Sylvia Chatroux, a medical doctor in Ashland, Oregon, recently treated a patient complaining of a high fever, chills, nausea and diarrhea. Most conventional doctors would have prescribed pharmaceutical drugs to lower the fever and stop the diarrhea and nausea. But Chatroux gave her patient homeopathic arsenicum, a specially prepared and highly diluted form of arsenic. The patient quickly recovered.
In its pure form, arsenic is a poison that, in healthy individuals, causes symptoms similar to the distress Chatroux’s patient was experiencing. “This is the basic principle of homeopathy — to try to match up the complaints of the person with the characteristics of the remedy,” Chatroux explains. “The goal is to stimulate the innate healing abilities of the body.”
How Homeopathy Works
Unlike allopathic medicine, which focuses on controlling the symptoms of a disease, homeopathy views symptoms as the body’s attempt to restore balance. Homeopaths believe allopathic drugs may actually drive disease deeper into the body because such drugs suppress symptoms instead of treating the underlying cause of the illness.
“Homeopathic medicines work with, rather than against, a person’s natural defenses,” says Dana Ullman, author of The Consumer’s Guide to Homeopathy (Tarcher/Putnam, 1996). “Symptoms are the way that the body is trying to heal itself. So we look for catalysts that will enhance the body’s efforts.” In homeopathy, these catalysts take the form of plants such as arnica, monkshood and onion; minerals such as arsenic, sodium chloride and copper; and seemingly bizarre substances such as cuttlefish ink, bushmaster snake venom and roasted sponge.
The Rationale Behind Homeopathy
Homeopathy was founded in the early 19th century by Samuel Hahnemann, a German physician disillusioned with the standard medical practices of his time, which included bloodletting and the administration of toxic drugs such as mercury. In his search to find a more humane approach to treating illness, Hahnemann observed that a substance producing certain symptoms when given to a healthy person could cure the same symptoms in someone who was sick. He first noticed this phenomenon while experimenting with cinchona, a Peruvian bark that was used as a treatment for malaria. Hahnemann took cinchona twice daily and soon began suffering the intermittent fevers characteristic of malaria. When he stopped taking the cinchona, his fevers stopped. Hahnemann went on to experiment with hundreds of substances and developed homeopathy from his findings.
This basic principle of homeopathy, the Law of Similars, refers to his observation that “like cures like.” This theory was proposed as early as the fourth century b.c., when Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, wrote, “Through the like, disease is produced, and through the application of the like it is cured.” Although homeopathy has little in common with conventional medicine, the Law of Similars is the basis for the approach conventional medicine uses for immunizations and allergy treatments: Vaccines are made up of weak formulations of a specific virus to bolster the body’s immunity to the illness; allergies are treated by injecting minute amounts of the allergen into the body to strengthen the body’s ability to cope.
Another important principle of homeopathy is called the Law of the Infinitesimal Dose. Simply put, lower doses of homeopathic remedies are considered to have a stronger action than higher doses. Homeopathic remedies are prepared by diluting them with water or alcohol, then vigorously shaking them (a process called succussing). The remedies are often so diluted that they contain no measurable amount of the original substance.
“Homeopathic medicines are actually energy medicines,” Ullman says. “We may not understand exactly how they work, but there is clear evidence that homeopathic medicines are active and can stimulate healing.”
Skeptics frequently dismiss the positive results attributed to homeopathy as a placebo response. But studies appear to show otherwise. In 1997, the British medical journal Lancet evaluated 89 homeopathic clinical studies conducted between 1966 and 1995 to determine whether the positive outcomes were actually placebo effects. The health conditions studied included allergies, gynecological problems, respiratory ailments and many other disorders. The researchers found that patients who were taking homeopathic medicines were almost 2.5 times as likely to experience a positive therapeutic effect as those taking placebos.
The Appropriate Use of Homeopathy
Homeopathy is used to treat both chronic and acute conditions. If you suffer from a chronic condition such as asthma, ulcerative colitis, eczema, depression or anxiety, it’s best to consult a trained homeopathic practitioner.
“One has to study homeopathic medicine for many years to learn how to prescribe the correct medicine for people with chronic conditions,” Ullman says. A homeopathic evaluation is detailed and comprehensive and involves not only an assessment of physical symptoms, but also of mental and emotional states. Personality quirks, food preferences, moods and dreams are all taken into account to help determine the specific remedy or combination of remedies best suited to the individual.
“Simple acute conditions and injuries are generally appropriate for self-treatment,” Chatroux says. Remedies for first aid are particularly straightforward, because the treatment for injuries does not need to be tailored to the individual, so self-treatment is likely to be appropriate and effective. Acute conditions include colds and flus, earaches, stomachaches and traumas such as strains, sprains, cuts and burns.
“People with injuries tend to experience similar symptoms and usually need a similar metabolic stimulus to heal their complaint,” Ullman explains. “Homeopathic medicines for first aid and sports injuries are usually very effective in reducing pain and speeding the healing process.”
Use Homeopathy Sensibly
Mild, short-term symptoms, such as indigestion, heartburn or headache, can be safely self-treated at home. Serious or persistent ailments require professional care.
