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Homeopathy (meaning similar suffering) was developed by a German physician, Samuel Hahnemann, at the end of the 18th century. Unhappy with the conventional medicine of his day, he began to research alternative treatments.
He began a series of provings, giving repeated doses of common remedies to healthy volunteers and carefully noting the symptoms they produced. This research led him to discover that swallowing quantities of some common substances would produce certain symptoms that mimicked those of medical conditions.
For example, herbalists claimed that Peruvian bark cured malaria. Hahnemann swallowed a quantity of Peruvian bark and began to experience the symptoms of malaria itself, such as fever, intense thirst, drowsiness and agitation.
Eventually, Hahnemann formed a theory, called the Law of Similars, stating his belief that like cures like. His theory claims that if a substance that causes a symptom is taken in small amounts it can cure a medical condition with the same symptoms.
Homeopathic remedies are said to work by stimulating the body's own healing processes to treat the individual's condition. Homeopaths claim that homeopathy doesn't just treat a person based on the symptoms of their condition, but is holistic, taking into account the person's mind, body and spirit.
What homeopathy is used for
Homeopaths believe that homeopathy can help with any condition which the body has the potential to self-repair. As a result, they suggest that homeopathy can be used to treat a wide range of acute and chronic medical conditions.
However, homeopathy should not be used in place of conventional medical treatment, but only as a complement to it.
Homeopaths do not treat problems such as broken limbs, damaged joints, or severe physical injury. Serious acute or life-threatening conditions such as heart attack, stroke, diabetic coma, epileptic seizure or asthma attack should not be treated with homeopathy.
Homeopathic remedies are considered extremely safe and can be given to people of any age.
How homeopathy is performed
A homeopathic diagnosis is normally based on three elements:
- physical symptoms (e.g. blocked nose, feverish, pain),
- current emotional state (e.g. irritable, weepy), and
- general constitution of the individual (e.g. temperament, physical attributes, lifestyle).
The right homeopathic remedy for a particular condition aims to address all of these elements, resulting in a diagnosis that is specific to the individual.
An initial consultation with a homeopathic practitioner usually lasts one to two hours. They will ask detailed questions about your physical, mental and emotional health, family history, lifestyle, likes, dislikes and fears. Based on this information and your symptoms they will select the appropriate remedy.
Follow-up visits may be necessary to check that you have the right remedy and that its working. For long-term conditions, homeopaths recommend regular consultations to ensure that the individuals general health is maintained.
Homeopathic remedies may be taken in a variety of ways, from a single dose to daily treatment over several weeks. The frequency of dose can depend on the strength of the remedy and the severity of the persons condition. Most homeopaths prescribe one remedy at a time and observe its effects, changing the remedy if necessary. This is known as classical homeopathy. Others practice complex homeopathy, recommending a combination of remedies rather than just one.
Homeopaths advise you follow certain guidelines to maximise the effects of taking a remedy which are outlined below.
- Remedies should be stored in dark conditions away from other substances.
- Pillules (small tablets with a lactose or sucrose base) should not be handled, but placed directly onto or under the tongue and allowed to dissolve.
- Remedies should be taken 30 minutes before or after eating and no food or drink should be taken for at least 10 minutes after taking a remedy.
- Strong foods such as spices, toothpaste, peppermint, alcohol and coffee should be avoided as they can cancel out the effects of a remedy. Other strong substances such as certain essential oils and household cleaning products can also have a negative effect.
Homeopaths recommend that a qualified homeopathic practitioner be consulted for a specific, individual diagnosis. However, some homeopathic remedies are also available over the counter from pharmacies, health food stores and supermarkets.
Homeopathic remedies are made from many substances, including plants (which account for about 60% of all homeopathic remedies), minerals and animal products. They are normally taken in the form of pillules (tablets), but are also available as powders, granules, tinctures (solutions), creams or ointments.
Preparation of a remedy normally involves crushing the original substance (e.g. plant material) and dissolving it in an exact solution of alcohol and/or distilled water. This mixture is then left to stand for anything up to several weeks, during which time it may be shaken (succussed) from time to time. This solution is known as the mother tincture.
The mother tincture is precisely diluted again, and shaken. Remedies are diluted either 1 part to 10 (an x potency) or 1 part to 100 (a c potency). For example, a 6x potency is produced by diluting one part of the mother tincture to ten parts of the dilution substance (e.g. alcohol and water), six times. Remedies vary in strength according to the needs of the individual, and sometimes according to the substance itself if it is particularly poisonous or toxic.
One of the most controversial claims of homeopathy is that the more a remedy is diluted, the stronger it becomes. Some of the strongest remedies are so dilute that not one molecule of the original substance remains. Science suggests that this makes it impossible for the remedy to have any effect, whilst supporters of homeopathy claim that a remedy retains a memory of the original substance diluted within it. They claim that diluting and shaking a remedy actually makes it more effective, as the vigorous shaking transfers energy to the water and imprints a memory of the starting substance onto it.
This claim is contrary to scientific knowledge gained from pharmacology and biochemistry, which shows that the effects of a medicine are due to its physical or biochemical activity in the body, and that the more of an active ingredient there is in a medicine, the greater the effect it will have. Recently, researchers in the fields of physics and molecular biology have begun to investigate if the homeopathic claim that a remedy can retain a memory of a substance is possible, but at this time no evidence has been found.
Effectiveness of homeopathy
Around 200 randomised controlled trials evaluating homeopathy have been conducted, and there are also several reviews of these trials. Despite the available research, it has proven difficult to produce clear clinical evidence that homeopathy works. Many studies suggest that any effectiveness that homeopathy may have is due to the placebo effect, where the act of receiving treatment is more effective than the treatment itself.
Many medical doctors and scientists do not generally accept homeopathy because its claims have not been verified to the standards of modern medicine and scientific method. Some scientists argue that homeopathy cannot work because the remedies used are so highly diluted that in many there can be none of the active substance remaining.
Supporters of homeopathy counter the scientific arguments with claims for a high success rates in babies, infants, and animals. Others argue that much of the research conducted into the effectiveness of homeopathy is not representative of routine homeopathic practice and that homeopathic treatment cannot be properly tested through standard clinical means.
Despite the lack of clinical evidence, homeopathy remains one of the most popular complementary therapies in the UK. There are five NHS homeopathic hospitals in the UK and some GP surgeries provide access to homeopathic treatment. This may be through members of their own healthcare team or through referral to an NHS homeopathic hospital, a homeopathic clinic, or a homeopathic doctor practising privately.