Medically Reviewed by Chris D. Meletis, ND
Chief Medical Officer
The Institute for Healthy Aging
What Is It?
Homeopathy is a natural, noninvasive system of medical treatment based on the theory that substances that cause certain symptoms in a healthy person can—in diluted amounts—cure those symptoms in an unhealthy person.
Homeopathy is a natural, noninvasive system of medical treatment based on the theory that substances that cause certain symptoms in a healthy person can—in diluted amounts —cure those symptoms in an unhealthy person. Thus, we get the name homeopathy: homeo for similar, pathy for disease. The logic is that the similar substance promotes healing by stimulating your body's natural healing mechanisms.
The term "homeopathy" is often incorrectly used to refer to almost any alternative approach to medicine—especially the use of herbal and other natural remedies. The practice does, however, share much in common with other forms of alternative health care. For instance, homeopathy, like some other types of alternative medicine, takes a holistic approach to health: It focuses on the whole person, not solely on the condition. Homeopathy is designed to help the body heal itself—not to suppress or control symptoms. In conventional—or allopathic—medicine, the aim often is to control illness through drugs or surgery. Homeopaths contend that this approach often fails to restore the patient to health and only suppresses symptoms. Homeopathy seeks to restore health rather than to cure illness.
Samuel Hahnemann, a German physician, founded homeopathy in the late 18th century, and it came to United States around 1825, spread by American physicians who had studied in Europe and embraced the approach. Its popularity reached a peak in the 19th century. As allopathic medicine (the term applied to the general practice of medicine today) gained prominence in the 20th century, homeopathy fell off dramatically. It's always been popular in many European and Asian countries, and it's starting to regain a following here, thanks to the current interest in alternative and complementary approaches to health care.
According to the 2007 National Health Interview Survey, about 3.9 million U.S. adults and approximately 900,000 children used homeopathy in 2006. Since there's no single entity counting patients or practitioners, it's impossible to know exactly how many Americans use homeopathic remedies—and it's particularly difficult to determine which consumers buy the products because they are "natural" and which are making the purchase because they embrace homeopathy. But manufacturers do gauge sales, and sales of homeopathic remedies are on the rise.
Today, there are estimated to be several thousand homeopathic substances on the market. Most are available without a prescription. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies them as drugs. The Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia—the official listing of homeopathic remedies—was incorporated into federal law in 1938.
The FDA regulates these products, but differently than it does other drugs: There's no expiration date requirement and no limit on the percentage of alcohol they contain. And these formulas don't undergo the same scrutiny as typical pharmaceuticals. The FDA points out that safety isn't really a concern, since homeopathic drugs have little or no pharmacologically active ingredients. Nevertheless, the labels must include at least one indication (medical problem to be treated), list of which substances are included (and at what dilution), instructions and an indication as to how to take the remedy. Also, homeopathic remedies claiming to treat serious diseases such as cancer can only be sold by prescription.
These remedies, derived from plant, mineral and animal sources, are used to treat patients with conditions ranging from depression to diarrhea. Minute traces of a particular substance are used to stimulate your innate healing processes. A good example is nux vomica. Consumed in large quantities, nux vomica can cause nausea (it's a seed from the Strychnos nux-vomica tree that contains strychnine). In very small, highly diluted doses, however, it is a typical homeopathic remedy for treating nausea and upset stomach.
Here's how the remedy is created: A plant extract is mixed in alcohol and/or water at a 1:100 ratio and vigorously shaken in a process called "succussion." The resulting formula would be labeled 1C. If the process is repeated with a drop of the 1C formula, it becomes 2C, and so on. The more times this is done, the more potent the remedy is believed to be. The homeopathic belief is that the substance leaves its imprint or skeleton of the molecule, and thus the water (or alcohol, or other base) is "potentized." The more it is shaken and diluted, the theory goes, the greater the imprint. Over-the-counter homeopathic remedies are often the least diluted and the least potent. Doctors of homeopathy generally prescribe the higher potencies.
