Homeopathy Described

Homeopathy is a therapeutic technique developed and refined in Germany in the late Eighteenth Century by physician Samuel Hahnemann. It is based on an idea that had always been surmised and sometimes practiced by healers as far back as Hippocrates. The idea that like cures like basically presumes that a stimulus that would cause a certain set of symptoms–a “disease”–in a healthy person, somehow “displaces” such a set of symptoms in a person suffering from those symptoms from some other cause–although the real mechanism remains to be established.

How it is Employed

For example, a homeopath evaluating a patient’s headaches would be interested in the peculiarities of the headaches that are unique to the case. The practitioner would also investigate other features of the patient: preference for heat or cold, temperament, aversions to and desires for certain foods, even seemingly unrelated symptoms such as digestive troubles, rashes, and so forth. Thus, several patients with headaches might each need different homeopathic medicines. Remedies are made from plants, minerals, animal substances and others.

Homeopaths are taught that all the systems of the body, and even the mind itself, are interconnected as a whole unit. The notion that diseases are separate and classifiable isn’t a part of the homeopath’s thinking. Such thinking leads to seeing diseases as “failures of parts” and it leads to treatments that are aimed at those faulty parts or processes. Thus, mainstream–or allopathic–treatment is aimed at specifics. In the example above, headaches are treated with pain relievers or migraine medicines, etc. Patients with similar diagnoses get the same, or similar, treatments.

In homeopathy, each patient is considered unique. It is the peculiar features of a person’s complaint that leads the homeopath to the remedy that is right for that person. Thus, four people, each with headaches, might get four very different remedies, because remedies are given based each patient’s particular manifestations of a disease. One person’s headaches are caused by sunlight; another’s relieved by the warmth of the sun. Two different diseases. Two different remedies. A third person’s headache causes nausea, and the fourth’s actually is relieved by eating! Again, the homeopath pursues these differences and the patterns they demonstrate, in order to find the remedy that will relieve the problem or problems.

Homeopathy is for the most part a self-contained discipline. Its theoretical features provide a framework for understanding and treating virtually any condition. This not to imply that homeopathy can “cure” every condition. Like all modalities, homeopathy has limits. It works best for functional problems, less well for structural ones, or those where there is anatomic change. It can improve those patients whose problems are congenital, but it cannot reverse “hardwired” genetic mishaps. It can be used in concert with “traditional” or allopathic approaches, surgery and manipulative therapies-although it is often wise to blend these carefully. It excels in vague, vegetative syndromes, clinical problems that respond poorly to traditional medicines, and other difficult diseases such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, irritable bowel syndrome, osteoarthritis, headaches, menstrual complaints, and others.

Homeopathic medicines do not “interact” with traditional drug therapies. As improvements manifest, there may be questions about what is occurring. Often, the need for drug therapy diminishes or resolves. Consultation with a professional homeopath with traditional medical training can be of help. Be aware that there are many styles of homeopathy. Each has varying support in the clinical literature of America, Europe and India.

Styles of Homeopathy–Classical Homeopathy

Classical homeopathy is rigorous and time-consuming, most popular among American and British homeopaths. It holds that only one remedy is right for a patient at a given time in the course of the illness, and that all the problems of a patient at a given time are connected–that they are all manifestations of the same imbalance. Remedies are prescribed infrequently, and given much time to act.

Other Styles of Homeopathy

Combination remedies are popular, and are promoted upon the notion that only the “right” remedy will act, and by giving several remedies in one tablet or liquid, common conditions can be addressed simply and cheaply. This approach works about half the time, and sometimes at higher rates than that. Electrovoltaic Testing (EVT) is a technique used to appreciate the indicated remedy without the labor of a one- to two-hour history. It has poor support in the literature, but some patients will benefit. Advocates assert that EVT is a more precise diagnostic tool than the history-taking of classical homeopaths. Organotherapy analyzes patterns of symptoms and uses certain homeopathically-prepared remedies in prescribed patterns to promote “drainage” of certain organ systems. Positive outcome literature that meets rigorous standards is sparse. Gemmotherapy is similar, but the remedies are prepared from embryonic tissues such as plant shoots. Isotherapy is a technique which took the concept of homeopathy to its ultimate conclusion: medicines prepared from the sick person or from pathologic substances. Clinical outcomes have been mixed. Schuessler Salts are a fixed-set of remedies that presumably order the body and protect it from toxic influences and promote good health. Generally “low potency,” these “cell salts” are included in the homeopathic pharmacopoeia, but are used in a non-individualized manner, unlike the classical homeopathic approach. Finally, homeotherapeutics is a system now widely used in Europe that seeks to collapse common conditions into sets of 10 or 20 remedies that generally relieve the conditions presenting. It is a system that trades some specificity and clinical power for speed and efficiency. It can be useful when properly understood and employed.

