On homeopathy

April 22, 2009 at 4:35 pm (Health) (, , , )

”If you open your mind too far, your brain will fall out” – Tim Minchin

bsse20002As families continue to feel the pinch as a result of the current economic slowdown, a recent report by the Wall Street Journal has revealed that one of the first cutbacks Americans are making is in health care. The report, published late last year, indicates that almost a quarter of Americans are cutting down on visits to their doctor, while 11% are buying fewer prescription drugs as a result of the financial crises.

At first glance this situation appears extremely worrying. If the figures are to be believed then millions are being denied vital health care, and with drug companies currently raising prices in an attempt to claw back lost earnings, the problem will only get worse.

However, there is growing evidence that more and more Americans are instead turning to cheaper alternative treatments. One of the fastest growing and most controversial of these is homeopathy, a 200 year old system of medicine that is fast becoming as popular as proven alternative treatments such as osteopathy and acupuncture.

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Acupuncture - A scientifically proven alternative therapy

On the face of it, homeopathy appears to be the ideal solution for those with one eye on their bank balance, and the other on their wellbeing. The treatment works by using trace amounts of naturally occurring animal, plant and mineral extracts that are diluted in water and taken orally. As a result, the remedies are not only significantly cheaper than traditional drugs, but are almost universally free from nasty side effects.

Supporters claim that homeopathic methods can be used to cure a huge range of injury and illness from migraines and colds to HIV and cancer, and the treatment has received glowing endorsements from such titans of science as Bill Clinton, Jennifer Aniston and Pamela Anderson. Even the queen of England is a fan. Yet homeopathy continues to have vociferous detractors who claim it is at best a dangerous placebo, and at worst a modern form of witchcraft cynically marketed by charlatans with no regard for their patients safety. So who is right?

Insert own amusing caption here

Insert own amusing caption here

Most of the claims made in favour of homeopathy concern minor ailments that are often described as ‘self-limiting’ conditions – medical problems that the body can cure by itself if given time. This has caused critics to joke that homeopathy can cure a cold in seven days, whereas if left alone it can take a whole week to clear up, yet many people swear by homeopathic methods, arguing that it aids the body’s natural ability to heal itself. Elaine Young, an asthma sufferer living in Florida, maintains that homeopathy has been responsible for a remarkable turnaround in her health. She said ”A few years ago, my asthma had got so bad that I was no longer able to work. I was on oral steroids and my doctor’s prognosis was dismal. My homeopathic doctor was able to prescribe an individualised remedy and said that my immune system was “derailed”. He said the remedy would get it back on track, and miraculously, my asthma just went. That’s the only way I can describe it.’’

Critics however have argued that such benefits are purely the result of a placebo effect, wherein the act of taking the medicine tricks the brain into believing it is cured regardless of the active ingredients contained. Some homeopaths disagree with this explanation, while others maintain that while it may be true, the reasons for a patient’s improvement are unimportant and all that matters is the end result.

arnica-gel3Ethics aside, this can be an extremely dangerous way of viewing medicine. It may be all well and good convincing the body that it is no longer suffering from a migraine or stress related rash, but what about more serious conditions? It seems incredible that health professionals should try to cure problems such as a broken arm or chronic back pain without any physical interaction with the part of the body affected, yet this is precisely what some homeopaths have suggested. One of the most common remedies suggested for back problems is a solution containing Arnica, a plant in the same family as the humble sunflower that has been found to have anti-inflammatory properties. However, multiple studies on the use of Arnica in homeopathy have found it to be no more effective than a placebo, which is fairly unsurprising when you consider that Arnica is actually poisonous and should not be taken internally unless diluted to such an extent that none of the chemicals from the plant remain.

This leads us to another criticism of homeopathy, which is the suggestion that the science behind it is innately flawed. Our tried and tested ideas of how chemistry works would suggest that diluting the active ingredient of the remedy to the extent that it is barely detectable should make the cure less potent. Not so say the homeopaths, claiming that water comes in built with a kind of mystic power to memorise molecules of other substances that have been dissolved in it. This mysterious energy has never been satisfactorily explained in scientific terms, or detected, yet it is a keystone of how the process is meant to work.

Some water, yesterday

Some water, yesterday

One of the biggest criticisms of homeopathy however, is that it gives people false hope. This may not seem all that much of a problem, but the idea of patients rejecting conventional medicine that could cure life threatening ailments or prolong their lives is extremely worrying. Not only are seriously ill patients rejecting proven cancer treatments in favour of a treatment that has failed to pass basic scientific testing, but healthy people are being put at risk by homeopaths prescribing anti malarial prophylactics to eco-conscious back-packers, many of whom have contracted malaria.

This is not to say that all forms of alternative medicine are without merit. It would appear that many people find homeopathy very useful for minor ailments, and that certain remedies can be helpful in treating the symptoms of more serious complaints. The charity Cancer Research for example has reported that homeopathic remedies, placebo or not, can help ease patients suffering when undergoing chemotherapy. However the organisation is equally quick to state that there is ‘no convincing evidence’ to suggest that homeopathy can offer any form of relief for cancer sufferers as a whole, let alone provide a cure for the disease itself.

Other treatments that have began life as alternatives to the established medical practices of the time have now, with proper research into their claims, been accepted into modern medicine. Osteopathy, acupuncture, psychiatry and chemotherapy have all been used in conjunction with established treatments in order to improve patient’s health. For now, however, the idea that a person can be cured of AIDS, with little more than a few drops of water with a phenomenal memory and some positive thinking remains a highly dangerous proposition.

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