What Is Homeopathy?
The term homeopathy is formed from the combination of two Greek words: omio meaning “same” and pathos meaning suffering. 1 This etymology reflects the homeopathic belief that a substance that causes certain symptoms in a healthy person can cure an ailing person of similar symptoms. Although this theory sounds superficially similar to the principle behind vaccines, homeopathy actually functions in a distinctly different manner. The homeopathic theory has some relationship to ancient healing traditions, but in many ways stands uniquely on its own ground, unrelated to other approaches.
The Origin of HomeopathyHomeopathy is the invention of Samuel Christian Hahnemann, born in 1755 in Dresden, Germany, and educated as a physician.The medical practices of the 18th century were remarkably unhelpful and invasive. A good example is bloodletting. Doctors commonly bled their patients of a pint of blood or more per treatment, in the belief that it would accelerate healing. More likely, however, bloodletting impaired the patients' ability to recover, rather than strengthened it, and the practice is undoubtedly responsible for many deaths.Physicians also used strong laxatives to "cleanse" the body. These purgatives included very toxic drugs containing mercury or arsenic, and they too contributed to the great danger attendant on being visited by a doctor. Samuel Hahnemann quickly became disillusioned by the standard medical procedures of his time; he gave up his medical practice and supported his family in part by translating old scientific and medical texts into German. In 1790, while translating William Cullen’s Materia Medica , he was struck by the lack of experimental basis for Cullen’s suggested uses for drugs. Hahnemann wondered how doctors could justify prescribing toxic substances without even knowing their effects on healthy people. He came to believe there was a correlation between the resulting symptoms of toxic doses of a given substance and the symptoms that the substance was being used to cure. To explore his new theory, Hahnemann began collecting reports of accidental poisonings. Later, he tested various substances on himself and documented his reactions to them. For example, he had read that Cinchona officinalis , or Peruvian bark, was used by South American Indians to treat malaria. Hahnemann took a high dose of Cinchona officinalis and his body reacted by breaking out in fever. Since malaria is characterized by fever, he perceived his own fever as evidence that a substance used to treat an ailment produced similar symptoms in a healthy individual. Hahnemann then set out to experiment systematically with this hypothesis, ingesting other substances and carefully noting his reactions to them. He also gave substances to other healthy people. Hahnemann took detailed notes of the reactions. He recorded not only major physical symptoms, such as fever, but practically any sensation experienced by the person, including such details as a desire to lie down on one’s left side and restlessness that is worse in the early evening. These "provings" , as he called them, were recorded in homeopathic medical texts (such as the Homeopathic Materia Medica ) and became the basis for homeopathic treatment. Currently, provings are done in a different manner, using homeopathic dilutions of substances rather than the substances themselves. Currently, provings are more often done using high dilutions of substances; in other words, the homeopathic remedy is tested, not the underlying substance. This method is safer, even if not entirely consistent with the original theory.
The Three LawsBased on his observations, Hahnemann postulated three major laws of homeopathy: the first two proposed early in his practice, the third after 20 years of practicing. (There are at least six other relatively minor laws as well.)The first law is known as the Law of Similars, or “like cures like.” This law states that “a substance that produces a certain set of symptoms in a healthy person has the power to cure a sick person manifesting those same symptoms.” The second law, or Law of Infinitesimals, states that diluting a remedy makes it more powerful.These two laws in combination define the method of creating homeopathic remedies. The following is an example: the substance ipecac (today, an over-the-counter household remedy for poisoning) causes vomiting. According to the first and second laws of homeopathy, diluted ipecac would potentially treat vomiting, and the more it were diluted, the more effective it would be. Hahnemann’s third law, the Law of Chronic Disease, states that “when disease persists despite treatment, it is the result of one or more conditions that affect many people and have been driven deep inside the body by earlier allopathic therapy.” 2The word allopathic, which is sometimes today used to describe conventional medicine, was also a creation of Hahnemann and was used as the opposite of “homeopathic.” Allopathic means “other than the disease,” while homeopathic means “same as the disease.” In other words, homeopathy uses remedies that, when taken in high doses by healthy people (according to the first law), cause symptoms similar to those of the disease it is intended to treat. However, the allopathic remedies used by conventional physicians, such as prednisone for asthma, do not have the same relationship. They simply relieve the symptoms, and for that reason (according to homeopathic theory), do not get to the heart of the problem.Hahnemann felt that allopathic treatments were actually harmful. A person with a skin rash provides an example. To Hahnemann, such a condition represents the body’s attempt to “release” a deeper illness. Homeopathic treatment would seek to facilitate such a release. In contrast, allopathic remedies, like cortisone cream, “suppress” the rash and thereby drive the illness back into the body.Note that herbal remedies are also allopathic, according to this principle. Taking St. John’s wort for depression, according to homeopathy, is just as likely to worsen the underlying problem as using Prozac. Furthermore, herbs, like drugs, are said to interfere with the effectiveness of homeopathic remedies. Thus, contrary to popular opinion, homeopathy and herbal medicine are not compatible.In further work developing the third law, Hahnemann elaborated on the various types of deeply buried diseases that could be the roots of many illnesses. He focused ultimately on psoriasis and syphilis as the primary underlying “miasms” beneath many health problems. However, this feature of his theory is less popular with today’s practitioners of homeopathy.