The Science Is Clear. Homoeopathy Does Not Work.
Homoeopathy is one of the most popular and most controversial alternative medicines present today. Homoeopathy medicines provide a global revenue of almost 15.98 billion dollars annually for pharmaceutical companies and are expected to grow by 16.8% between 2018 and 2024, which is huge.
Around 60% of people in Europe have tried homoeopathy at some point in their lives and it is growing in popularity in the Americas and South-East Asia. Homeopathy is also used by all kinds of people and in a study by Cemre Cukaci et al, the authors have shown that people with all kinds of scientific literacy level have resorted to untested and alternative medical treatments like homoeopathy.
However recently, despite its growing popularity, medical institutes around the world have been pushing against the use of homoeopathy. The NHS of the USA has termed homoeopathy as “an alternative medicine with no scientific and statistical backing”. Austria’s Medical University of Vienna has stopped teaching homoeopathy to its medical students claiming the same.
But what is homoeopathy? Is it a scam as the title suggests? Why does it have a hugely positive reception among common people, but a heavy negative reception among the scientific community? Why are Homeopathy medicines tagged as nothing more than ‘sugar globs’ by the scientific community?
Before we get into the actual content, I’d like to note that at the end of this article, I’ve placed links to research papers published in extremely influential journals that support every single statement that I mentioned in this article. If you don’t trust my words, you can investigate those as well.
Let’s understand each question one by one.
Homoeopathy isn’t a new idea. It was conceived by the German physician Samuel Hahnemann almost 200 years ago. Homoeopathy is based on two very simple principles.
The first one is, “like cures like”. The idea is to use ingredients that cause the symptoms to cure the disease and its symptoms. For example, a bee sting causes itching and homoeopathy rely on using the chemical that causes the itching to cure the itching. Samuel used his own experience to decide this. The bark of the cinchona tree is used to cure Malaria. He noticed that the bark of the Cinchona caused some milder versions of the symptoms of Malaria itself. This prompted him to conclude that to cure the symptoms, you must use ingredients that cause the same symptoms that you want to cure. Similarly, a liquid from bees which causes itching, is used to cure itching.
The second principle is known as Potentization.
Potentization is the methodology using which medicines are prepared. This is going to be bizarre, trust me. Potentization is the idea that highly diluting these ingredients and vigorously agitating them will negate the toxic effects of these ingredients and increase or activate the curative powers of the ingredient and enhances its effects. So, potentization is taking an ingredient that causes the symptoms that we want to cure and then heavily diluting it in alcohol or distilled water to improve its capabilities.
And when I tell diluting the ingredients, the level of dilution is what is bizarre. For example, one part of a solution of some ingredient is added to nine parts of water or alcohol. In simpler terms, if you take 1 millilitre of some ingredient and then added to 9 millilitres of water. This is known as 1X potency because the sum of the amount of the ingredient and water adds up to 10 millilitres. The ‘X’ comes from the Roman Numeral ‘X’, which means 10. 2X potency involves adding 2 parts of the ingredient and 18 parts of water. 3X potency involves adding 3 parts of the ingredient and then adding 27 parts of water. You can keep calculating the same for 4X and so on. This diluted solution is the actual medicine that is given to people. It is believed that the higher the potency, the better is the medicine.
Due to this belief, most homoeopathy medicines are heavily diluted. This is where things get bizarre. Due to this belief that higher the potency better is the ingredients curing abilities of the medicine, homeopaths dilute these ingredients heavily. So, many medicines go for 30C potency. The C is again inspired by the Roman Numeral ‘C’, which means 100. 30C potency means, 1 part of the ingredient is mixed with 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 parts of water. To get things into perspective, 1ml of the ingredient is mixed with 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000ml of water. This level is of dilution is like mixing taking a molecule of the ingredient and placing it in a bathtub full of water.
Finally, this heavily diluted solution is poured over sugar tablets and is left to evaporate.
Yeah, that sounds bizarre and I found it hard to digest that too. Imagine taking a Paracetamol 250mg and mixing it in a swimming pool and drinking that solution for a few days as a medicine to cure body pain or fever. It would have zero effect because the solution has been diluted so much that the chance of even one molecule of Paracetamol entering your body is pretty low. Well, you would need a lot more than 100,000 molecules for at least a single dose. So basically, homoeopathy medicines have zero effect on the patient. It is nothing but a sugar pill.
