When I was a kid, there was a homeo doctor nearby who we used to go to. Not every time we fell ill, but often enough to call him ‘uncle’. When my sister got chicken pox, my parents took me to him to get preventive meds. When many people in the house fell ill or there was bug going around, we would go again. Sometimes it would work and at other times even the preventive meds wouldn’t stop it. It wasn’t a big deal and I hardly gave any thought to it over the years. Homeopathic medicines and doctors were widely available and accepted in India and still is. You just wouldn’t always go to one. Usually you went for a cold or fever when your parents didn’t want you to keep popping a lot of allopathic pills with side effects.
When I grew older, I went to a more famous homeo doctor in town to get treatment for a long time allergy. Conventional medication didn’t really have a cure for allergies and people told me homeo is great for such things, but that it has to be taken with discipline over a long period of time. So I went to this guy, who is supposed to have cured his own cancer with homeopathy. He asked me a bunch of slightly odd questions about my personality or something and gave me some powders and sugar balls for close to ₹1000, which was quite high at that time in that town for the sniffles. But I wanted to be cured so I took it for a while but it didn’t seem to work. Of course, he had told me I need to take it regularly for months or years but I was 19 and goofed around and got drunk too often and missed doses or forgot not to drink coffee and so on. After a while I gave up. I just didn’t have the discipline for all this and was kind of irritated with this whole system of medicine. But I never questioned the fundamental basis of homeopathy as I knew too many people who had got relief from it and of course the uncle I knew from childhood.
Several years later, a friend of mine told me in passing that homeopathy doesn’t work. What nonsense, I said. People go to college to study homeopathy. There are government approved entrance tests and people who finish the course can get put Dr. as a prefix to their name and run a practice. I know a guy who’s cured cancer! But he insisted that it doesn’t work and asked me to read up about it. It wasn’t very high on my priority list, I was still mostly goofing around and getting drunk but I did start reading a bit. Over the years, my understanding of how medicines are developed and tested in clinical trials grew and I started reading articles about homeopathy with a closer eye. It was difficult to believe what I read though. Apparently, the scientific community and multiple studies over decades found that it has absolutely no clinical effect, nothing more than that of a placebo. Officials from the World Health Organization (WHO) has said that they have found no evidence to date that homeopathy would bring any benefit.
Now when anybody hears that scientists and studies said a beloved old medical system doesn’t work, they say scientists say many things and that studies might say whatever but I know somebody who used it and got cured. Such statements are made out of a mistaken belief that clinical trials do not have people who use the medicine. Suppose you say you have a friend who took homeo and got cured of something. Suppose there are 10 of you reading this post right now and all of you are ill of something. I will divide you into two groups of 5 each and give people in both groups something. However, one group will just get sugar balls or powder while the other group will get the actual homeopathic medicine. But both groups wouldn’t know who got what so everybody takes it thinking it could be medicine. Now, I will observe how your disease progresses. We will do blood tests and multiple other tests to find out if you have been cured or if the severity has reduced or anything of the sort. If the group that got homeo medicine showed more improvement than the group that took fake medicine (placebo), that shows that it works. Now you might be thinking 10 is too small a number. Yes it is. In actual studies you do it on larger groups, and you do it in multiple locations, on people from different age groups, genetic make ups, etc. And you repeat the trial many times. If after all that, the group taking the homeo medicine still hasn’t showed any improvement comparatively, the trial concludes that there is no evidence of it working. Basically hundreds and thousands of people instead of that one friend you heard it worked for. There have been over 1800 studies on this and a recent Australian study that reviewed the results of all these studies took 225 of them which were very rigorous for analysis and concluded that there was no good quality evidence to support the claim that homeopathy is effective in treating health conditions. Following our earlier example, in layman’s terms this means that in all these studies the people who took homeo did not get relief or a cure or anything close.