While classical homeopaths prefer to offer one remedy at a time, many of the over-the-counter homeopathic remedies are combinations of substances.
Depending on whom you ask, you may hear that homeopathic remedies can treat an almost infinite number of conditions, including acne, arthritis, bronchial and respiratory problems (including colds and asthma), bruises, cramps, cystitis, depression, diarrhea, diabetes, digestive problems, insomnia, menstrual problems, psoriasis, stress, toothache, varicose veins—even worms. While homeopathy has many followers who are convinced of its efficacy, more studies need to be done.
One problem is that since the treatments are customized to the individual, it's hard to conduct the strict double-blind scientific studies that are generally done to test the validity of an allopathic treatment.
But some research does exist. A 2004 study reported in the journal Rheumatology found that homeopathy was significantly better than a placebo at lessening pain and improving quality of life in people with fibromyalgia. A study reported in the British Medical Journal in 2000 indicates that the results are attributable to something other than simply a placebo effect. In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of allergic rhinitis patients, the homeopathy group demonstrated significant improvement compared with the placebo group. And a study published in Lancet in 1997 concluded that subjects taking homeopathic medicines are more than twice as likely to see positive results as those taking a placebo.
Such findings have been hotly debated; however, many in the scientific medical community remain skeptical.
Homeopaths don't treat specific symptoms; rather, they treat the individual. Accordingly, homeopathic remedies are used in a wide variety of situations. Homeopaths often treat chronic conditions, such as insomnia, chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple sclerosis, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, headaches and arthritis. Homeopathy is also used for digestive problems (including diarrhea), acute infections, bruises and injuries, emotional disorders and various women's conditions such as PMS, postpartum depression, menopause-related problems and fibroids.
It's extremely popular for treating respiratory problems, including asthma, allergies, colds and flu.
Finding a Homeopath
If you decide to try homeopathy, be sure to let your regular health care professional know. He or she may be able to suggest someone. Your local health food store or alternative newspaper may be able to point you in the right direction, as can friends who have tried homeopathy. You can also check out online resources: The National Center for Homeopathy offers a searchable directory, located at http://nationalcenterforhomeopathy.org/; it allows you to search by name or location. The Council for Homeopathic Certification also offers a list that's searchable by name or location at www.homeopathicdirectory.com.
With no single regulatory or licensing entity, it's impossible to know precisely how many homeopathic practices there are in the country.
Before committing to a homeopath, ask about his or her training and experience. Laws about what is required to practice homeopathy vary among states, so the quantity and quality of training may vary widely. Many homeopaths are regular physicians—licensed medical doctors (MD) or doctors of osteopathic medicine (DO) who studied homeopathy in addition to their traditional course of study. Doctors of naturopathy (ND) studied homeopathy as part of their medical school training. Homeopaths may also be chiropractors, veterinarians, dentists, nurses, acupuncturists and other health care professionals. They can be lay people with special training.
While there is no central certification program in the United States, a number of organizations provide certification, including Council for Homeopathic Certification (CHC), North American Society of Homeopaths (NASH), American Board of Homeotherapeutics and the Homeopathic Academy of Naturopathic Physicians (HANP).
MDs and DOs can obtain certification from the American Board of Homeotherapeutics and use "D.Ht." after their names; naturopathic physicians can earn a Diplomate of the Homeopathic Academy of Naturopathic Physicians (DHANP); and the North American Society of Homeopaths (NASH) grants registered status (RSHom (NA)) to homeopathic practitioners who meet its requirements. Other non-physicians (including naturopaths who are not naturopathic doctors) can earn a Certified in Classical Homeopathy (CCH) degree through the Council for Homeopathic Certification.
Other organizations may offer other designations or degrees, so be sure to ask if you don't recognize the letters after your practitioner's name.