How Does Homeopathy Work?

In truth, we don’t know how homeopathy works. Some detractors argue that patients get better from homeopathic treatment because of the “placebo effect.” Scottish physician and researcher David Reilly, himself a homeopath, admits that positive effects arise from the intense “therapeutic encounter” in classical homeopathy, in which the practitioner uses many questions to probe the full dimension of the patient (Horrigan, 1995).

Homeopathy has grown over time despite criticism, because it works. The success of homeopathy has been attributed to placebo; certainly the depth and intimacy of the clinical encounter have some ameliorative effects on many patients. However as Linde, et al (1998) observed in their analysis of the homeopathic clinical trial literature: “The results of our meta-analysis are not compatible with the hypothesis that the clinical effects of homeopathy are completely due to placebo.” The remedies are highly dilute, and it is not possible to account for their actions pharmacologically. Moreover, just what it is that remedies might do is unknown. Even if they were drug-like, how is it that so many seemingly unrelated problems in a given patient clear up at the same time? Yet recent advances in physics and chemistry suggest that other mechanisms for homeopathy’s efficacy may exist.

William Tiller (Vithoulkas, 1980) has suggested that perhaps some sort of electromagnetic field effect is involved, but evidence for such an action has not been forthcoming. I tend to believe that mostly, we are what medical science says we are: a collection of highly interconnected, complex systems, governed in large part by genetics. But that does not explain everything, nor would it account for why any unitary system like homeopathy seems to work. Indeed, it works in infants and animals, too. So “placebo effects” seem harder to support as an explanation. I noted that I accept much of what medical science accepts, but I still have to ask: What makes it all work together? I believe that there is a unifying field of energy that we have not yet discovered, and I believe that field exerts a very subtle effect to govern how living systems “hang together.” One possible candidate is Sheldrake’s (1981) “morphogenic field,” which may be just the thing to exert that very subtle influence that changes how living things adapt and respond to their environment.

Unfortunately, we’re a long way from confirming Sheldrake’s ideas, but I encourage you to visit his website and examine his writings (click on Qualifications). There are other traces of interesting scientific discovery and hypothesis that may give us a clue as to why we see homeopathy working, even though we don’t understand it. These traces include evidence that liquids capture a molecular “memory” of certain substances, chaos theory, complexity science, and the study of extra sensory perception. For me, Hahnemann’s discovery was an accident that found a fertile and attentive mind. His work, and the work of his successors, was to observe the effects and to build upon each discovery until we knew enough to understand that “like cures like” and that all symptoms relate to the same “disease,” unique to each patient. We will have to leave it to our successors to understand how homeopathy–and other systems of “energy medicine”–work.

What Happens

After we give the remedy, we wait. The analogy I like to use these days is that a remedy is like “re-booting” a computer. The person’s system is trying to respond to stresses adaptively, but isn’t able to do so because the commands are working at cross purposes. One way to look at it is that the remedy reloads the baseline commands that operate the system, so that conflicting signals grow quiet, and the person’s system can respond to the world in a healthy, adaptive way. In short, the symptoms go away, because there is no disease anymore.

Homeopathic remedies are intended to create the conditions in your body to allow healing to occur. The idea is that your body has the physiological “wisdom” to correct what is causing your problem(s), and the properly-selected remedy will help that process to begin. Sometimes an aggravation of symptoms may occur. It is normal and should be of short duration. If your symptoms worsen and you are concerned about it, please contact the homeopath. A normal aggravation usually passes in a day or two, rarely longer.

Most times a remedy will act over weeks and months. Expect the change to be gradual for chronic conditions; change is more rapid in acute diseases. Try not to be discouraged if it seems like improvement is slow. Remember, you may have been ill for a long time; it may take a while to get well. Generally, symptoms resolve in the following order.

1) Most life-threatening to least threatening

2) Most recent symptoms first then older symptoms later

3) Mental-emotional symptoms usually resolve earlier than more physical symptoms

4) Deeper, more interior problems before surface problems (such as rashes)

Healing from homeopathy is usually permanent. Once you’re doing well, the remedy may need to be repeated once in a while, or it may never need to be repeated. Old symptoms from long ago may arise, suggesting a new remedy is needed. This is more common in people from industrialized and urban countries.

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Horrigan, B, Alt Ther Hlth Med. 1995 Sep; 1(40): 64-73.

Linde K, et al. Lancet. 1997 Sep 20;350(9081): 834-43.

Sheldrake, R. A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Morphic Resonance. 1981. Rochester VT: Park Street Press.

Vithoulkas, G. The Science of Homeopathy. 1980. New York: Grove Weidenfield.