Guess how many of the usual allopathic medicines you take have gone through clinical trials and proved health benefits? All of them. The Crocin or paracetamol tablet you take has been tested like this. All the antibiotics you have taken have been tested like this and all of them passed. There were medicines that were tested and didn’t pass the test but you’ve never heard about them because they are not allowed to be sold. Taking homeopathic medication is exactly the same as choosing to take a drug that failed drug tests and wasn’t allowed to be sold. Its like you go to a medical shop and instead of taking a tablet strip with a brand name and ingredients on it, the guy goes to the back of the shop and comes back with some loose pills in a paper bag with no markings and you take it because you’ve heard other people who took such loose pills in unmarked paper bags have got some relief, although they might have gone to a different shop in a different city.
I know it’s difficult to accept that something we have all grown up with is complete hogwash. I found it difficult too, but when you see facts laid out one after the other, you have to admit we were hoodwinked. Especially if you read up a little about the core principles of homeopathy. Instead of going to sources critical of homeopathy, I looked up how it works on homeopathyeurope.org which according to their ‘About’ page ‘represents all medical doctors specialized in homeopathy, organized in 40 associations in 25 European countries’. They definitely would have information that supports homeopathy right?
Here’s what they say (skip to the summary after the quotes if you’re short of time):
“The fundamental idea of homeopathy is the Similarity (or Similia) Principle: ‘Similia similibus curentur’ (‘Let like be cured by like’), stated by the German physician Samuel Hahnemann (1755–1843) in 1796. This implies that substances capable of causing disorder in healthy subjects are used as medicines to treat similar patterns of disorder experienced by ill people”
“A third principle is the use of the minimum dose. The doses used in homeopathy range from those that are similar in concentration to some conventional medicines to very high dilutions containing no material trace of the starting substance – the latter are referred to as ‘ultra-molecular’ dilutions. Vigorous shaking of the solution together with impact or ‘elastic collision’ (known as succussion) during the manufacturing process is a key element in the production of homeopathic medicines.”
Notice the parts I have bolded above- they claim that dilutions which contain no trace of the starting substance, not even one molecule act as medicine! That means that such a dose would have nothing apart from water and not even one molecule of the substance which is supposed to act as medicine! At anything less than a molecule, that substance is not that substance. A water molecule is H2O. If you break it apart, you have Hydrogen and Oxygen. You don’t think Oxygen can still have the properties of water do you?
As this article from livescience.com explains, dosage of homeopathic medications are represented in units of dilution. In a typical dose, the dilution is 30X which means one part of the substance is mixed with 30 times that quantity of water or alcohol, shaken throughly and then one part of this is again added to 10 parts of water or alcohol and the process is repeated 30 freaking times! At that dilution level, to get one molecule of the original substance (medicine) into your body, you need to drink 30,000 litres of water to find it. The water tankers you see on the road or come to your apartment usually have a capacity of 10,000 litres. And it gets better- in homeopathy, higher potency means higher dilution. Like when you get a higher dose paracetamol tablet or antibiotic and see a higher mg figure like 180 mg or 650 mg, only in this case you get less of the medicine instead of more. A high potency, strong homeopathic medicine with 30C dilution has 10030 dilution, at which level you cannot find one molecule of the medicine in enough water to fill the entire solar system. So when you ask for a stronger dose of medicine to treat your illness, you’re just getting a hell of a lot more water or alcohol.
Naturally, you might be wondering how such a medical system was ever invented. The reason is simple- Samuel Hahnemann, founded homeopathy in 18th century Germany when he was trying to find a safer and more humane alternative to prevalent medical practices of the time like bloodletting. Unfortunately, back then the field of chemistry hadn’t developed enough for him to know the exact number of particles in a solution. He simply didn’t know that the medicine he proposed was being diluted right out of the solution. However, there were no safety issues because water doesn’t have side effects. Much later when the concept of Avogadro constant was discovered, it was understood that homeopathy cannot work. By then homeopathy was already around for a while and practitioners didn’t want to accept that it doesn’t work, so they then claimed there is something called ‘water memory’ at work, without any proof till date. They say water somehow remembers what the original substance added to it was like. No such capability is known to exist according to any known knowledge of physics. More importantly, if water would have memory of substances, then every glass of water you drink has trace amounts of disease causing bacteria, cancer causing toxins, etc. According to the principles of homeopathy itself, every glass of water you drink should already be homeopathic medication and cure you of everything under the sun.
