Homeopathic medicine is so widely practiced by physicians in Europe that it may no longer be appropriate to consider it "alternative medicine" there. However, this is certainly not the case in the United States, where it might be considered the Rodney Dangerfield of medicine because it simply does not get any respect. This disrespect among many physicians and scientists stems from the extremely small doses used in homeopathic medicines. These skeptics question whether homeopathic remedies can have any effect at all, other than a placebo effect.
What is inadequately appreciated about homeopathy is that the extremely small doses will not have any biological effect or clinical result unless the patient's symptoms are similar to those that the medicine has been found to cause when given in toxic doses. It is not as though small doses of any medicine will elicit therapeutic results; such small doses can and will initiate a healing response only when a person is hypersensitive to a specific medicine.
Basic principles of physics teach us that hypersensitivity exists when there is resonance. Homeopathy is based on resonance and is commonly referred to as the "principle of similars." Even the word homeopathy is derived from two Greek words, homoios, which means similar, and pathos, which means suffering or disease. The principle of similars is simply a practical basis for finding the substance to which a person is hypersensitive.
The evolution of computers provides evidence that smaller and smaller units (chips) can carry more and more information. The term nanotechnology refers to the study and application of such hyper-miniaturized technologies. Likewise, scientists have pursued the discovery of smaller and smaller particles of matter, from tissues to cells to intracellular matter to molecules to subatomic particles to quarks, and one can only assume that we will continue to discover even smaller units of matter and energy.
In our conventional medical paradigm, we assume that larger and larger doses of pharmacological agents will create increasingly significant biochemical reactions, but such reactions do not necessarily lead to better health. In fact, increasing doses of most drugs generally leads to increased side effects. While most drugs have primarily been developed to replace, suppress, minimize or interfere with specific biochemical functions, the discovery of synthetic pharmaceutical medicines to augment a person's immune system has been an elusive—and usually ignored—goal.
Ironically, the few medicinal agents used in conventional medicine today that do anything to enhance a person's immune system are immunization and allergy treatments, both of which are based on the homeopathic principle of similars. Despite the obvious similarity between these conventional treatments and homeopathic regimens, there are also significant differences, namely that homeopathic doses are considerably smaller and are individualized to the person, not aimed at a disease.
The homeopathic principle of similars makes further sense when one considers that modern physiologists and pathologists now recognize that disease is not simply the result of breakdown or surrender of the body, but that symptoms are instead representative of the body's efforts to fight infection or adapt to stress. Fever, inflammation, pain, discharge and even high blood pressure are but a small number of the common symptoms that the body creates to defend and heal itself.
Largely as a result of the AIDS epidemic, it has made sense to look for drugs that strengthen a person's immune system rather than those that minimize symptoms. However, most physicians and scientists do not have a conceptual framework for seeking or using such pharmacological agents. Most allopathic physicians have no knowledge of the 200-year-old system of medicine known as homeopathy.
Homeopathic Medicine: A Nanopharmacology
Homeopathic medicine presents a significantly different pharmacological approach to healing. Instead of using strong and powerful doses of medicinal agents that have a broad-spectrum effect on a wide variety of people with a similar disease, homeopaths use extremely small doses of medicinal substances that are highly individualized to a person's physical and psychological symptoms, not simply an assumed localized pathology.
Homeopathic doses are so small that it is appropriate to include them in the newly defined field of nanopharmacology. (The prefix nano is Latin for dwarf, but today the prefix is used to refer to technologies or substances that are extremely small, at least one-billionth of a unit, designated as 10-9.) To understand the nature and the degree of homeopathy's nanopharmacology, it is helpful to understand how homeopathic medicines are formulated.
Most homeopathic medicines are made by diluting a medicinal substance into double-distilled water. Physicists who study the properties of water commonly acknowledge that it has many mysterious and amazing properties. Modern scientists assert that water dynamics do not conform adequately to Newtonian physics but are greatly influenced by quantum electrodynamics.1
Each substance is diluted, most commonly one part of the original agent to nine or 99 parts double-distilled water. The mixture is then vigorously shaken. The solution is then diluted again 1:9 or 1:99 and vigorously stirred. This process of diluting and stirring is repeated three, six, 12, 30, 200, 1,000, or even 1 million times.
Homeopathic medicines are extremely diluted; this is called potentization and refers to the specific process of sequential dilution with vigorous stirring. Each consecutive dilution infiltrates the new double-distilled water and imprints upon it the fractal form of the original substance used. (Fractal refers to the specific consecutively smaller pattern within a larger pattern).
Homeopaths acknowledge that for extremely small doses of medicinal agents to have any effect at all, the person taking them must have a hypersensitivity to the medicine. A person will be hypersensitive if and when he or she exhibits the symptoms the homeopathic substance causes in toxic doses.
Still, it is difficult to initially accept the possibility that such nanopharmacological doses can have any effect at all. Yet a significant body of conventional scientific research has verified that various extremely low concentrations of biological agents can exhibit powerful biochemical effects. Beta-endorphins are known to modulate natural killer-cell activity in dilutions of 10-18. Interleukin-1, an important part of the immune system, has been found to exhibit increased T-cell clone proliferation at 10-19. And pheromones, which are hormones externally emitted by various animals and insects, result in hypersensitive reactions with even a single molecule.2 (Scientists presently have no way to assess the effects of less than a molecule.)
That drugs can have two phases of action (hormesis) depending on their concentration is a little-known and rarely questioned observation. In fact, many medical and scientific dictionaries refer to hormesis, or the Arndt-Schulz law, as the observations that weak concentrations of biological agents stimulate physiological activity, medium concentrations of agents depress physiological activity, and large concentrations halt physiological activity.
