Deconstructing homeopathy

Written by  //  August 19, 2010  //  Science & Technology  //  24 Comments

A guest post by Akshat Rathi, Graduate Student, Chemistry Research Laboratory, Department of Chemistry, University of Oxford

In January this year, sceptics from many cities in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US staged a stunt where 300 people took large overdoses of homeopathic remedies. Their aim was to demonstrate that homeopathic remedies are nothing but sugar pills and as expected, no volunteer was killed or injured. As 62% of all Indians believe in homeopathy and with that number growing, it is high time that the country begins to understand the science behind homeopathy and the dangers of blindly believing in its claims.

Let’s consider how a homeopathic remedy to treat common cold is made. Homeopaths follow the ‘like cures like’ principle, according to which one must find something that causes the symptoms of common cold like running nose and watery eyes. It is known that onion juice can. So a drop of onion juice is taken and diluted 100 times by adding 100 drops of water. It is then shaken. But that dilution is not enough because homeopaths believe in another principle: ‘the higher the dilution, the higher the potency’, thus one drop of that solution is taken and another 100 drops of water are added to it, followed by more shaking. This is repeated at least 30 times to give the final remedy. At this level of dilution, the chance of finding Barack Obama sitting in your living room is higher than the chance of finding a single molecule of onion juice in that homeopathic remedy. (See BBC documentary to know more)

There have been serious concerns about the validity of homeopathic principles in the mainstream medical community. They lack any scientific evidence and are in complete contrast to the body of knowledge that is traditional medicine. Such highly diluted solutions, which don’t contain even a single molecule of the active ingredient, also make it possible for homeopaths to claim that their remedies have no side effects. Also according to the ‘like cures like’ principle, as stated before, the same homeopathic remedy used to treat stress can simply be used to treat a brain tumour. After all, both conditions cause a headache and the homeopathic remedy for both would simply consist of a highly diluted solution of something that causes a headache.

Many patients who receive homeopathic treatment say that it works for them and it would be wrong to claim that they are lying. Positive effects of homeopathy are merely caused by something called the ‘placebo effect’. A placebo is a medication with no active ingredients in it. The best examples of the placebo effect are observed when two dummy treatments are compared with each other. If one sham treatment works better than the other then it must be simply because people are expecting it to work. For example, a study showed that four sugar pills a day are better at reducing pain than two but more invasive treatment, like a salt-water injection, is even better. In another study patients reported that a red pill was better at treating pain than a white one, even though both were inert.

Homeopathy ‘works’ because of the placebo effect. It doesn’t matter if you are a sceptic, a baby or an animal – if people around you expect the treatment to work, it is more likely to. Sometimes ignorance of important symptoms which need timely attention can give homeopathy credence. This ignorance often makes people wait to see the doctor until their illness is at its worst. At this point a homeopathic remedy is prescribed to the patient. Once the worst is over, the immune system becomes capable of combating the disease and healing begins. But unfortunately, the natural process of healing is often then attributed to homeopathy.

When a homeopathic treatment does not lead to a cure, people tend to blame either their condition or their fate, but still continue to rely blindly on homeopathy. The belief in homeopathy is also perpetuated by India’s unregulated pharmaceutical market which makes it easy to buy medicines across the counter without a physician’s prescription. As a result, people often take the wrong medication and blame the ineffectiveness on mainstream medicine. This tendency generates an undesirable bias towards homeopathy.

One might question that if homoeopathic remedies work (by placebo effect or by self-healing) then surely there is nothing “wrong” in prescribing them? Ethically speaking, it is not wrong to use homeopathic remedies to treat minor illnesses such as common cold or a headache. But it can be exceedingly dangerous, as WHO warned recently, when homeopathy claims to be able to treat serious medical conditions such as cancer, swine flu, AIDS, TB, or malaria.

Furthermore, there can be serious consequences when homeopathy becomes enshrined in mainstream medical policy. In Punjab, for instance a state-wide program is being implemented that uses homeopathic treatment to ‘cure’ pregnant mothers of the need for a C-section during child birth. Incidences like these makes one wonder how many mothers will die and if they do, whether the homeopaths will ever be held to account.

The scientific community has, for decades, systematically refuted every claim that homeopathy makes and yet millions of people in India still believe in it. Government funds it, ministers support it, more colleges are built and more homeopaths walk amongst us year on year. Some say this broad public support for homeopathy remains because the scientific community is unable to communicate this to the people or it comes from a general disdain for “western” medicine.

