Do You Really Know What Homeopathic Remedies Are?
The word "homeopathic" is thrown around a lot for alternative medicine in the movement to get away from the stranglehold Big Pharma holds. If you listen to common people use the phrase enough, you start to quickly hear how people think its an alternative word for natural remedies. In the words of the Princess Bride's Inigo Montoya, "you keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means."
So what is a homeopathic remedy? Straight from HomeopathyUSA.org, they define the term as, "Homeopathy, or Homeopathic Medicine, is the practice of medicine that embraces a holistic, natural approach to the treatment of the sick. Homeopathy is holistic because it treats the person as a whole, rather than focusing on a diseased part or a labeled sickness. Homeopathy is natural because its remedies are produced according to the U.S. FDA-recognized Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia of the United States from natural sources, whether vegetable, mineral, or animal in nature." That sounds like a good idea right? They further break the practice down into 3 principles; 1) like cures like, 2) minimum dose, and 3) single remedy.
What does that mean? The dictionary defines it as, "a system of medical practice that treats a disease especially by the administration of minute doses of a remedy that would in larger amounts produce in healthy persons symptoms similar to those of the disease." Definitions aside, scientists put homeopathic techniques to the test and found the practice to be a placebo at its best. The first and second principles essentially take a substance that would cause the "like" illness and dilute it down until you basically only have water left under the premise the substance will no longer have enough potency to stimulate the illness. Part of the homeopathic claim is the remaining diluted solution has a "memory" and the body will create the appropriate antibodies from it. The Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) concluded that "people who choose homeopathy may put their health at risk if they reject or delay treatments for which there is good evidence for safety and effectiveness." NOTE: In many cases, substances that are natural are also naturally toxic - hence the notion of diluting them to the point they are basically just water. For an excellent review on this, read the article "Diluting the Scientific Method: Ars Looks at Homeopathy" by Arstechnica.
It's easy to see how people get suckered onto the homeopathic bandwagon. Who wouldn't prefer a remedy that was "all-natural" versus a convoluted chain of chemistry terms? (Especially when as of 2009, only 30% of American high school students even took chemistry.) Medicine already commands high prices to offset research, development, and production but evidence of pharmaceutical price gouging really alienates the general public. The simple combination of populist anger at pricing and a lack of trust due to scientific indifference make natural remedies seem like an affordable lifeline.
But now the FDA is requiring homeopathic remedies sold commercially to be labeled appropriately with warnings the products are not backed by science, do not necessarily work as advertised, and are not approved. Unfortunately, there is an assumption the warnings will not be effective as there is not necessarily a standard for them and the public may not understand them anyway. These warnings come explicitly in the wake of teething gels that killed infants by diluting the natural toxic substance belladonna.