Although there are hundreds of studies conducted on this subject by conventional scientists, none mentions homeopathy.4,5 The journal Health Physics even devoted its entire May 1987 issue to hormesis. Despite the research on hormesis, researchers have not investigated the ultra-molecular doses used in some homeopathic medicines. But, it is only a matter of time before physicians and scientists learn that homeopathic medicine presents a rich heritage to use as a basis for exploring and exploiting the power of the infinitesimal.
The Clinical Evidence
A group of researchers at the University of Glasgow and Glasgow Homeopathic Hospital in Scotland have consistently conducted the highest quality homeopathic research, and this research has consistenly shown positive results. They conducted four studies on people suffering from various respiratory allergies (hay fever, asthma and perennial allergic rhinitis).6 In total, they treated 253 patients and found a 28 percent improvement in visual analogue scores among those given a homeopathic medicine, compared with a 3 percent improvement in patients given placebo (p=0.0007).
In the hay fever study, researchers created homeopathic doses of various flowers that are known to create pollen that initiates hay fever symptoms. In the other studies, the researchers conducted conventional allergy testing to assess to which substance each person was most allergic. The researchers then prescribed the 30C (100-30) of this allergic substance (house dust mite 30C was the most commonly prescribed homeopathic medicine).
In another study, an independent group of physicians and scientists evaluated clinical research prior to October 1995. They reviewed 186 studies, 89 of which met the predefined criteria for their meta-analysis. They found that, on average, patients given a homeopathic medicine were 2.45 times more likely to clinically benefit than patients treated with placebo.7
Three separate groups of researchers have conducted clinical trials involving Oscillococcinum 200C for influenza-like syndromes. Each trial involved a relatively large number of subjects (487, 300 and 372, respectively), and all were multicentered, placebo-controlled and double-blinded (two of the three trials were also randomized). Each of these trials showed statistically significant beneficial results.8,9,10
One example that helps explain how and why extremely small doses of medicinal agents work comes from present knowledge of modern submarine radio communications. Normal radio waves do not penetrate water, so submarines must use an extremely low-frequency radio wave. However, "extremely low" is inadequate to describe this action because these radio waves are so low that a single wavelength is typically as long as a submarine itself or even tens of miles long. By comparison, a standard FM wavelength is generally less than one yard long.
If one considers that the human body is 70 percent to 80 percent water, perhaps the best way to provide pharmacological information to the body and into intercellular fluids is with nanopharmacological doses—the conceptual equivalent of low-frequency doses.
Although no one knows precisely why homeopathic remedies work, it is conjectured that highly potentized doses can more deeply penetrate cells and the blood-brain barrier than less potentized medicines. Although there is no consensus on why these ultramolecular doses work more deeply, there is anecdotal consensus from patients that they do.
Quantum physics does not disprove Newtonian physics, rather it extends our understanding of extremely small and extremely large systems. Likewise, homeopathy does not disprove conventional pharmacology, but it extends our understanding of extremely small doses.
The founder of homeopathic medicine, Samuel Hahnemann, M.D., updated his seminal work on the subject six times, each time refining his observations. Homeopaths continue to refine this system of nanopharmacology and admit that there is not always consensus on the best ways to select the correct remedy or the best dosage. That said, homeopathy provides a solid foundation from which clinicians and researchers can explore nanopharmacologies and effectively treat patients.
Hahnemann is buried in Pére Lachaise, the most famous cemetery in Paris. On his tombstone are the Latin words aude sapere: dare to taste and to understand. Such is the challenge that homeopathy and nanopharmacology present to us.
Dana Ullman, M.P.H., is author of six books, including Essential Homeopathy (New World Library, 2002) and Homeopathy AZ (Hay House, 1999). He is an adviser on alternative medicine at Harvard and Columbia and a teacher at the University of Arizona schools of medicine.
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2. Eskinazi D. Homeopathy re-revisited: is homeopathy compatible with biomedical observations? Arch Intern Med 1999 Sep 27;159:1981-7.
3. Goodman L, Gilman A. The pharmacological basis of therapeutics. Fifth Ed. New York: Macmillan; 1975.
4. Stebbins A. Hormesis: the stimulation of growth by low levels of inhibitors. Sci Total Environment 1982;22:213-34.
5. Oberbaum M, Cambar J. Hormesis: dose-dependent reverse effects of low and very low doses. In P.C. Endler and J. Schulte, ed. Ultra high dilutions. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic; 1994. p 5-19.
6. Taylor MA, et al. Randomised controlled trial of homoeopathy versus placebo in perennial allergic rhinitis with overview of four trial series. BMJ 2000 Aug 19;321:471-6.
7. Linde K, et al. Are the clinical effects of homeopathy placebo effects? A meta-analysis of placebo-controlled trials. Lancet 1997 Sep 20;350:834-43.
8. Ferley JP, et al. A controlled evaluation of a homeopathic preparation in the treatment of influenza-like syndrome. Brit J Clin Pharmacol 1989 Mar;27:329-35.
9. Casanova P, Gerard R. Bilan de 3 annees d'etudes ranomisees multicentriques oscillococcinum/placebo. Oscillococcinum rassegna della letterature internationale. Milan: Laboratiores Boiron; 1992.
10. Papp R, et al. Oscillococcinum in patients with influenza-like syndromes: a placebo-controlled double-blind evaluation. Brit Homeopathic J 1998 Apr;87:69-76.
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