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Homeopathy: the air guitar of medicine

This subhead contains as many active ingredients as your sugar pill

homeopathy featured image

Homeopathy is an alternative medicine, which means a few things. It means it’s not medicine, it’s an alternative; it means it’s seen by many as somehow better and healthier than modern medicines; and it means that people are incredibly emotional in their support for it.

I’ve received death threats pretty much every time I’ve ever written about homeopathy, which is incredible if you think about it. How can a remedy cause so much hatred? And what could I possibly say that would make people upset? Well, it doesn’t work. Homeopathy is a £40 million industry in the UK and it doesn’t even work. I once deliberately overdosed on homeopathic sleeping pills. I ate the whole tube, about a month’s worth. I did fall asleep but it was 10 hours later and at bedtime.

Like cures like

Many alternative medicines are a bit silly. Crystal healing anyone? However, none are as frustratingly absurd as homeopathy. There are not one but two unbelievable aspects of homeopathy that people are often unaware of, the first being like cures like. Homeopathy was invented in 1796 by a German named Samuel Hahnemann. He believed that you could treat and cure illnesses by using substances that cause the symptoms of the illness in healthy people.

If you had insomnia, a suitable substance would be caffeine. Caffeine will keep healthy people awake but if you’re unable to get to sleep then according to homeopathy, it will help you. You can buy homeopathic remedies on the high street that supposedly contain caffeine to help you sleep. And worse, Reddit user papafree claims to have used dangerous and hilarious ingredients while working in a homeopathic manufacturing plant according to this entertaining and disturbing thread.

No active ingredients

Homeopathic remedies come as water or a sugar pill. There are no other ingredients. If you take a remedy for curing insomnia and another for treating the cold and mixed them up, nobody on Earth could figure out which was which. Every test of the pill’s composition would find only sugar. Every study of patients taking the pills would reveal no difference because they are identical pills. There are no active ingredients in homeopathy.

As if Hahnemann’s belief of like cures like wasn’t weird enough, he felt that the more you diluted the substance the more effective it was. This almost makes sense at first because his ingredients were chosen to make symptoms worse (e.g. caffeine for insomnia), so using less of the ingredient would obviously give better results than more. But Hahnemann took it further, introducing the Law of Infinitesimals.

If you take one drop of your ingredient and dilute it in 99 drops of water, you’ve got 1 centesimal. If you take one drop from this solution and mix it into another 99 drops of water, you’ve got 2 centesimals written as 2C. With each further dilution, you very quickly lose the initial ingredient. Remedies are frequently sold at a 30C dilution. At that dilution you could buy enough of the product to fill the entire solar system and not find a single molecule of the original ingredient. You’re more likely to win the lottery five weeks running than find a single molecule of active ingredient in your remedy from Boots.

Image © Nicholas Bauer
Image © Nicholas Bauer

It doesn’t work

They’ve chosen an absurd ingredient; they’ve added it and then removed it by dilution and they’ve placed a drop onto a sugar pill. It obviously shouldn’t work. We have to rewrite physics, biology, chemistry if we want to pretend it works. There are many believers though, despite there being no good reason to expect it to work in the first place.

Anecdotal reports of success exist for everything so the best way to investigate the efficacy is to perform large, double-blind studies. It turns out you can give patients homeopathy remedies or ordinary sugar pills and there’s no difference, which makes sense because homeopathic remedies are ordinary sugar pills. Paul Bennett, the professional standards director for Boots, said that homeopathy doesn’t work but they sell it anyway because it’s what the customers want.

The UK’s Science and Technology Committee investigated the efficacy of homeopathy so the government could decide about NHS funding. They found that homeopathy obviously doesn’t work. So why do some hospitals still offer it? Patient choice. This leaves us in a baffling position where vets are losing the right to offer homeopathy because it doesn’t work, but hospitals can because patient choice trumps efficacy. That would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that there is a real risk of harm for patients that opt to take sugar pills for their illnesses.

What’s the harm?

It’s easy to imagine that homeopathy is the safest medicine ever. It’s just water or sugar, how can that harm you? Homeopathy can be harmful, even deadly, both directly and indirectly. The most obvious issue is the quality of the preparation. When the manufacturers added some nasty ingredient that should make you worse and then removed it again, did they do a good job? Did they actually dilute it enough times to remove the active ingredient? This is particularly worrying since the ingredient is chosen because it’s believed to make symptoms worse. Homeopathic manufacturers occasionally have to settle lawsuits when customers become ill because of ingredients remaining in their remedies.

Sugar and water are safe but there’s no way to know to what’s been left behind. There’s something darkly humorous about people buying a medicine and then taking the creators to court saying “hey, you put ingredients in my medicine!” But perhaps worse than the occasional direct harm from a badly prepared homeopathic remedy is the constant indirect harm. Any remedy that’s an alternative to medicine has the potential to result in an alternative to health. You don’t take medicine when you’re healthy; you take it when you’re ill. Sadly this means lots of people use homeopathy when they really need medical treatment.

People die. Parents let their children die. Legal systems around the world are starting to take notice and there are cases of parents being charged with manslaughter for giving their children homeopathic remedies when they needed medicine. In 2009, Thomas and Manju Sam were charged for killing their 9-month old daughter. Last year, Ebed and Christine Delozier were charged for giving their 18-month old child homeopathy for a bacterial infection that resulted in death.

What makes these cases worse is that the parents were likely trying to do the best for their children. We hear that homeopathy is great from health magazines, talk shows, and Prince Charles won’t stop talking about it. I’ve had to write to several women’s magazines that advised people to opt for homeopathy rather than normal treatment for things like asthma. Your local newsagents likely stocks What Doctors Don’t Tell You, which could just as easily be named “Fuck it, I don’t need medicine.”

When everyone is telling you it works, why shouldn’t you believe them? For an old project I once asked people in the street what they knew about homeopathy and almost all of them said “it’s herbal.” People don’t even know what it is.

Homeopathy is the air guitar of medicine. It’s nice to pretend, but it’s not the real thing.


Main image © Peter Macdiarmid