Consult your physician if:
• you can’t stop vomiting
• your vomit or stools appear bloody or black
• you have severe stomach or abdominal pain
• you recently injured your head
• you have chest pains
• your skin or eyes turn yellow
• your urine is dark
• you’re dehydrated (eyes are sunken, skin and eyes feel dry)
• you’re diabetic
• you’re pregnant
How to Buy and Use Homeopathic Remedies
Homeopathic remedies are widely available in health-food stores, some pharmacies and by mail order. They come in several forms: as tiny tablets and liquid tinctures for internal use, and as gels and ointments for the topical treatment of bruises, stings, cuts and sore muscles.
The potencies of tablets and tinctures are designated by the letters “x” or “c.” Normally, one part of a substance is added to nine parts of water or ethyl alcohol and shaken. This is known as a 1x (or a 1 part in 10) dilution. If a remedy is labeled “c,” the active ingredient is diluted in a ratio of one part in 100, yielding 1c, 2c and so on. The number before the letter represents how many times the remedy has been diluted. The higher the number, the stronger the remedy. Ullman suggests using either 6th or 30th potencies (labeled on the bottle as 6x or 6c, or 30x or 30c), which are readily available and are appropriate for self-treatment. Unlike traditional herbalism, Ullman says homeopathic doses are generally the same for children and adults.
In the early, or acute, stages of a condition, such as a sprain, it may be necessary to take the homeopathic remedy every hour or two, or even every 15 to 30 minutes until your symptoms subside.
“The basic principle of determining dosage is that the more severe the condition, the more often the remedy needs to be taken,” Ullman says. Gradually decrease the dosage to every other hour or every four hours, depending on the severity of the pain. Symptoms should abate within a couple of days. “A medicine should only be taken as long as the person is experiencing pain,” Ullman says. “Don’t continue taking it unless there are still symptoms. The idea is to take as little of the medicine as possible, yet to take enough to lessen pain and stimulate the body’s healing powers.”
Most homeopaths recommend specific guidelines for using homeopathic medicines. Avoid eating or drinking anything — except water — for at least 15 minutes before and after taking the remedy. To aid absorption, place the remedy under your tongue and allow it to dissolve slowly. Do not chew or swallow the tablets.
Because certain substances can neutralize or contaminate homeopathic remedies, it’s best to keep the remedies away from strong-smelling substances such as camphor, menthol and perfumes, and to avoid the use of camphorated substances such as lip balm and pain-relieving muscle creams while you’re taking the remedies. Many homeopaths suggest abstaining from coffee during homeopathic treatment and not drinking mint-flavored teas or using mint-flavored toothpaste within 30 minutes of taking remedies. To maintain their potency, store homeopathic medicines in their original containers and keep them away from heat, sunlight and moisture.
Homeopathic Medicines for Common Ailments
Homeopathic remedies are powerful medicines that work in minute doses. Single-dose remedies are targeted and individualized for specific patterns of symptoms. Combination remedies are groups of remedies that produce a broader effect; they should be taken only for several days at a time and are primarily for acute conditions, not for serious, life-threatening conditions. Low to medium potencies (30c and below) can be safely used by people who are self-prescribing and can be used for most physical ailments in adults and children. People in a weakened or overly sensitive state should consult their health-care provider for advice.
Allium cepa (onion): For relief of conditions associated with a thin, watery discharge from the nose and eyes, such as the common cold or hay fever.
Arnica (mountain daisy): For relief of the shock and pain of injuries; prevents soreness and encourages healing. Take internally for any type of injury; apply externally to bruises and sore muscles.
Belladonna (deadly nightshade): For relief of the sudden onset of inflammation, heat and throbbing pain, such as with fever, sore throat, headache or earache. The symptoms are often worse with motion or touch and the person may be angry or delirious.
Calendula officinalis (marigold): For healing cuts, wounds and burns. Stimulates the formation of healthy scar tissue. Take internally, and apply externally in the form of an ointment or gel.
Chamomilla (chamomile): For relief of irritability, especially in children. Eases teething pain, colic, emotional upset and insomnia. Symptoms are generally worse at night and the child wants to be carried and comforted.
Gelsemium (yellow jasmine): For relief of colds and flu, especially those with chills, headache and achiness. Characterized by feelings of heaviness and exhaustion. Worse with physical exertion.
Hypericum (St. John’s wort): For relief of nerve injury with extreme pain, such as from slamming a finger in a door. The pain is shooting and severe. Especially helpful for injuries of the toes, fingers and back.
Ledum (marsh tea): For relief of puncture wounds, including bites from insects and animals. Also for treating black eyes.
Magnesia phosphorica (phosphate of magnesia): For relief of cramps and shooting pains; useful for headaches, toothaches and menstrual cramps. Sometimes referred to as “homeopathic aspirin.” Pain is generally relieved by heat and is worse with cold.
Nux vomica (poison nut): For relief of symptoms from overindulgence in rich foods or drinking too much alcohol. Symptoms are often worse in the morning and are better with rest, warmth and hot drinks.
Rhus toxicodendron (poison ivy): For relief of sprains and strains; also stiffness and sore, achy joints, including low back and neck pain. Symptoms are worse on initial movement and in damp, cold weather.
Laurel Vukovic writes and teaches about herbs and natural healing from her home in southern Oregon. She is the author of 14-Day Herbal Cleansing (Prentice Hall, 1998) and Herbal Healing Secrets for Women (Prentice Hall, 2000).