Ask Surly Amy: Homeopathy
Dear Surly Amy,
I am a college student lucky enough to have a roommate whom I love dearly. She's a wonderful friend and a very intelligent person. The only problem is that she's very into homeopathy. She grew up with it, because her mother (who is a scientist, strangely, although I know not what sort) also believes in it. She's been using homeopathic remedies even more since having issues with her neck muscles and developing horrible migraines, and it makes me uncomfortable seeing her waste money on snake oil. How do I respectfully but effectively talk to her about the fact that homeopathy doesn't work? I've tried to bring up the subject before but she immediately deflected the argument onto touchy-feely reasoning about how her mom believes in it and it gives her comfort. That's all well and good, but she's wasting her money! How do I try to get her to understand?
The best way to explain how innefective homeopathy is, is to simply explain how it is supposed to actually work.
First a bit of history.
Homeopathy was invented in the 19th century by Samuel Hahnemann. Hahnemann was a dude with good intentions. He lived in a time when bloodletting was the primary course of action to attempt to “cure” disease. Yeah, they (the doctors of the day) would cut you open or apply leeches and literally bleed you out in an attempt to force disease out of your body. You know those candy stripes on old barbershop signs? Barbers had sharp knives and were some of the original blood-letters. They were the precursor of modern day surgeons. The red and white signs were meant as representations of blood soaked bandages on a pole. To say that this unsanitary and rather horrific treatment was ineffective would be an understatement. Many died unnecessarily. In fact, so many people died from bloodletting that your odds of surviving a disease were increased if you did not go to a doctor (or a barber) at all.
So in comes Hahnemann. He wanted to come up with a better way to help people. Bleeding people was the treatment of the day and Hahnemann and the majority of other physicians of the time did not employ the scientific method so the bar was set very, very, very low. Hahnemann was correct about the need for more humane treatments and the inefficacy of bloodletting. He came from an honorable starting point. However, his intent was probably the last thing he was ever correct about in terms of effective medical treatments.
So much for good intentions and off we go down the rabbit hole.
Homeopathy comes from the words homeo (similar) and pathos (suffering). Hahnemann came up with a hypothesis that like cures like. For example, if you have trouble sleeping then the cure should be caffeine. I will let that sink in for a moment.
Yep, coffee or another stimulant, I dunno, maybe a tiny bit of cocaine, should be just what you need to get some rest. Sound logical? No. Of course it doesn’t. But Samuel believed that if a substance could cause the symptoms of a disease it, in small doses could in turn treat the disease. In his mind he believed that everything was about balance and harmony and the idea that like-cures-like. Ah, sounds romantic doesn’t it? He also believed in a “vital force” that does not exist that healed the body and that miasms, (oh sounds scary) were responsible for most illness. He, in regular-English-terms believed that most disease originated through the skin and that the first sign of illness is always a skin disorder. O_o He thought that if something caused the symptom of illness then the essence of it would help the imagined vital force cure the physical body. He believed in a lot of incorrect things. But hey! He wasn’t cutting people open at the barbershop! So there is that!
What about doses? What is in this stuff and can it work?
So if we follow Hahnemann’s logic… (Wow, that hurt to type.) … we would wonder… well, if you want to treat someone who is vomiting and you give them something that makes them vomit like a bit of poison wouldn’t they vomit more and die? Well, YES but that is why Hahnemann said you have to dilute and shake. In homeopathic terms: Dynamization! Dynamization is a spiritual release. Sounds sexier than it is! Yep, shake to dynamize the spirit and dilute and repeat (sucussion) until only the essence of the poison or caffeine or whatever substance you wish to use remains in either the water or alcohol base used to dilute. Here is a video by Ben Goldacre that shows how dilute a substance must be in order to be homeopathic. He also explains how you test homeopathy, talks about the placebo effect and says “orange cordial” a few times. Enjoy!
As time went on germ theory was introduced and western medicine began to adopt a science-based view of medicine. People tested things. People looked for evidence. Homeopathy was tested and tested again. Its effects have been shown again and again and are only that of a placebo. Collectively, we know that these energy force and you-have-to-believe-it-to-be-true types of treatments do not work. But for some reason homeopathy has held onto the imaginations and hope of many. It simply can’t work. There is no mechanism for it to do so. It is a faith-based treatment and while it often does little harm, it does much less to help and sometimes steals valuable time and money that could be better spent on proven treatments. Homeopathy as a word sounds like “home remedy.” It sounds and often is harmless. In theory, while better than bloodletting it is no better than and is technically nothing at all. If created the way it was intended. Homeopathy is nothing more than a sugar pill.
One other note before I run off to make an Orange Cordial. Traditional homeopathic remedies if prepared to homeopathic standards actually have no active ingredients and therefore can have no actual effect beyond placebo and since manufacturers know this, many have begun adding actual measurable ingredients to the mix while still labeling the product as homeopathic. Homeopathy is considered part of the supplement market and so is widely unregulated. So buyers beware. What you think may be a sugar-pill or a purely homeopathic remedy may have other ingredients that could interact with other medications. I would never recommend homeopathy or any other proven-not-to-work treatment but if you wish to ignore me and the results of hundreds of studies and years of medical advancements then I highly recommend caution and a doctor’s supervision when purchasing or using any over-the counter remedies. These days, you may not know what you are getting.
Photos by me.
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