By Trisha Malhotra
Remember catching a cold, getting to skip school, and your parents giving you a tiny bottle of sugary pills as medicine? It almost made falling ill fun. Now, in adulthood, those sugar pills don’t seem as helpful as taking a good old decongestant. But these pills continue to be prescribed for healing conditions that modern medicine has yet to attend to- PCOS, diabetes, cancer, and arthritis, to name a few. This has, understandably, prompted skeptics to probe further into whether these pills even work. Is homeopathy a medical marvel ahead of its time? Or does it need to be left behind in the graveyard of orthodox remedies?
What is homeopathy and how does it work?
Homeopathy, a ‘natural’ alternative to modern medicine, has been popularly consumed by the Indian masses for decades. In fact, homeopathy is currently the second most popular form of medicine in India with about 10% of the population relying on it. Its followers claim it works as a gentle healer: a form of natural therapy administered painlessly.
But homeopathy is far from Indian. Although it remains popular in India, its origins are from Germany by a physician named Samuel Hahnemann in 1796. Hahnemann believed homeopathy can be an effective means of curing ailments due to two fundamental tenets through which these medicines work.
- The first is “like cures like” — that is, if something causes an ailment, the same thing, in a different quantity, can also ease it.
- The second law is that of minimum dosage — Diluting the core ingredient to such an incredible extent that usually even a single molecule of the original substance doesn’t remain in the final mixture. Homeopathic proponents have a term for this called “potentiation” as per which the diluted solution is actually more potent, rather than ineffective.
Since homeopathy pills are created through a dilution process, they have units determining how potent each formula is. A 2X (unit of potency) scale implies that the one milliliter of an active substance has been diluted in 9 milliliters of water or any other solvent twice over. Common potencies for homeopathic pills tend to be 30X or 300C. But beyond a 24X dilution, there is no presence of a single molecule of the active substance.
Is homeopathy reliable?
Now, if you have even a modest understanding of chemistry, the law of minimum dosage seems counterintuitive. If there isn’t a single molecule of an active substance remaining in the final product, aren’t you just selling sugar pills? How can dilution increase the potency of a formula? This criticism is an actual fact. Many homeopathic formulations, being unregulated, are diluted to the extent where they turn inert. Some might have some semblance of active ingredients, but the dose is so minimal that it's likely not going to make a difference.
Many studies, in animals and humans, show participants remarkably getting better when they take homeopathic pills to counteract their ailment. There are two possible reasons why these studies show people improving.
- Placebo effect: This effect occurs when one truly believes taking a certain substance will help them. Because they believe they are getting better, they report getting better. In some wild studies showcasing the power of placebo, physiological markers like memory, attention, and more improve when the participants have been given inert pills. The placebo effect has been shown in animals too, wherein if the animal is given something they are ‘taught’ is tasty, they enjoy it more, even if it is the same food.
- Correlation isn’t causation: This explanation posits that some other factor is the true reason someone recovered from their illness. For instance, it could be that one’s body naturally recovered from the seasonal flu. However, they happened to take homeopathic pills around the same time, so the conclusion was drawn that the pills were the reason for the recovery.
The Bottom Line
Even with these explanations negating the efficacy of homeopathy, there is no dearth of people testifying to its curative properties. India has gone the extra mile and offered degree courses for students to become registered practitioners of homeopathic treatments. Overseas, Britain and France have banned funding for any research related to homeopathy. Spain plans to ban homeopathic treatments from being prescribed altogether. The scientific consensus is that alternative forms of medicine like homeopathy should undergo the same rigorous testing, scrutiny, and peer-reviewing that allopathic medication needs to pass through before approval.