What if I told you homeopathy is completely useless? I wouldn’t blame you for being skeptical or feeling that such a statement is arrogant especially when made by an MD. Homeopathy is a multi-billion dollar business and is widely available.
Unfortunately, it is essentially nothing more than distilled water and its use as a replacement for conventional medicine can, in some cases, be dangerous and even fatal. Last March, Hope Delozier, an 18-month-old Pennsylvania resident developed an ear infection. Her parents, who avoid conventional medical practices, tried to treat her with Homeopathic remedies. Hope soon died after the infection spread to her brain. Most tragically, this was completely preventable with inexpensive antibiotics.
The practice of homeopathy has been around since the early 19th century (invented by Samuel Hahnneman). It relies on several basic tenets. The two most important ones are “like cures like” and “potentiation.” Like-cures-like is the idea that, for example, if I eat plant X and it makes me feel warmth, then the plant has a substance that can cure a fever. Potentiation is the idea that the more dilute a substance is the more powerful it becomes medically. There is no other place in modern science where these principles are accepted except for in homeopathy. There is no reason to believe that “like cures like” and the idea of ultra-dilution making something more powerful flies completely against the laws of physics and chemistry.
Take for example children’s Chestal, a popular homeopathic anti-cough medicine. It contains several ingredients one of which is Pulsatilla. It is described on the package as being “6C” (“C” as in the roman numeral for 100). This means that Pulsatilla is diluted to one part in 100, six separate times. One drop of Pulsatilla, is added to 99 drops of water to make a one in 100 solution. Since it’s “6C”, that dilution is repeated six times. This means that Chestal contains one part Pulsatilla in 1 million parts water. That’s equivalent to two pinches of table salt in the entire volume of water contained in the north and south Atlantic Oceans! In essence, if the child receives any Pulsatilla at all in a dose, it would be on the order of a few molecules.
Homeopathic remedies have no side effects and the reason is clear: the patient is getting almost no medicine. This point is entertainingly illustrated every year by a group called 1023. They stage homeopathic “overdose” demonstrations in which they ingest enormous doses of homeopathic remedies without any positive or negative effects.
We see that homeopathy is a highly improbable idea. But do we know it truly doesn’t work? There are currently many studies out there on the effectiveness of homeopathic remedies in both adults and children. The most rigorous reviews done on this topic can be found in two of the world's most prestigious publications. Both The Lancet medical journal and The Cochrane Collaboration (an independent review group) looked at hundreds of studies assessing homeopathy’s credibility. In total, they looked at several hundred studies and reached similar conclusions: homeopathic remedies are no better than placebo.
I sometimes get asked: if homeopathy has no side effects and someone wants to try it, what’s the harm? While the remedies themselves are harmless to ingest, the risks occur when parents choose them over proven medicine when their kids are sick. This is exactly what happened to Hope Delozier. There would be nothing greater for doctors than to have effective medicine that causes no side effects for their patients. Unfortunately, that Holy Grail has not yet been found. In the meantime, knowing which products have truly been shown to be effective and which have not is crucial for keeping kids healthy.