Akshat Rathi is a researcher in pharmaceutical chemistry at the University of Oxford and he blogs at The Allotrope

Further Information

BBC Horizon documentary

Kienle, G. S. et al, Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, 1997, 50, 1311

Homeopathic treatment for Ovarian Cysts

Prasad, R. The Lancet, 2007, 370, 1679

24 Comments on "Deconstructing homeopathy"

  1. Arghya August 20, 2010 at 5:13 am · Reply

    Dear Akshat,

    A wonderfully informative post. I just had a couple of thoughts, very lay and unscientific so you may find them trite. When I was reading the piece, it seemed to me, that there MUST be another side to the story. From your piece it seemed as if homoeopathy is the biggest hoax that has been successfully pulled off for a couple of centuries. That may well be true, I’m not an advocate of it neither am I keen on defending it, but it strikes me as strange that apart from the placebo effect there is nothing which redeems homoeopathy and makes it work. And if it is just this placebo effect, surely it would have caught on at some point of time and the inefficacy of the drugs revealed. Can the placebo effect explain two centuries of belief in the scientific value of a medicinal system or is there something more?

    Second, being a firm believer in allopathic cures myself I think perhaps the government can be reminded that homoeopathy is western too, Hahnemann if I recall rightly? So funding it isn’t really upholding too many “Indian” values!

    • Akshat Rathi August 22, 2010 at 8:54 pm · Reply

      Thanks for the comment Arghya.

      First, you are right. It probably is the biggest hoax ever but one must not forget that no one understands the placebo effect properly yet. Also, the placebo effect has been defined as a scientific phenomenon only in the 60′s and scientists have been playing down homeopathy since the 70′s.

      Second, yes it is ‘western’ in origin but many of its ‘modus operandi’ appeal to the Indian psyche viz like cures like, no side effects, etc.

  2. Sumeet Khullar August 20, 2010 at 6:36 am · Reply

    Excellent post!

    This helped my form an understanding of the scientific principles underlying homeopathy. It is essential that claims of such ‘voodoo’ medicines are actively debunked in school curriculum and the amount of precious resource being wasted on methods that are PROVEN not to work can be saved, and used for better purposes.

    • Akshat Rathi September 5, 2010 at 1:22 pm · Reply

      I agree with you cent percent. Any clues on how we can get this in the curriculum?

  3. Dr. Nancy Malik August 21, 2010 at 5:43 pm · Reply

    Real is scientific homeopathy. It cures even when Conventional Allopathic Medicine (CAM) fails. Nano doses of evidence-based modern homeopathy medicine brings big results for everyone

  4. Vipul August 22, 2010 at 9:11 pm · Reply

    Akshat,

    One point you fail to mention is that before 1850, other medicinal approaches were no good either. Some practices such as bloodletting were harmful. Much of allopathic medicine was guesswork too. So there was no real basis to judge homeopathy to be fraudulent.

    Also you overrate the placebo effect and underrate regression to the mean. Natural recovery often happens and is wrongly attributed to a treatment regime.

    • Akshat Rathi September 5, 2010 at 1:17 pm · Reply

      Yes, you have a point there about pre-1850 period.

      On overrating the placebo effect: the point of the article was to highlight that there is such an effect which people are clueless about and in the process it might seem that I underrated natural recovery. That’s just a side product 0f the aim of the article.

  5. pell grants August 25, 2010 at 11:33 pm · Reply

    nice post. thanks.

  6. karan September 3, 2010 at 7:39 am · Reply

    I fail to understand how once can easily discount the effect of medicines which have been used for centuries. Cancer- for starters has no answers – allopathic or homeopathic. Allopathic medicines such as avastin, and others seem to do nothing but worsen a persons daily life. Homeopathy seems to have some answers – Prasanta banerjee with his Ruta Graveolens treatment, having said that, i am not sure if he is there yet. Warts are another example- I dont know on any one getting rid of a corn by allopaathic treatment and I have seen a corn\wart fall off in 2 months of homeopathic treatment. There is absolutely no placebo effect happening in this case for sure.

