Popular homeopathy has strayed from its origins

PEOPLE'S PHARMACY

April 12, 1994|By Joe Graedon and Dr. Teresa Graedon | Joe Graedon and Dr. Teresa Graedon,King Features Syndicate

Homeopathy is hot. It is one of the fastest growing sectors in health care today, with retail sales of remedies increasing by a phenomenal 25 percent annually.

Part of this explosive growth is due to aging baby boomers. These health-conscious consumers are suspicious of conventional medications. But they are beginning to experience sore joints, hot flashes, stomach trouble and other hints that age is catching up with them.

Alternative treatments that seem "natural" appeal to this generation. Homeopathic potions resemble herbal preparations in that they are often derived from plants, but differ in both the theory underlying their use and the strength of the extract. Homeopathic medicines are extremely dilute.

Most physicians and FDA officials are perplexed by the incredible interest in these treatments. Conventional medical teaching holds that any benefit from homeopathy would have to be due to the placebo effect. In other words, a patient's expectation of improvement leads to recovery even if the therapy is inactive.

The German physician Samuel Hahnemann developed the field of homeopathy in the late 18th century. He believed that "like heals like." If someone is nauseated, then the homeopath prescribes a very dilute dose of a substance like ipecac that would normally cause vomiting.

It is the dilution that strains scientific credulity and challenges orthodox medicine. It is common to take one drop of an herbal extract and dilute it 100 times. This process is then repeated, sometimes up to 12 or 30 times.

Imagine a drop of salt water in a swimming pool and you begin to get an idea of the strength of the resulting medicine.

In many cases there would not even be one single molecule of original extract left in the drop you swallow.

Homeopathic theory holds that the brisk shaking at each step of dilution imparts a sort of energy to the water or alcohol base.

If this sounds a little vague to you, FDA officials find it downright incredible. But since they consider such treatments harmless and because they have no legal authority to regulate them, health food stores and pharmacies now carry a wide range of products.

We have found a variety of homeopathic "cures" for everything from sinusitis and allergies to colic, menopause, insomnia and arthritis. Some formulas can run $10 or more for a month's supply.

Dr. Samuel Hahnemann would be turning over in his grave if he could see what has become of his medical system. The proliferation of do-it-yourself treatment runs completely counter to Dr. Hahnemann's teaching.

Homeopathy is supposed to be practiced by well-trained health care professionals capable of doing an extensive diagnostic workup and prescribing specific treatments. When homeopathy is practiced by nonprofessionals it contradicts the spirit and legal basis upon which this treatment system is based.

There is still tremendous controversy about the effectiveness of homeopathic remedies.

Until there is more proof and better supervision of this uncontrolled practice we encourage our readers to be skeptical.

Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist. Dr. Teresa Graedon is a medical anthropologist and nutrition expert.

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