a mild food stuff.
Research is ongoing in homeopathy. Overall, the results are very positive. This is a tribute to workers throughout the world as modern research methods do not lend themselves easily to studying a form of medicine based on individualising prescriptions to suit the patient. Any researchers investigating homeopathy or potentised remedies run the risk of bigoted, illogical, unscientific criticism wholly in opposition to the true spirit of science.
Horses, dogs and cats have been found to respond very well to homeopathic remedies. I have successfully treated hundreds of animals with homeopathy.
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Dr. Nick Thompson
BSc (Vet Sci) Hons, BVM&S, VetMFHom, MRCVS.
Tel: 01225 487778
Fax: 07092 233930