    • davis September 5, 2010 at 12:18 pm · Reply

      As you fail to understand how treatments used for centuries can be discounted, I am very surprised you discount the most modern and proven treatments. Cancer on a molecular basis has been explained for a large part, and many cancers can now be entirely cured, often with novel treatments. As far as allopathic treatment of warts, yes, there are a lot of options, and yes they work. A well documented treatment carried in allopathic medical journals involved placing duct tape over the wart for 6 out of seven days, which has a very high cure rate over 1-2 months. Furthermore warts can spontaneously regress. This can be called regression to the mean, or self-healing, and does explain what happened to you, although I do not discount your explanation. I believe the “Placebo Effect” is a very emotionally charged phrase. You have heard of the power of positive thinking? Great new age movements like “The Secret” have been based on this. This is the same thing. Creating an expectation of healing, creating a physician-patient bond so my belief in treatment success will spread to my patients, empowering patients to self-heal and support their healing with diet and lifestyle changes are all part of my “allopathic” practice and are all components of the “Placebo Effect”.

      On the other hand I am confused by the “scientific” discussion of the “less than a molecule in solution argument” I hear against homeopathy. This makes some intuitive sense, but when you are talking about a single molecule in solution, you would best be talking about a quantum mechanical model. Forgive me if my physical chemistry and statistical mechanics are a bit rusty, but this comes back to a Schroedinger’s Cat type problem, where until you find the molecule all the dilutions act statistically as though they both have and do not have the molecule. Further to find the molecule you have to destroy the solutions. This is born out experimentally in some QM systems. So, yes, fractional molecular solutions can behave like they have a fraction of the molecule in solution.

      Just my two cents…

  7. Respiratory Therapist September 8, 2010 at 10:50 pm · Reply

    this post is very usefull thx!

  8. Rother September 27, 2010 at 12:21 pm · Reply

    Very Interesting Blog! Thank You For Thi Blog!

  9. Anon September 27, 2010 at 8:58 pm · Reply

    I have been suffering from frequent bouts of tonsillitis for more than 5 years. I first went to an allopatic doctor who prescribed one dose of anti-biotics. That did not work. So 3 days into the course, he started me on the stronger anti-biotics. That made the sympoms go away but 1 week later I had boils in my throat again (I am discounting the side effects of the stronger anti-biotics).

    At this point someone suggested homeopathy. I now use homeopathy and now get tonsillitis about twice a year. On starting the course, the symptoms disappear within 2-3 days, as compared to close to 6 days with the stronger dose of allopathic medicine. I have been told by the doctor that if I complete a proper course for 2 months even the biannual attacks of tonsillitis should disappear but frankly I couldnt be bothered taking pills when I am not suffering from anything.

    You could dismiss this as anecodtal. However, the basic premise of your argument is that homeopathic medicine cures the symptoms and not the disease. However, in this case allopthic meds failed to cure either. And it could be argued that in this case alopathic medicine could be the placebo effect. And I havent blamed fate for homeopathy not working becuase it has worked every time.

    So what would you suggest? Homeopathic may be fudgy. But it works for me. And 62% of Indians. There must be a reason for that. People are skeptical of modern medicine and the side effects.

  10. Dr. Ajit R. Jadhav October 29, 2010 at 10:27 am · Reply

    I am (forever) in the process of writing a series of blog-posts (which, once completed, I shall turn into a better written essay) that offer a hypothesis on how homeopathy might be working.

    Thus, note, my working assumption is that homeopathy does work—at least some of the times. Even if something works only “some” times, a curious onlooker can have enough material to seek to supply an explanation of it. That, I am doing. I emphatically have no wish to promote my blog (because doing so won’t even buy me a cup of coffee), but, if you, too, are curious, stay tuned for the next installments (I can’t promise when, only that I will, some time).

    Now, a bit about this part of Akshat’s write-up:

    “Homeopathy ‘works’ because of the placebo effect. It doesn’t matter if you are a sceptic, a baby or an animal – if people around you expect the treatment to work, it is more likely to.”

    Aha! Forget the skeptic, but how I love it when you do include “a baby or an animal” in it. And, then, proceed, after the em-dash, to provide a hint at a sort of an explanation wherein you seem to attribute the efficacy of the homeopathic remedy to the “people around [the subject].”

    As a believer in the psycho-somatic effects myself, this is good. However, you seem to go a bit farther than what I would care to once in the context of homeopathy. You seem to hint at a psycho-somatic effect wherein the psyche part belongs to one organism (the people around) and the somatic to the other (the baby or the animal). Such an extension of the pyscho-somatic effect, too, should not be ruled out, if you ask me. Yet, the really important point is to carefully note the distance you have already travelled in your attempt to deny homeopathy. Not entirely necessary, I say.