But, if such level of dilution makes no sense, then why would homoeopaths (people who practice homoeopathy) recommend the same medicine. Well, they have an explanation. The homoeopaths believe that by shaking the mixture heavily during every dilution, the ingredient leaves behind the essence of its effects. What they mean by it is that homoeopaths believe at each step of dilution, the water will be able to remember the essence of the ingredient and produce the same effect as that of the actual ingredient.
Well, that makes no sense. Atoms and molecules don’t have any sort of memory and don’t reflect the properties of the atoms that those molecules meet.
We must remember that during the 18th century, the specific properties of atoms and molecules weren’t properly understood, so it makes sense that people of that time could have brought some explanation for their claim.
There is another reason why people believe homoeopathy works. Let’s go back to the 18th century again and get a history lesson. In the 18th If your hand was severely injured, due to the lack of proper medicine to heal your hand and prevent infections, your hand would have been amputated (cut off) to prevent more deterioration of your health due to infections. Another example of such an invasive method would be bloodletting. Bloodletting is the process of cutting a vein in your body, to remove blood out of your body in the hope that you would get cured.
Both are very invasive techniques and the founder of Homeopathy, Samuel Hahnemann, wanted to find a non-invasive technique and went on to invent homoeopathy medicines. However, along with prescribing those ineffective homoeopathy medicines, Hahnemann imposed very strict rules on his patients. He would order his patients to never eat meat, wear clothes made of sheep wool, and horse riding, no playing games, no sitting in stuffy air etc.
Now let’s say you had a severe external injury in your hand. Hahnemann would give you homoeopathy medicines and would impose those strict rules asking you to follow them for months. The human body would naturally heal the wounds because you are unlikely to harm your hand more because of the strict rules imposed on you.
Even today, if you go to a homoeopath because you are frequently catching the common cold and allopathy medicines didn’t work, the homoeopath would provide you with some homoeopathy pills and would give a long list of diet restrictions and activities (those that might make you catch a common cold) and ask you to follow them for years. Naturally, as you grow up, your body will develop the defence mechanisms to combat common cold symptoms hence making you believe that the medicine worked, and your troubles are over. However, the reason for your health improving is purely because of your change in habits and your body’s natural defence mechanism and not the medicine given by the homoeopath.
You might have seen people who have taken homoeopathic treatment and swear that they got cured because of the treatment. Do we have any experimental proof that the homoeopathy doesn’t work?
Well, thanks to advancements in physics, we know that the method of preparation of homoeopathic medicines makes no sense. But why care if it helps cure people? We’ve seen plenty of reports and anecdotal evidence where people claim that it works. This is known as the placebo effect.
In scientific experiments, especially while testing medicines and psychological hypothesis, a placebo is used to verify if the medicine cured the person or was it the belief that the person has over the medicine that cured the person.
Let’s take an example to understand it better.
In two research papers published in the Journal of Sports and Medicine, Christopher Beedie analyzes placebo effect in athletes. Many companies sell performance-enhancing medicines or food that claim to enhance the performance of athletes. These are known as performance-boosting interventions.
To analyze if these claims are true, the researchers randomly select a group of athletes and split them into two groups. To the first group, the researchers give the actual performance enhancer product and to the second group, the researchers give a fake pill and tell the athletes that they have given the actual performance enhancer pill. People in the second group believe that they have taken the performance enhancer, but in fact, they have been given a fake pill.
Then, the athletes’ performance is tested and their vital metrics such as heart rate is monitored in real-time. The people who took the actual pill, i.e, the first group, showed an improvement in their performance and the athletes too claimed that the pill seemed to make them feel better, but there was no real change in their vital metrics that could explain why the specific pill given to them enhances their performance.
Now, this is where information from the second group is important. The people who were given the fake pill, i.e the people who believed that they were given the actual performance enhancement pill but were given a fake pill, also showed an improvement in their performance and claimed that the pill seemed to improve their performance.
Now that is fishy. People who took the actual pill showed an improvement, but so did the people who took a fake pill believing that they have been given an actual performance enhancer. There is no vital metric that explains why a specific pill enhances the performance nor there is a scientific explanation that explains why the pill works. This is known as a placebo effect.
The pill had nothing to do with the improvement in the performance of the athletes. It was the belief that the pill would improve the performance that enhanced the performance of the player. In the paper by Christopher Beedie, 97% of the athletes agreed that they experienced the placebo effect and that all the alternative medicines never actually worked, but only induced the placebo effect.