To summarize, the so called homeopathic medication is just water, and people who participated in hundreds of tests across the world over decades never got cured of any illness or got relief of any kind. A highly diluted homeo medicine will however have no side effects as it is water and usually the first reason quoted by people to advocate switching to homeo is to avoid side effects. They might as well stop treatment and go home- no medicine, no side effects. It’s like a cancer patient saying chemotherapy caused hair loss, so he stopped chemotherapy and started drinking fruit juice and didn’t lose hair, so from now on he will drink juice to fight cancer.
In spite of all these facts and figures, I know its difficult to process this. You might have a neighbor or someone in the family who is a homeo doctor like I did, your parents or your aunt or uncle might swear by it, you yourself might have grown up believing it works. How could such a lie possibly be propagated for so long? The answer is quite simple- because our government never did its job in this matter. Every time you go to a physician, do you need to read a lot of articles and do research to make sure the physician’s training is not complete bullshit? You go to doctors specializing in different things- ENT, Orthopedics, Endocrinologist, etc. Imagine if only some of these were legit and the others were built on a lie? For the lay person, doctors of different specializations, homeopathy doctors, they are all birds of the same feather. It is not humanly possible for everyone to research everything before going to any kind of specialist, medical or otherwise. When we see Dr. before a name, we assume they are qualified. That’s the only way it can work. When the human race invented division of labor and made different people specialize in different skills, the need for central control and standards also arose. In our daily lives we will need a plumber to fix a water problem, an electrician for something else and a doctors for a medical problem. What if we were told one day that we’ll need to go check how the electrician was taught and whether the fundamental principles he learned made sense? How would anything work in the world with that amount of chaos?
Making sure that only people trained to use working, non mythical systems of medicine are allowed to add Dr. to their name and run a practice is the government’s job. Making sure there are some standards to be followed when people’s lives are at stake is one of the fundamental functions of an elected government. However, successive governments in India has not only tolerated questionable systems like this, they actively promoted them. While the WHO spoke out against homeopathy and the U.S government recently ordered that homeopathy treatments must be labeled to say they do not work when sold (before Trump became president), the Indian government recognizes homeopathy as one of the national systems of medicine (the fact that we have 7 recognized medical systems itself is ridiculous). Long story short, while our government should have taken care of this problem, they haven’t and will not any time soon either since India has the largest number of homeopathy doctors in the world (over 200,000) and reportedly a 100 million people who use only homeopathy. Do you think any Indian government you have known so far would tell so many people there is no basis for what they believe? It’s much more convenient to just act like its fine, especially since its mostly water and won’t cause side effects. So homeopathy is accepted and encouraged along with babas and godmen and pastors. It is therefore up to us to read up and make informed decisions about medical systems to use and do the jobs of people in government.
I started off this post with the question, ‘when should you take homeopathic medication?’. As you know by now, I don’t think you should at all because it simply doesn’t work. But the important thing is not that you believe homeopathy is bogus. The important thing is that you should not endanger your own or somebody else’s life with homeopathy. If you still want to hold on to hope that homeopathy will work, do it alongside conventional medication or when you have a minor illness like cold or cough which don’t necessarily require medication. It might even help your immunity to stay hydrated and let your immune system fight it off on its own without another course of unnecessary antibiotics. Be warned though, you never know exactly what each doctor adds in their homeo solution. I’ve heard first person accounts from people who were told by a friendly homeo doctor that they sometimes mix paracetamol or other drugs in the solution for patients who do not have enough patience or faith. But by and large, it probably won’t harm you, as long as you do not take it as a replacement for proper proven medicine. If you’re religious and ill, you won’t stop your medication and pray instead right? You would pray as well as go to the doctor. That’s what even priests do.
Maybe one day our governments will wake up and realize it is dangerous to give false hope to people. Until that day, it is up to us to inform ourselves and others so that we don’t put our health at risk. Until that day, try and use those homeo sugar balls only when you have a sweet craving or run out of water.