    As written on my blog, I am (forever) in the process of providing an explanation of those effects of homeopathy in which even such psycho-somatic effects are nullified, via a carefully controlled protocol. (I need not spell out the fact *that* such protocols *can* easily be designed to you.)

    Thus, my working hypothesis (and deep down in my mind, even my assertion) is that there is some effect, an effect rather pertaining to the material nature of a living organism, that still remains even after we subtract the psycho-somatic ones (whether these last refer to one and the same organism or, to, as you imply, to different ones). It is this last effect that I seek to explain, for which I do seem to have a hypothesis to offer.

    One last point. I am surprised by the lack of reference to the so-called provings procedures, in most critiques of homeopathy, certainly the absence of it in the present one.

  11. Parthasarathi May 10, 2011 at 12:21 pm · Reply

    “general disdain for “western” medicine. ” — this is the most interesting part of the whole homoeopathic myth. The creator of homoeopathy was a German, and it evolved in Eurpoe, so it is as western as the antibiotics that supporters of homoeopathy love to hate !!! I think Sir John Forbes, physician to Queen Victoria in 1843, summed it up aptly when he described homoeopathy as “an outrage to human reason”.

  12. Nancy Malik May 20, 2011 at 5:06 pm · Reply

    Evidence of homeopathy is undeniably positive and consistent. It’s a human evidence of experience, gathered from a real-world observation in a real-world setting (not in an ideal artificial laboratory) giving real-world solutions.

  13. Parthasarathi June 15, 2011 at 11:39 am · Reply

    On the contrary – supporters of homoeopathy have failed to provide any verifiable and testable data that conclusively shows homoeopathy to be better than placebo. All one gets is anecdotes and obfuscation. A good antidote is Ben Goldacre’s excellent page: http://www.badscience.net/index.php?s=homoeopathy

  14. Dr.Nancy malik August 12, 2011 at 5:56 am · Reply

    A. Basic Fundamental Research
    B. High Dilution Research
    C. Clinical Research
    1. Double-blind Randomised Placebo-Controlled Trial
    3. Double-Blind Studies
    4. Cohort/Observational/Pilot Studies
    5. Systematic Reviews & Meta Analysis
    D.
    6. Homeopathy as a Genetic Medicine
    7. Evidence for specific disease conditions
    8. Homeopathy superior to conventional
    9. Homeopathy cost-effective than conventional
    10. Homeopathy equals conventional
    11. Homeopathy superior to placebo
    12. Homeopathy improving quality of life
    E.
    13. Evidence-based homeopathy
    14. To distinguish one homeopathy medicine from another
    15. To distinguish homeopathy medicine from water
    F.
    16. Animal Studies
    17. Plant Studies

    Papers related to the above domains are available at http://knol.google.com/k/scientific-research-in-homeopathy Which of them you would like to see?

  15. Arti February 25, 2012 at 8:42 pm · Reply

    Helloz. A very informative post. But personally I belong to those 62% Indians and yes Homeopathy has helped me at various stages. I wouldn’t say its effective for all ailments but for something chronic homeopathy has always helped me over allopathy. I suffered from chronic, allergic cough for 3 years as a child and Homeopathy cured it. This couldn’t have been a placebo effect considering I was coughing not at a psychological level but I was actually coughing! And on several occasions I have resorted to Homeopathy and it has helped me. The science behind it might be vague or un-scientific but yes it did help me!

    So yeah I haven’t read much about the science behind it (yours being the first article I have read) but on an experiential basis I do strongly believe in it.

  16. Malleus Homeopathicum June 22, 2012 at 6:19 pm · Reply

    It has been put to me that India’s state recognition and promotion of homeopathy is symptomatic of a nation that can not decide whether it wants to belong to the modern world or the world of superstition.

    We do have Indian homeopaths in the UK. Many of them pretend to be doctors despite the fact whilst their qualification maybe recognised in the sub-continent, they are not recognised here. I have seen such people genuflecting to pictures of long dead homeopaths.

    Homeopathy has strong associations with religious and quasi-religious beliefs.

  17. keerthi November 14, 2012 at 6:45 am · Reply

    i dont agree

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