A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

What's up with homeopathy?

February 25, 2000

Dear Cecil:

This friend of mine is taking a homeopathic remedy for a cold. He explained that it's "the vibration of the molecules of the plant" that is the active remedy here. What's up with this?

Homeopathy! I can't believe this has made a comeback. The last time homeopathy was big, Ulysses S. Grant was president. Now here it is, two months into the year 2000, and you walk into one of these pricey organic supermarkets and see aisles full of homeopathic nostrums, all of which have a proven effectiveness on a par with eye of newt. So, recognizing the complete futility of the effort, I feel obliged to state for the record: Come on, folks. This is nuts.

Homeopathy was founded by the German physician Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843). He enunciated what remain today the guiding principles of homeopathic medicine, the foremost of which is the Law of Similars: if a large amount of medicine produces a given symptom, then a small amount of the medicine will stimulate the body to combat that symptom. This isn't a completely crazy concept; modern vaccines use the same basic idea. The twist with homeopathic medicines is that they reverse the usual understanding of dose effectiveness. Mainstream science holds that, generally speaking, the potency of a drug increases with the dose. Homeopathy — in particular, the Law of Infinitesimals — says the medicine's effectiveness decreases with the dose. The less you use, the better it works! Which would lead one to conclude that it works best if you don't use any at all.

Homeopaths don't say that, of course, but it's the practical impact of the fantastic dilutions they employ. Two scales are used, X and C. A 1X solution means the original medicine (the "mother tincture") was diluted with water, alcohol, or whatever to one part in ten, or 1/10; 2X is 1/100; 3X is 1/1,000; etc. A 1C solution is 1/100, 2C is 1/10,000, 3C is 1/1,000,000, and so on. Most homeopathic remedies range from 6X to 30X. At 30X, chances are that a given dose of the medicine doesn't contain a single molecule of the original, but some dilutions go a lot higher than that. I've heard of one cold remedy with a dilution of 200C, which mathematically is less than one molecule per all the known matter in the universe.

How, then, can homeopathy possibly work? Apologists fall back on far-fetched explanations involving energy and vibrations and so on. A key step in the manufacture of homeopathic medicines is "succussion," in which the mixture is vigorously shaken at each stage of the dilution process. This miraculously unlocks the healing power of the medicinal substance. Could be just my Catholic background talking, but that sounds like making holy water to me.

Homeopathic remedies can legally be sold as drugs in the U.S. owing to an odd circumstance — one of the key sponsors of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938 was a homeopathic physician, and he was able to get the entire homeopathic pharmacopoeia (nux vomica, arsenicum album, et al) officially recognized. Homeopathy has enjoyed a quasi-protected status ever since, with federal regulators generally taking the view that the practice is harmless and that any attempt to suppress it would likely have political repercussions. There have even been studies in journals with varying degrees of credibility purporting to show that homeopathy actually works. These have been roundly criticized on methodological grounds, and the universal view among scientists is that any perceived benefit is simply a placebo effect — you think something is going to help you, so it does.

Why does belief in homeopathy persist? Well, for most routine, common-cold-type health complaints, it's not noticeably less effective than mainstream medicine, or noticeably different in its therapeutic approach. People catch "bugs" that are never diagnosed (and which, if viral, have no cure anyway), take some over-the-counter remedy that claims to address the symptoms, and eventually get better. Did the over-the-counter remedy help? Who knows? It's silly to believe in homeopathic cures, but I'm not seeing that it's smarter to place your faith in Sudafed instead.

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