Homeopathy, founded by a German physician, Samuel Hahnemann, came at a time, almost two centuries ago, when medicine was in its dark ages. The treatment for syphilis, for example, was arsenic. As is the case today, allopathic, or conventional medicine, sought powerful substances to address single molecular events, such as killing bacteria.
Today, for example, we use blockers of different receptors on cells to achieve desired effects. Beta blockers are used to control blood vessel dilatation, reduce blood pressure and diminish the work load on the heart. Besides profound therapeutic effects, almost all drugs can have powerful side effects. These were more toxic in Hahnemann's time, when arsenic, opium and even mercury were given in toxic/therapeutic doses. As it turns out, the strength of a dose of any substance becomes a critical issue in homeopathy. To see this, we can look at the main law of the science.
"Like cures like," was an aphorism dating back to Hypocrites, the "father of medicine" in ancient Greece. It was noticed that while the bark of a certain tree containing quinine mimicked the symptoms of malaria in therapeutic or toxic doses, a slightly more dilute dose effectively cured the disease. Interestingly, quinine still is an effective treatment after more specific drugs are rendered ineffective because of resistance by the parasite.
This initial observation led Hahnemann to develop the practice of provings: giving a large dose of a substance to healthy individuals. The individuals would meticulously record mental, emotional and physical symptoms at different amounts of the plant, drug or mineral. Consistent disease pictures or "personalities" were recorded. The diluted substance would then have different curative effects depending on the number of dilutions.
Potencies of the homeopathic medicine fall into one of four categories. The mother tincture or pure extract, which is placed under the tongue or in a little water. Usually, this is a liquid alcohol extract. The lower potencies are diluted 1 part in 10. Each subsequent dilution is preceded by "succussing" or agitating the solution at least 100 times. Intermediate potencies are diluted 1 to 100 each time, while the highest potencies are diluted 1 to 1,000. These strengths are either labeled as the tincture or as X, C, or M dilution. A first dilution would be either a 1X, 1C or 1M. The higher the dilution series and the higher the amount of dilutions, 200C versus 30C for example, the more potent the remedy.
Potencies of 6X and 30C tend to be the first aid strengths found in health food stores. My personal experience was with Rhus Tox -- poison ivy -- diluted to the 6X potency. The liquid is sprayed over small sugar tablets to be placed under the tongue. I happened to have several different remedies with me on a skiing trip during which my children all developed chicken pox complete with blisters, fever and itching. They were all skiing again within three days. More impressively, my son had relentless itching the second night. Calamine lotion and Benedryl did no good. It looked like we would be up all night until I gave him a dose of pulsitilla 30C followed by Rhus tox an hour later. Not only did the itching suddenly and completely disappear, but it did not return.
Such lower potencies in homeopathy work more on the level of physical symptoms. Higher potencies are considered to work on the mental, emotional and even spiritual levels.
In prescribing, mental and emotional symptoms take precedence over physical symptoms in importance. In correct prescribing, especially for more chronic or "deeper" diseases, the cure might occur by a temporary flare-up of previous symptoms in the reverse order of their original occurrence. This typically would proceed from head down to toe and from inside the body out. This cure sequence is known as Hering's law.
Hahnemann thus thought that with many therapeutic/toxic treatments, we simply suppressed symptoms, say a skin rash, which actually became the initial event of a progression to deeper, often more severe or chronic illness. In certain cures, a skin rash would then be the last flare-up of the original disease.
To make matters even more complicated, there are remedies prescribed to treat miasmas, or disease pictures that affect most of humanity. In current thought, new miasmas such as petrochemical toxicity might be affecting us. There also are eight or more constitutional remedies, based on the type of person presenting to the practitioner. Finally, there are factors that make symptoms better or worse, providing distinguishing clues when two remedies appear equally good.
Dr. James Kent, somewhat later than Hahnemann, wrote one of the main repertories of remedies, listing and describing most of the disease pictures based on provings. This work continues and now, guess what? Computer programs have appeared to aid decision making. One of the first reputedly took 10 years to program.