In 2015, an extensive report from the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council analyzed 1,800 papers on homoeopathy concluded, “…that there are no cases for which there is reliable evidence that homoeopathy is effective”. They concluded that homoeopathy medicines show no evidence that they solely are responsible for health improvements of the subjects and that some well-researched studies and experiments showed that homoeopathy treatments induce the placebo effect and that people in the placebo group showed the same health improvements as the people who took the treatment. They also suggested that no patient suffering from a serious or a chronic health condition should be prescribed homoeopathy treatments.
In an exhaustive review published in BioMedCentral, Robert T Mathie et al showed that a lot of popular studies that support homoeopathy treatments are supported by low quality trials also known as C-grade trials that includes a high level of personal bias and sensitivity.
A study published in Lancet (one of the most respected medical journals), Aijing Shang et al analyzed 110 medical trials for homeopathic treatments and concluded, “When account was taken for these biases in the analysis, there was weak evidence for a specific effect of homoeopathic remedies, but strong evidence for specific effects of conventional interventions. This finding is compatible with the notion that the clinical effects of homoeopathy are placebo effects.”
No one is immune to the placebo effect. We all face it at some part of our lives. If we believe that some ingredient or some act will make them feel better, such as taking a pill or participating in some religious ritual, their trust on that ingredient or the act alone will make them face the desired effect. One such example is the athletes’ experience that I explained. Another example is the pain-balms taken by people to reduce the pain of the headache.
This is very much valid for Homeopathy. Most people decide to take homoeopathic treatments because they heard someone close claim that they took homoeopathic treatments and it worked. We start taking these alternative treatments, such as homoeopathy based on a pre-conceived bias that homoeopathy works.
One of the biggest tools that homoeopathy uses is time. Most homoeopathic treatments last for multiple months and sometimes even years. Our bodies are survival machines and our bodies can cure most of the illness and infections on their own. Let’s say you resort to some homoeopathic treatment because you frequently get common cold during your childhood. Most people who face similar problems naturally get cured of those issues as we age by the body’s built-in defence mechanisms. But homoeopathic treatments that last for quite a while make it seem like it was the treatment that cured you not the body’s defence mechanism.
This is a classic case of the placebo effect and I’ve already mentioned why homoeopathy pills have no scientific backing and are just sugar pills. But one of the reasons it is heavily popular is because homoeopaths have positioned themselves as the alternatives to allopathy, which is known more commonly as English or Western medicine. Allopathy treatments are known to be costly, requires extensive clinical tests such as scans and a lot of medicines tend to have side-effects. Homoeopathy has been positioned as the no side-effect alternative, but well, homoeopathy medicines are just sugar pills that have ‘no-effects’ at all, let alone side-effects.
You might ask the question, “If the evidence is clear, then why aren’t government-run medical regulators not doing anything about it?”.
Well, here are the official stances of various health institutes and governments around the world:
- “Homeopathic remedies don’t meet the criteria of evidence based medicine” — Hungarian academy of sciences.
- “The principles of homeopathy contradict known chemical, physical and biological laws and persuasive scientific trials proving its effectiveness are not available.” — Russian Academy of Sciences
- “We recommend parents and caregivers not give homeopathic teething tablets and gels to children and seek advice from their healthcare professional for safe alternatives.” — US Food and Drug Administration
- “There is no good-quality evidence that homeopathy is effective as a treatment for any health condition.” — National Health Service, UK
- “There is a constant increase in the quantity of evidence and the conviction of the scientific community in medicine, that homeopathy should be treated as one of the unscientific methods of so-called “alternative medicine”, which proposes worthless products without scientifically proven efficacy.” — National Medical Council, Poland
- “From a purely clinical perspective, the fact remains that there is no valid empirical proof of the efficacy of homeopathy (evidence-based medicine) beyond the placebo effect.” — Federaal Kenniscentrum voor de Gezondheidszorg, Belgium
The debate is over. There is no scientific case for homoeopathy and there is ample evidence to prove that homoeopathy is ineffective. You cannot disagree with the fact that Earth is a sphere just because your religion or personal beliefs are aligned that way. The same is the case for homoeopathy. Recently, homoeopaths have claimed to cure cancer and even COVID-19. People moving towards homoeopathy for critical medical needs endanger the lives of those people. Given the scientific evidence, it is not a radical thing to ask for a ban on homoeopathy.