Homoeopathy is based on the idea that ‘like cures like’. Thus the patient is given minute doses of a natural substance which, in a healthy person, would produce symptoms similar to those of the disease being treated. Symptoms, then, are not suppressed as in orthodox medicine but reinforced, in the belief that this will stimulate the body’s natural, self-healing process. Whichever remedy is prescribed depends upon the result of a preliminary examination designed to assess both the physical and mental nature of the individual because the remedy is prescribed to treat the whole person, not just the complaint in question. Homoeopathy is, as yet, scientifically inexplicable and its basic principles have remained unchanged since it was first introduced some 200 years ago.
History and philosophy
The idea of treating like with like to help the body achieve a cure in accordance with the natural laws of healing is of ancient origin. Certainly the Greek physician Hippocrates (born around 460 BC), was well acquainted with the practice. The first anticipation of the modern practice of homoeopathy was by the German Renaissance physician Paracelsus who was first to declare that if given in small enough doses ‘what makes a man ill also cures him’. He is also reputed to have effected a cure for sufferers in the plague-stricken town of Stertzing in 1534, by the oral administration of a pill made of bread and containing a minute amount of the patient’s excreta which he had removed on a needle point. The use of homoeopathy as we know it today, however, is commonly thought to have stemmed from the work of the eighteenth-century German physician, Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843).
By the age of 30, Hahnemann was a highly respected physician. He quickly became disillusioned, however, with the medical treatments of his day, many of which, he thought, did more harm than good. So he determined to find some alternative form of treatment which would be gentler, safer and more effective. It was while translating a standard British textbook, Cullen’s Materia Medica, that Hahnemann came upon a statement that sparked off his work on the principles of homoeopathic medicine. In the book Cullen claimed that quinine was effective against malaria because of its astringent and bitter qualities. Hahnemann was dissatisfied with this explanation because he knew of other, equally bitter substances which had no effect on malaria. So, he decided to experiment on himself and he carried out what was the first homoeopathic testing of a medicine on a healthy person to observe the symptoms produced. He found that when he took a dose of quinine he developed all the symptoms normally associated with malaria – fever, shivering and rigors. From this he reasoned that quinine cured malaria not because of its bitter taste but because it produces the symptoms of malaria in a healthy person.
Excited by the idea that something that could cause illness would also cure it, Hahnemann tested a whole range of different substances on healthy people and found that the substances he experimented with followed the same principle as that which he had observed with quinine. He found that when he gave patients a small dose of a substance, which in his healthy volunteers had produced similar symptoms to those of the patient’s illness, the patient recovered. In 1796, Hahnemann published a paper based on the theory ‘similia similibus curentur – like is cured by like’. In spite of much criticism and opposition, he soon acquired a following both of patients and other physicians. He called the system ‘homoeopathy’, from the Greek homoios, ‘similar’ and pathos, ‘disease’. Hahnemann’s next step was to find the smallest effective dose of each ‘proved’ substance as the best way to avoid side-effects. Using a special method of dilution, he found to his surprise that the more he diluted the homoeopathic medicine, the more active it became. By 1810 Hahnemann had aquired so much information that he published his famous book The Organon of Rational Healing. In this he set out the principles of homoeopathy and described the preparation of the medicines.
Principles of homoeopathy
The practice of homoeopathy has changed very little over the 200 years during which it has been used and the basic principles remain unchanged. One of the most important of these is the ‘principle of similars’ by which the homoeopathic practitioner selects the one medicine needed, the ‘simillimum’, by matching the symptoms of the individual to the symptoms that the remedy induces. Another is the principle of potentisa-tion. This is concerned with the curative action of homoeopathic remedies which is said to be enhanced, or ‘potentised’, by dilution. Moreover, because the doses used are extremely small, and in some cases the solutions may be so dilute that not a single molecule of the original remedy is likely to be present, there is no risk of harmful side-effects occurring.
A homoeopathic remedy is prescribed to treat the whole person and not just a disease or certain part of the body. This practice is based on the theory of totality of symptoms. Thus a homoeopathic practitioner requires information about a patient’s personal characteristics in addition to his or her symptoms. When the practitioner is completely satisfied that he or she has a complete picture of the mental and physical condition of the patient a remedy is chosen that is best suited to the individual’s requirements. Also, the practitioner usually prescribes only one remedy at a time because most homoeopaths believe that, because a remedy has been ‘proven’ on its own, they can be sure of its effect only when it is used on its own. One other basic principle is the law of direction of cure.
Observation of patients treated homoeopathi-cally has shown that a cure takes place ‘from above downwards, from within outwards, from an important organ to a less important organ’, and that ‘symptoms’ disappear in the reverse order of appearance. The approach to symptoms is one area in which orthodox medicine and homoeopathy are fundamentally opposed. For hundreds of years doctors have treated disease by trying to suppress or remove the symptoms associated with the illness. Orthodox medicine considers symptoms as something to be purged out of the body using chemical or physical means. Thus drugs are chosen which are aimed specifically at the disease process, having an opposite effect to the symptoms: a bacterial infection is treated with an antibiotic, or a fever with a drug which lowers temperature. Homoeopaths have a totally different approach. They believe that symptoms are a healthy response to disease. The body, they say, is always striving to keep itself healthy, or ‘in balance’, and they call the force that acts in this protective manner the ‘vital life force’, or ‘Qi So, when the body is threatened by harmful external disease (pathogens), the vital force, or defence mechanism, produces symptoms such as pain or fever. Unpleasant though these symptoms may be, they play an important role in restoring the balance which is essential to health.