Kent warned emphatically that the higher potencies of 10M were absolutely not to be prescribed by the inexperienced or inconclusively, in that a wrong choice could permanently "confuse" the disease picture, rendering a case incurable.
Finally, to make matters as difficult as possible, potent conventional medicines often interfere with correct prescribing, and certain substances like coffee, camphor, peppermint and eucalyptus oil can negate or antidote the effects of many remedies.
Giving up coffee, excessive alcohol and, perhaps, smoking become necessary parts of homeopathic treatment. Diet, lifestyle and even whether or not the patient meditates or performs other spiritual practices become part of the picture and can influence treatment.
If this all sounds complicated and heavy, it is. How in the world could anyone achieve correct prescribing? Indeed, many true homeopath M.D.s, a rare find in this country, apprentice first with an experienced practitioner, then spend years becoming comfortable with the field.
The complexity is reflected in the typical new patient visit, which might last more than an hour or two and follow-up visits that can take up to an hour.
Most of my colleagues still reflexively ridicule and/or reject homeopathy out of hand. But our own criteria for validity give homeopathy more credence. Three recent meta-analyses -- strict statistical appraisals of the mathematically correct studies already done -- consistently show homeopathic remedies to have effects over and above placebo (fake medicine) effects. Studies have spanned a fairly wide range of illnesses. Therefore, a successful homeopath currently has more scientific experiment on his or her side than many other "alternatives."
More than this, in taking my colleagues' objections to heart, from further research I have come across recent textbooks compiling experiments, proposed mechanisms and theoretical frameworks for the effects of UHD or ultra high dilutions. This work is interdisciplinary, and includes biochemists, physicists and others. An experimental setup can be very simple and repeatable. Tadpoles that grow faster when thyroid hormone is dropped into their tanks have their growth slowed down below normal when an ultra high dilution of hormone is put in the water.
This simple demonstration of Hahnemann's "like cures like," has been repeated over and over. Oddly enough, dilutions in glass vials suspended over the water have the same effect, but the effect is destroyed when the tank is placed in a very strong electromagnetic field.
In a way, this experiment supports Hahnemann's intuitive notions that remedies affected the subtle, biomagnetic field or "vital force" of human beings. The explanation in scientific terms is dependent on unifying concepts of biochemistry and quantum physics. This is no small task, and one for which Einstein and others might inadvertently have laid the groundwork.
Put more practically, 10 different remedy solutions diluted to the point where not a molecule of original toxic substance is left still show 10 different patterns on measurement with nuclear magnetic resonance. What does this mean? Something in the process has conveyed an alignment or energy configuration in the water or alchohol molecules. How or why, and how or why this affects the patient, is not well-explained by current mechanical frameworks. Theoretical models in UHD research are interested in, among other things, the water molecule and its ability to bond in different ways given different energy input.
In the meantime, in certain European countries, France for example, homeopathy is the norm rather than the exception. Consumer demand is increasing in this country, but there are many pitfalls for the would-be patient. Finding an M.D. homeopath with long-term experience is difficult. A referral from homeopath to colleague might be from one state to another. Non-M.D. homeopaths often cannot advertise their services, nor can they obtain or use remedies that require prescriptions.
As in conventional medicine, homeopathic cures are easier to decide upon and have more instant effects in acute conditions. The disease picture for a blow to the arm with a large bruise and pain is not that complicated. Figuring out the picture of rheumatoid arthritis, much less the sequence of cure and remedies involved, can be a daunting proposition. One colleague described the effective homeopath as a genius on the right and left sides of the brain.
On a more positive note, experienced homeopaths like to work with families. Children that grow up known to the homeopath, receiving non-toxic treatments, seem to remain healthy. Eventually, they seem to remain immune to most common ailments, getting overall less to zero illnesses in general. This, of course, is only what is reported by the family doctors, in this case homeopathic family docs. But it is a perception among homeopaths I have heard repeated over the years.
We now are on the verge of defining the effectiveness and workings of this field. As has happened before, a method of the past might really be a wave of the future.