Perhaps the most widely practiced of all complementary therapies is homeopathy. Yet it remains one of the most controversial since, despite years of scientific investigation, no one can explain how it works.
This principle of treating like with like has a long and distinguished tradition in medicine. The ancient Greek “Father” of medicine, Hippocrates, was familiar with the concept, and it has long been used in Ayurvedic medicine, the natural medicine practiced in India.
A German physician and chemist, Dr Samuel Hahnemann, developed the principle into a coherent therapy and published the first homeopathy textbook in 1810. Hahnemann’s interest in the subject was aroused by quinine, the anti¬malarial medicine extracted from the bark of the cinchona tree. He noticed that quinine given to a healthy person produced the same symptoms of fever and rigor (shaking) as malaria.
Hahnemann set about systematically testing the properties of over 4,000 substances. Experimenting mainly on himself, Hahnemann took high doses of each substance and recorded his reaction to it, a process known as proving. The basic ingredients of homeopathic remedies are still proved by being tested on healthy volunteers today.
Hahnemann then tested the substances in diluted form on patients. He selected patients who were suffering from a particular set of symptoms and gave them a substance which could cause similar symptoms in a healthy person. He observed that they got better. A person suffering from abdominal cramps, vomiting and diarrhea, for example, may have been given Nux vomica, a substance extracted from the poison nut tree which, in large doses, caused the same symptoms. At the same time he realized that finding out as much as possible about his patients before prescribing improved the success of his treatment.
Hahnemann noticed that patients often got worse before they got better and, in order to avoid this reaction, he began to experiment with steadily reducing the dose of the substances. This led to the development of the most controversial principle of homeopathy. Hahnemann found that steadily reducing the dose of active ingredients by increasing the dilution of substances and shaking the mixture at each stage increased the effectiveness of the remedy while reducing its side effects. This process, known as potentization, is used in the manufacture of homeopathic remedies today.
Extracts from the natural ingredients, for example herbs, are dissolved in an alcohol solution and left to stand for anything up to a month. During this period the solution is shaken from time to time. Then the solution is strained off.
The strained solution is known as the mother tincture. This tincture is then systematically diluted to produce homeopathic remedies of various strengths. At each stage of dilution the solution is potentized by being shaken vigorously, a process known as succussion. The remedies are then made up into tiny pills – called pillules – granules or powders of the different strengths.
Homeopaths believe that succussion causes the active ingredient to release its “energy” into the liquid in the solution. This, they maintain, alters the basic structure of the liquid, leaving an imprint, rather like a footprint, of the original active substance on each of its molecules. Therefore, even at dilutions at which there is no longer any physical trace of the original active ingredient, the liquid still retains an “energy memory” of it and this is sufficient for the remedy to be effective. Indeed, it is the highest dilutions that are the strongest remedies and it is this “less is more” effect that causes the most controversy about homeopathy in orthodox scientific circles.
The strengths of homeopathic remedies are classified as follows. A tenfold dilution is indicated by the symbol x, a hundredfold dilution by the symbol c and a thousandfold dilution by the symbol m. While over-the-counter homeopathic remedies are sold at dilutions of 6x, most homeopaths prescribe much stronger remedies at a thousandfold dilution.
A Visit to a Homeopath
Homeopathy operates on the fundamental principle that each person is an individual and needs personalized treatment. When prescribing, homeopaths take into account a person’s personality, emotional and physical condition, likes and dislikes, as well as their symptoms. This is why a typical first homeopathic consultation often takes more than an hour and people with the same symptoms are often prescribed different remedies.
Homeopaths believe in the “laws of cure”. These state that remedies start to work from the top of the body to the bottom, from the inside out and from major to minor organs and that symptoms clear in reverse order of their appearance. The “from the inside out” effect is known as the law of direction and means, for example, that as symptoms of asthma improve, a skin condition such as eczema may develop. Conventional medicine now recognizes a strong link between asthma and eczema: if one member of your family is asthmatic another has an increased risk of eczema or hayfever.
Homeopathic remedies are prescribed one at a time and, during a course of treatment, may be changed according to the way your symptoms progress. It is perfectly safe to take the remedies along with conventional medicines, although some drugs can reduce the effects of homeopathy. Alcohol, coffee, tobacco, strong mints, strong perfumes and aromatherapy oils, such as tea tree oil, can interfere with the efficacy of homeopathic remedies. For the best results take a remedy on a “clean” tongue – do not eat, drink or brush your teeth for 15 minutes before or after taking it.
Many people use homeopathy as a self-help technique at home for simple ailments. But the holistic nature of homeopathy means that buying remedies to treat yourself is likely to be less successful than consulting a trained practitioner.
Today there are more than 3,000 homeopathic remedies and homeopathy can treat almost any health problem, although its effectiveness is said to depend on the individual. There are numerous remedies which may be prescribed for back pain. No two people are likely to be given the same remedy, even if they have similar sorts of back pain.