Homeopathic remedies safe, but effective?

By Ed Blonz, Ph.D.

DEAR DR. BLONZ: I have learned that my neighbor practices homeopathy and gives remedies to her husband and children when they are ill. She is now wanting to have me give them a try. I have never used them and want to be a good neighbor, so I am asking for some advice. -- B.A., Hayward, Calif.

DEAR B.A.: Homeopathy is a system of medicine founded by Samuel Christian Hahnemann (1755-1843), a German doctor, during a time of rather ignoble medical practices. It relies on the concept that the body has innate defenses and healing mechanisms, and that this vital force can be activated to help make the body well. The medicines in this practice do not work the same way as traditional medicines.

Traditional medicines can be thought of as having two separate actions: a direct effect and a reactive effect. The direct effect is what the drug is designed for. In the case of an antibiotic, the direct effect would be the destruction of the bacterial invader responsible for the infection. The reactive effect in traditional medicine could be thought of as the side effect or adverse reaction, because in most cases they are 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 work via a reactive effect, which is a purported ability to stimulate the body s healing powers. The body, thus stimulated, heals itself and the symptoms abate.

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, anyone who has chopped onions knows that the vapors from a cut onion can cause tearing and a burning, runny nose. In homeopathy, the medicine known as Allium cepa, which is a dilution of red onion juice, is used as a remedy for conditions accompanied by watering eyes and a burning, runny nose. The greater the dilution, the more powerful the homeopathic effect -- supposedly.

Mainstream science remains skeptical about homeopathy 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 investigating the effectiveness of homeopathic preparations where often not even one molecule of the original substance remains in the preparation being administered.

One thing homeopathy has going for it is that the medicines are safe. The one theoretical danger would be 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. It is often said that homeopathy is used for conditions that are self-limiting. For example, take the medicines and you will be better in seven days; do nothing and it may take a week.

Seeing as homeopathy resides in the realm of the theoretical, and its scientific underpinnings defy logic, it is very difficult to defend. The history of science is full of discoveries that transform the way we see the world, but to believe in the efficacy of homeopathy requires a new type of knowledge and a mysterious force that scientists have yet to observe or quantify.