What You Need to Know About This Alternative Medicine

According to a 2012 National Health Interview Survey, an estimated 5 million adults and 1 million children used homeopathy in the previous year. Analysis of that data showed that the vast majority of those people self-prescribed for ailments like colds and muscle pain. 

Over the next five years, the federal government — namely the Federal Trade Commission and Food and Drug Administration — established new guidelines that enforced closer scrutiny of the homeopathic practices being popularized and sold as over the counter remedies. In 2019, the FDA published revised guidance regarding homeopathic medicine, citing that the increase in homeopathic products coincided with an increase of reports of toxicity and adverse reactions. During the height of the Covid pandemic, homeopathic remedies were touted by some media personalities and public figures, leading to a rise in ingestion of questionable substances. So what is homeopathy, exactly, and should you try it?

A Brief History of Homeopathy

Painted portait of Samuel Hahnemann, founder of homeopathy
Samuel Hahnemann

In the late 18th century a German physician named Samuel Hahnemann tested a theory that Peruvian bark (cinchona) would cure malaria. He swallowed a dose of Peruvian bark and began to feel the same symptoms of malaria: fever, fatigue, extreme thirst, and agitation. Upon further experimentation, Hahnemann created his theory of homeopathy, or “like cures like.” Under that theory if a substance in large doses causes certain symptoms, in small doses it can cure those same symptoms. (Of course, his “cure” for malaria probably had a lot more to do with the fact that Peruvian bark contains quinine, which is an effective treatment for malaria because it kills off the parasite that causes it.)

What Is Homeopathy?

Following Hahnemann’s theory of the Law of Similars, homeopathy is the belief that disease can be cured by a substance that produces similar symptoms in healthy people. It also adheres to the Law of Minimum Dose, which is the idea that the lower the dose of the medication, the greater the effectiveness. Some doses are so miniscule, in fact, that according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, many homeopathic products are so diluted that no molecules of the original substance remain.

A bee next to medical pills and a vial labeled Apis Mellifica on an orange backgroundHomeopathic products are usually derived from plants like red onion, poison ivy, belladonna, and stinging nettle, which all have pretty potent effects on the human body. Some minerals, like white arsenic, are also commonly used. Even crushed whole bees are used as a remedy for things ranging from endometriosis to scarlet fever, when the symptoms match up. (In the homeopathic world this is called Apis Mellifica, and it’s a crushed honeybee dissolved in  alcohol and then diluted “so many times the offending aspect of the bee venom is removed, leaving only the curative agent,” …which goes unnamed.) These substances are often made as sugar pellets to be placed under the tongue or as tinctures, ointments, gels, creams, or tablets.

Homeopaths believe that it’s important to treat the whole person as well as the disease, so every treatment is individualized. They often take into account things like a patient’s current emotional state and their “constitution” when crafting a remedy. (In this case, constitution could refer to things like creativity, persistence, or physical sensitivities.)

Does Homeopathy Work, and Is It Safe?

It is generally agreed worldwide that reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective for any health condition does not exist. Stolid homeopaths will argue that this is because the studies required to meet rigid and rigorous criteria aren’t compatible with the key concepts of the practice. In other words, it’s because homeopathic preparations can be so diluted that a substance considered to be the “active ingredient” becomes unmeasurable, which creates major challenges to the rigorous investigation of such products.

Image of mortar and pestles with glass jars and labelsThe FDA strongly advocates against homeopathic products, mainly because they are unregulated. On their website they warn that despite being labeled highly diluted, some products have been found to contain measurable amounts of active ingredients that could cause significant patient harm. 

Additionally, the FDA has tested products that were improperly manufactured, which has led to inaccurate dilutions and increased potential for contamination. One particularly scary incident was in 2017, when the agency found a popular homeopathic teething tablet had excessive amounts of the toxic substance belladonna, aka Deadly Nightshade. (They list a number of these cases here.) The FDA is also concerned that homeopathic products are predicated upon false claims about the efficacy of the product, leading people to not seek adequate medical care for serious problems.

Most homeopathic remedies are relatively harmless, but they can potentially interact with some medications or sensitivities. As such, you need to weigh the pros and cons before you embark on a homeopathic regimen. Alternative medicine often fills a role in the treatment of disease that modern medicine fails to address, and as such can be a necessary facet of alleviating various ailments. So, as always when seeking your own medical treatment, proceed with caution and check with your doctor.

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