Your First Visit
One of the basic tenets of homeopathy is that each person is sick—and heals—in a unique way. Your cough can't be treated like your husband's or your sister's. So the homeopath looks at your symptoms, but also talks to you about your mental, physical and emotional health.
This process not only provides information to the practitioner, but it's designed to give you a sense of being heard. You'll probably be in the office an hour or even two.
Be ready to answer questions about your eating habits, sleep and work patterns, health history, stress factors and more. Some questions may seem personal and unrelated to your condition, but that's how the homeopath gets the complete picture of your health. Of course, he or she will also ask about your specific complaint.
If your homeopath is a naturopath, a chiropractor or practices conventional medicine (MD, DO, nurse, etc.) you may undergo a physical exam, including urine and blood tests. It all depends on the practitioner and on your symptoms.
After talking to you for a while, your homeopath will give you a customized treatment. It may involve some changes to your diet or exercise habits, and it will most likely include homeopathic medicine—probably either as a tiny sugar pellet soaked in the liquid or as a liquid. Most are taken orally, but it may be in a form you apply topically.
Here are some common homeopathic remedies; all are highly diluted:
Arnica montana is the most common. It's used topically and orally for relief of sore muscles, bruises or injuries.
Calendula officinalis (the garden marigold) is used topically to speed the healing of cuts, wounds and other skin irritations.
Ignatia is commonly used to treat grief, anxiety, stress and insomnia.
Particular remedies are selected based on the symptoms the substance elicits in a healthy person. The method of determining this is called "proving" the remedy. Healthy people receive full-strength doses of a substance, and their symptoms are observed and recorded. Highly diluted amounts of the substance are then determined to be remedies for those symptoms in an unhealthy person. Provings are done in a scientific and controlled manner. The provings are listed in a homeopathic repertory, which is the homeopath's referral text. By comparing an individual's symptoms to the listed provings, a particular remedy can be selected.
Traditionally, only one homeopathic medicine is used at a time (although, as mentioned earlier, over-the-counter remedies are often combinations). The remedy may work immediately or over time.
Some homeopathic remedies are so diluted that no molecules of the original substance remain; the FDA points out that it's almost impossible to identify any active ingredient.
No one seems sure how these highly diluted substances work; most practitioners are more focused on the effect than the cause.
Don't expect any miracle cures; the goal of the medicine isn't to attack your symptoms, but to bring you to full health. You may not feel better right away. In fact, homeopaths often expect an aggravation of symptoms as the remedy takes effect. If you have a chronic condition, it could take weeks. Still, if you don't notice any improvement in a few days, let your homeopath know. After reviewing your case, he or she will come up with another approach. Homeopaths may try various remedies before finding the right one for you. (Some may have a computerized database to help with the process; others will research in books.) For chronic illnesses, you may require a number of remedies to peel off the layers of disease, much like peeling the layers of an onion.
You should seek additional medical attention if you have a serious medical condition that isn't responding to homeopathy. And, of course, trauma injuries, serious infections, broken bones, internal bleeding and conditions such as AIDS, cancer, heart disease and diabetes should not be treated by homeopathy alone. Homeopathy may prove extremely beneficial as an adjunct treatment, but you should consult a licensed, conventional health care professional as well.
Don't stop taking the medications that have been prescribed to you; most are generally compatible with homeopathic drugs. Some, however, such as antibiotics, hormones, anti-inflammatories and steroids, may not be so let your homeopath know what you are taking.
Different homeopaths will put various restrictions on what you can consume with a particular remedy. You'll probably be asked to avoid coffee, strong tea, menthol (mouthwash, cough drops, etc.) and camphor-based products for 30 to 60 minutes before taking the medication or avoid them completely for the duration of the therapy.
Your homeopath will discuss how often and for how long you need to continue taking the remedy. As with most aspects of homeopathic care, it varies by individual. If you can't drink alcohol, be sure to find out if the remedy has an alcohol base—some homeopathic remedies contain large percentages of alcohol. Often, the alcohol can be evaporated off, since the remedy is given in water.
