The Verdict On Homeopathy

Introduction

Homeopathic treatments and the theories behind them have always been controversial. This is, in part, because its assumptions about health and healing are different than that of conventional medicine. Some people believe the doses of the homeopathic medicinal agents are too small to have adequate physiological effects.

These differences have led skeptics and defenders of the conventional medical paradigm to dismiss, attack, and undermine homeopathic medicine. This has resulted in a flawed understanding of homeopathy and the evidence underpinning it among many in the medical community, the public, and regulators. A new draft FDA guidance document,[1] for example, has upended decades of safe and successful regulation of homeopathic products; the agency has declared that all homeopathic medicines are unapproved drugs, threatening all homeopathic medicines currently being sold.

Rather than restricting access to homeopathic medicine, we should embrace it. The scientific and clinical evidence demonstrate that homeopathy is a legitimate form of medicine that can help us heal in the 21st century.

What Is Homeopathy?

A foundational principle of homeopathic medicine is the “principle of similars.” This refers to a drug’s power to elicit a healing response when given in extremely small doses to people who exhibit symptoms similar to the medicine’s toxicology. In homeopathy, a medicinal substance is chosen for its ability to mimic the symptoms the sick person is experiencing.

For example, when you chop a red onion, it causes watery eyes and a runny nose in most people. Allium cepa is a remedy created from red onion; in very small doses, Allium cepa is intended to activate the body’s own mechanism for stopping watery eyes and a runny nose.

There are many examples in nature of exceedingly small doses of substances eliciting profound changes in living things. Dogs, for example, can detect some odors in parts per trillion.[2]  Sharks can detect blood at one part per million.[3]

Is Modern Medicine Evidence Based?

The main charge against homeopathy is that there is no evidence it is effective. The underlying assumption is that pharmaceutical drugs and other medical practices have strong evidence supporting their efficacy. However, a systematic review[4] of 2,500 common medical practices found it was unknown whether 46% of those practices were efficacious or harmful. Replication is an important part of the scientific process, but many medical studies have never been successfully replicated. Although we often think of modern medicine as “evidence-based,” it often falls very short of this ideal. It is important to keep this context in mind when evaluating homeopathic medicine.

The Evidence for Homeopathy: Major Meta-analyses

The newest meta-analysis on homeopathic medicine found that homeopathic patients were almost twice as likely to experience a therapeutic benefit as those given a placebo.[5] This study confirmation that four of the five leading previous systematic reviews of homeopathic research also found a benefit from homeopathic treatment over that of placebo.

Further evidence for homeopathy’s effectiveness comes from a report commissioned by the Swiss government.[6] This report affirmed that homeopathic treatment is both effective and cost-effective and that homeopathic treatment should be reimbursed by Switzerland’s national health insurance program.

It should also be noted that previous meta-analyses claiming that homeopathy is not effective suffer from significant conflict of interests, ethical misconduct, and methodological shortcomings. For example, one meta-analysis was led by a vocal skeptic of homeopathy, Matthias Eggers; the editor of the journal Lancet, which published the study, acknowledged that “Professor Eggers stated at the onset that he expected to find that homeopathy had no effect other than that of placebo.”[7] In other cases, researchers stacked the deck against homeopathy by limiting the breadth of studies that were analyzed—for example by arbitrarily eliminating studies of less than 150 subjects from consideration and thus skewing the results.[8]

Conclusion

Despite opponents’ contentions that homeopathy doesn’t work, there is a strong body of the highest quality of evidence demonstrating that homeopathy is effective. Given the fact that even the most vociferous critics of homeopathy acknowledge its overwhelming safety, it is time to embrace homeopathy in modern medical settings. In light of these facts, especially homeopathy’s strong record of safety, it would seem prudent for the FDA to focus enforcement actions on more pressing dangers to public health.

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[1] https://www.fda.gov/regulatory-information/search-fda-guidance-documents/drug-products-labeled-homeopathic-guidance-fda-staff-and-industry

[2] https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/dogs-sense-of-smell/

[3] https://www.amnh.org/learn/pd/sharks_rays/rfl_myth/myth_page5.html

[4] BMJ, 2007.

[5] Mathie RT, Lloyd SM, Legg LA, Clausen J, Moss S, Davidson JR, Ford I. Randomised placebo-controlled trials of individualised homeopathic treatment: systematic review and meta-analysis. Systematic Reviews 2014; 3:142. http://www.systematicreviewsjournal.com/content/3/1/142

[6] Bornhöft G, Wolf U, von Ammon K, Righetti M, Maxion-Bergemann S, Baumgartner S, Thurneysen AE, Matthiessen PF. Effectiveness, safety and cost-effectiveness of homeopathy in general practice – summarized health technology assessment. Forschende Komplementärmedizin. 2006;13(Suppl 2):19-29. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16883077

[7] EHM News Bureau. Condemnation for the Lancet’s stance on homeopathy. Express Pharma Pulse, October 6, 2005.

[8] National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). 2015. NHMRC Information Paper: Evidence on the effectiveness of homeopathy for treating health conditions. Canberra: National Health and Medical Research Council; 2015.  https://nhmrc.gov.au/sites/default/files/images/nhmrc-information-paper-effectiveness-of-homeopathy.pdf