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Jewish World Review April 16, 2002 / 5 Iyar, 5762

Dr. Ed Blonz

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Consumer Reports

Is homeopathy for real? | DEAR READERS: I have received a number of letters from people with questions about homeopathy. Rather than respond to each, I thought it best to address homeopathy as a general topic.

Homeopathy is a system of medicine founded by Samuel Christian Hahnemann (1755-1843), a German doctor. It was developed during a time of rather ignoble medical practices, including bloodletting and the use of leeches. By contrast, homeopathy relies on the noble concept that the body has innate defenses and healing mechanisms, and that this vital force can be activated to help make the body well. In theory, homeopathic medicines are curative in nature, but they do not work in the same way as traditional medicines (pharmaceutical drugs or herbs).

Traditional medicine believes symptoms are caused by an underlying condition. Eliminate the condition, and the symptoms disappear. If it's the type of problem that is self-limiting, such as a tension headache, then medicines (aspirin, ibuprofen) can be taken to suppress the symptoms.

With homeopathy, the symptoms are the expression of the illness or disease. The medicines are designed to encourage the body to heal itself.

Traditional medicines have two separate actions: a direct effect and a reactive effect. The direct effect is what the drug is designed to do. In the case of an antibiotic, for example, the direct effect is to destroy a bacterial invader responsible for an infection. The reactive effect is also known as a side effect or adverse reaction, because, in most cases, it is not desirable. A reactive effect with an antibiotic might include nausea, abdominal pain or diarrhea.

Homeopathic remedies do not have a direct effect. They do not directly relieve the symptoms or the underlying health problem that causes the symptoms. Homeopathic remedies are designed for their reactive effect, which is their purported ability to stimulate the body's healing powers. The body, thus stimulated, is able to heal itself, and the symptoms are no longer present.

Key to the selection of homeopathic medication is the concept of "like cures like," also referred to as the "Law of Similars." According to this principle, an extremely dilute amount of a substance can be used to treat symptoms that it would cause if taken at full strength.

For example, serum ipecac -- a medicine you might find at your local pharmacy -- induces vomiting and is often used in cases of accidental ingestion of certain poisons. Ipecacuanha is the name of the plant from which ipecac is derived. A homeopathic preparation of ipecacuanha, in which the active ingredients are diluted over a million times, is used in homeopathy to treat nausea and vomiting.

Mainstream science is skeptical about homeopathy, to say the least, because it is difficult to find reproducible evidence that homeopathic preparations are effective for any clinical condition. Homeopathic preparations are not recognized as effective by the Food and Drug Administration. Imagine the difficulty in investigating the effectiveness of homeopathic preparations in which the solution is so dilute that there isn't even one molecule of the original substance present.

One thing homeopathy has going for it is that the medicines are safe. The one theoretical danger is if someone with a treatable illness were to bypass proven methods in favor of homeopathy, only to find that during treatment their ailment had grown in severity.

Seeing as homeopathy resides in the realm of the theoretical, and its scientific underpinnings defy logic, it is very difficult to defend. To believe in the efficacy of homeopathy requires a dependence on a new type of knowledge and a mysterious force that scientists have yet to observe or quantify. The history of science is full of discoveries that transform the way we see the world, but until there is conclusive evidence to say otherwise, we are left to conclude that homeopathy and homeopathic medicines represent nothing more than harmless placebos.

JWR contributor Ed Blonz, Ph.D., is a nutrition scientist and author of Power Nutrition and the "Your Personal Nutritionist" book series. Send questions to him by clicking here.


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© 2002, NEA