Homeopathic medicine

Summary: Homeopathic medicine is extremely diluted, often to the point where no molecules of the original medicine remain. Homeopaths claim that when they dilute the medicine following the right ritual, the water used to dilute medicines holds a 'memory' of the medicine, which is passed on to a pill, and then passed on to the patient. In my opinion, this is all nonsense. Homeopathy consists of a magic ritual, followed by taking a pill containing no medicine.

Mark Twain and homeopathy

Many homeopathic websites dishonestly claim that Mark Twain was a supporter of homepathy. In fact he was not - Twain wrote that to take homeopathic medicine was to "bribe death with a sugar pill to stay away", and described the homeopathic physician as "a pleasant friend of death's". He did, however, believe that homeopathy had had one good effect - its popularity had forced ordinary 19th century medicine to become more scientific. He wrote: "The introduction of homeopathy forced the old school doctor to stir around and learn something of a rational nature about his business. You may honestly feel grateful that homeopathy survived the attempts of allopaths [ordinary 19th century doctors] to destroy it."

Homeopathic websites often quote the last sentence out of context, as if Twain was a supporter. They never quote his description of the homeopathic doctor as "a pleasant friend of death's".

Origin of homeopathy

Homeopathy is a medical system devised by Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843). He noticed that the drug quinine could cause fever, and is used to treat malaria, which also causes fever. He proposed the 'Law of similars', which says that if you have certain symptoms, then whatever the disease, you should take a medicine that causes the same symptoms, rather than one that reduces the symptoms. He then proposed the 'Law of infinitesimals', which says that the more you dilute a medicine, the more powerful it becomes. He also claimed that all chronic diseases were manifestations of a suppressed itch, which he called 'psora'.

At the time that homeopathy was invented, 200 years ago, the causes of diseases were unknown - bacteria and viruses had not been discovered, and little was known about how the organs of the body worked. Since then, the understanding of diseases and of the working of the human body has increased dramatically. Over the past 200 years conventional medicine has therefore moved on from treating symptoms to treating underlying diseases. Because the basic principle of homeopathy is to treat symptoms (on the assumption that all diseases have the same underlying cause) it has been unable to move on.

Homeopathic medicines are made by taking an original susbstance, which may be plants, minerals, animal organs, radioactive elements such as radium, and other substances, and diluting them. They may be diluted in water or alcohol if they will dissolve, or lactose (milk sugar) powder if they won't dissolve. They may be diluted to one part in 10 or one part in 100. These would be called 1X or 1C by homeopaths, using the Roman numerals X=10 and C =100 for the magnitude of dilution. The solution or powder is then shaken. A part of it is taken and diluted again, by the same factor as before. The concentration of the original substance would now be one part in 100 for 2X or one part in 10,000 for 2C. The dilutions are repeated again and again.

The table below summarises some of the dilutions applied to common homeopathic medicines. Because homeopaths believe that the more diluted the medicine is, the more potent it is, they normally refer to these dilutions as 'potencies'. They claim that extremely diluted substances must be handled with care because they are so powerful that they can be dangerous.

  • 1X: 1 part in 10
  • 2X: 1 part in 100
  • 3X: 1 part in 1000
  • 4X: 1 part in 10,000
  • 5X: 1 part in 100,000
  • 6X: 1 part in 1,000,000
  • 10X: 1 part in 10,000,000,000
  • 20X: 1 part in 100,000,000,000,000,000,000
  • 1C: 1 part in 100
  • 2C: 1 part in 10,000
  • 3C: 1 part in 1,000,000
  • 4C: 1 part in 100,000,000
  • 5C: 1 part in 10,000,000,000
  • 10C: 1 part in 100,000,000,000,000,000,000
  • 20C: 1 part in 10,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000
  • 30C: 1 part in 1,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 000,000,000,000,000,000,000

Dilutions below (or 'potencies' above) about 24X or 12C are so dilute that there is not a single molecule of the original substance left in the medicine. Homeopaths claim that, although there is nothing of the medicine there, the water, alcohol or lactose powder retain a 'memory' of the original substance. They say that shaking the solution a particular number of times (usually four) between dilutions is essential to retaining the memory. The solution itself is not usually sold as a medicine. A drop of it is placed on a lactose tablet, and allowed to dry. Presumably it passes on its 'memory' before it dries. Somehow, when the patient takes the tablet, the memory of the original medicine causes the disease to be cured, according to homeopaths.

In my opinion, this is all nonsense. I am open to the possibility of unconventional medicines and therapies having real effects, but not when there's nothing there. Homeopathy consists of a magic ritual, followed by taking a pill containing no medicine. I have no doubt that some people feel better after taking these pills. This is known as the placebo effect, when taking a pill makes you feel better, whether or not it has any real effect. Make up your own mind.

Occasionally, homeopaths will suggest taking the original solution as a medicine, before dilution. This is referred to as the 'mother tincture'. In these cases, the medicine is no different in principle to conventional medicine.

All of the above is admitted by homeopathic practitioners, though they don't generally tell you unless you ask the right questions. If you think my description is in any way inaccurate, please let me know by writing to me. You can contact me here.

Further information is available at the following site: Homeopathy, by Stephen Barrett, M.D.

Updated 2004-02-16

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