Thus homoeopaths see their role as stimulating this self-healing force by reinforcing the symptoms. A homoeopathic doctor, therefore, gives a patient a small dose of a medicine which in a healthy person results in the same symptoms as the ones from which the sick patient is complaining. The theory is that this approach stimulates the vital force (the immune system) thus giving the body a better chance to overcome the disease, rather than simply suppressing the symptoms.
Application and remedies
Today there are over 2,000 remedies listed in the homoeopathic journals. They are all derived from natural sources: animal, vegetable or mineral. Some are innocuous; others are highly toxic in their crude state. Even normally inert substances such as sand and charcoal become effective remedies when they are prepared homoeopathically. The following are a few examples of commonly-used homoeopathic remedies with their main indications for use: . Bryonia alba, derived from the plant of the same name and called the ‘grumpy bear’, is useful for treating fevers, headaches, sore throats or stomach upsets in patients who are irritable and reclusive. . Aconite, extracted from the plant Aconitum napellus (monkshood), is used in the early stages of inflammation or fever in patients who are fearful, restless and have an excessive thirst for cold drinks. . Belladonna, made from the very poisonous plant deadly nightshade (Atropa belladona), is said – after potentization – to be a remedy for sore throats, headaches, earaches or fevers in patients who appear flushed, hot and restless. . Apis mellifica, made from the whole honey bee, Apis mellifera, is used to relieve bee stings and insect bites that cause swelling, itching and redness. Homoeopathic remedies are suppled in various forms: tablets, granules, pillules, globules or tinctures. A medicine derived from a solid is first treated by a method known as ‘trituration’ – which involves grinding the raw material to a fine powder. Once achieved only by laborious grinding using a mortar and pestle, there are machines available now that can do this work in seconds. The material is then extracted with a solvent such as alcohol and filtered to give the ‘mother tincture’. The various potencies of the medicines are produced by successive dilutions of the mother tincture and mixing by a method called ‘succession’ (vigorous shaking). This may be repeated so many times that not a single molecule of the original substance is likely to be left in some batches. Pillules are made of pure care sugar to which is added a few drops of the remedy which has been prepared in alcohol. This form of remedy is most suited for domestic use. The pollules should be dissolved slowly on the tongue or dissolved, depending on the particular dosage, in varying amounts of pure soft water. Globules are about the same size as poppy seeds and are prepared in a manner simular to pillules. Although their size makes them convenient for giving to babies, it has also brought ridiculke to the method of treatment as a whole.
The very nature of homoeopathic remedies dictates that a remedy that cured one person’s ailment, for example, Arsenicum album (arsenious acid) used as a treatment for vomiting and diarrhoea, may not cure the same ailment in another person. If, however, several people are found to be suffering from the same symptoms, a homoeopathic practitioner may prescribe a remedy epidemicus, or common remedy. But this should not be relied upon in case of a further outbreak of the ‘epidemic’. It has been found that the efficacy of a remedy can even be affected by spells of very dry or wet weather.
For the same reason, remedies cannot be used to prevent ailments. The condition must be present before it can be relieved, although may practitioners, both homoeopathic and orthodox, believe that many conditions can be prevented by eating and drinking the right things, getting enough rest, adopting the correct life-style and combating stress.
Homoeopathy stands somewhat apart from other forms of complementary or alternative medicine, in that it has always had the closest connection with the orthodox medical profession. Ever since the principles of this system were first established, the majority of homoeopathic practitioners have come from within the medical profession. This does not mean, however, that their orthodox colleagues have necessarily been uncritical of them. On the contrary, their methods have often been viewed with scepticism or, at best, with caution, by staunch advocates of orthodox, or allopathic, remedies. Most of the tenets on which homoeopathy is based are in direct opposition to those accepted by orthodox medical practice, and although much has been written by homoeopaths about how to treat every kind of symptom likely to occur, and about which of the thousands of remedies are best suited to which kind of person, nobody has come up with a logical explanation for why these remedies are effective that would stand up to scientific enquiry.
In the past, homoeopathic practitioners have accepted that, because their remedies were effective, a scientific explanation of their actions was not essential. In recent years, researchers have tried to develop some reasonable explanation which would be acceptable to practitioners of alternative and orthodox medicine alike. Suggestions have been put forward by some physicists that a hitherto unknown force exists which may remain in a liquid even after the molecules that produced it have been removed. Indeed, homoeopaths have always accepted that the ‘energy’ associated with a homoeopathic remedy may be transferred to the solution by succession.
Because a homoeopathic remedy is prescribed for the whole person and not just a particular disease or part of the body, diagnosis involves very detailed questioning. A practitioner usually asks questions about personal characteristics such as diet, emotional state, likes and dislikes, domestic circumstances and family history. In this way he or she is able to build up a detailed picture not only of the symptoms from which the patient is suffering, but also of personality and physical constitution. In making a diagnosis, a homoeopath applies the same tests as practitioners of orthodox medicine and would, of course, recommend surgery if found to be necessary.
For which disorders is homoeopathy beneficial? Apart from conditions requiring surgery or corrective treatment, homoeopathic remedies are available for most curable diseases.
At the beginning of a treatment the symptoms may become worse. This is seen as an indication that the remedy is working and that improvement should follow.
One disadvantage of homoeopathy is that in most cases the cure for an ailment may take some time to achieve. Neither is it possible to obtain instant pain relief, which may make homoeopathic remedies unsuitable for acute conditions, for example, headache, earache or stomac ache. Because the patient’s characteristics and temperament are taken into account in prescribing treatment, and because of the large variety of homoeopathic medicines available, some of which are used in a number of different combinations, the initial remedy may be changed or altered slightly by the homoeopath at a subsequent appointment.