Facts to Know
Commonly available homeopathic remedies are generally considered safe since they are so highly diluted; most are available without a prescription.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn't limit the percentage of alcohol in homeopathic remedies. Although, given the usual doses of three to five drops at a time, very little alcohol is actually consumed.
Homeopathy, already popular in many European countries, is gaining increasing stature in the United States; millions of people annually seek out some sort of homeopathic care.
The FDA regulates the manufacture and sale of homeopathic medicines. The Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia of the United States was written into federal law in 1938.
Traditionally, only one homeopathic medicine is used at a time, although combination remedies are commonly found in health food and other stores that sell the remedies over the counter.
Homeopathic practitioners often have health care training, such as a degree in dentistry, medicine, osteopathy, chiropractic or naturopathic medicine.
Naturopathic physicians, unlike most other licensed health care professionals, receive formal homeopathy training as part of their standard medical school curriculum.
The law of similars, a basic tenet of homeopathy, states illness can be cured by a substance that creates symptoms in a healthy person similar to those the patient is experiencing.
Homeopaths tailor their treatments to the patient; two people with the same condition may not receive the same remedy. Environmental factors, diet and health history all determine what type of remedy you receive.
Questions to Ask
Review the following Questions to Ask about homeopathy so you're prepared to discuss this important health issue with your health care professional.
What kind of training and certification do you have?
How much experience do you have with my particular condition?
What type of medicine do you practice other than homeopathy? How will that affect my initial examination?
Do you have any objection to my continuing to visit my regular health care professional?
I can't consume any alcohol. Will that affect my treatment?
Are you associated with any insurance plan?
Would you be willing to refer me to a conventional health care professional if you are unable to help me?
What conditions do you think are inappropriate for homeopathic treatment?
How long will it be before I can expect to see improvement?
Are homeopathic remedies dangerous? Could they harm me?
It's extremely unlikely. Homeopathic medicines are highly diluted—there's virtually no discernable trace of the active ingredient.
Isn't homeopathy the same as herbal medicine?
No. Homeopathic medicines are made from very small quantities of a substance––herbal, mineral or animal based. The final product is highly diluted. Herbal medicine doesn't involve diluting the medicinal herb.
The homeopathic remedy seems to be working. Can I go off my blood-pressure medication?
Not without asking your health care professional (the one who prescribed the blood-pressure medication). You could put yourself in danger if you stop taking the medication, especially for such serious conditions as high blood pressure.
Why do I have to answer so many personal questions?
The object is to find out all about you—not just your symptoms. Homeopaths, like many alternative health care practitioners, believe that health and disease are related to issues far beyond just germs and infection. Mental, physical, spiritual and environmental factors all play a role. They take these factors into consideration before coming up with a remedy specifically selected for you.
What is the difference between naturopathy and homeopathy?
Homeopathy is one tool among many that naturopathic physicians use. Some homeopaths are naturopathic physicians and vice versa. The practices are complementary.
So how do these remedies really work?
No one seems to know for sure. Studies are under way to see how well they work but not to determine the mechanisms behind them. The theory is that homeopathic remedies help boost your own natural defenses, allowing your body to heal itself. Other than that, it remains a mystery.
Organizations and Support
American Institute of Homeopathy
Address: 801 North Fairfax Street, Suite 306
Alexandria, VA 22314
Homeopathic Nurses Association
Address: 216 Rider Avenue
Syracuse, NY 13207
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
Address: National Institutes of Health
9000 Rockville Pike
Bethesda, MD 20892
National Center for Homeopathy
Address: 101 S. Whiting St., Suite 16
Alexandria, VA 22304
Collins Alternative Health Guide
by Steven Bratman
Medline Plus: Complementary and Alternative Medicine
Address: Customer Service
8600 Rockville Pike
Bethesda, MD 20894