Old remedies become part of a 'new' medicine A DOSE OF HOMEOPATHY

April 04, 1995|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Sun Staff Writer

Five years ago, while Cari Nyland was clearing away dried brush in her yard in Monkton, she contracted a nasty case of poison ivy. As usual, her face began to blow up and her eyes began to swell shut. This time, however, she decided to pass up injections of cortisone in favor of a homeopathic medicine she bought in a health food store.

"Within 10 minutes, the swelling was down," says Ms. Nyland, 36. "If I had taken the cortisone and Benadryl, I would have sat on the couch and gotten nothing done for four days or so. It was a relief to be able to walk around and be normal."

Ms. Nyland's family -- her husband, Christian Storck, and their daughters, Sophie and Emma -- now use homeopathic treatments instead of conventional medicine for almost all of their health problems.

Their embrace of homeopathic medicine is part of a wave of public interest in alternative ways to treat everything from ear infections to depression. A 1993 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that one in three Americans is using acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractic and other alternatives to traditional medical treatment.

Although many scientists doubt that homeopathic medicine really works, homeopathic drug sales are growing by 25 percent a year, according to the National Center for Homeopathy.

This weekend, a national convention of more than 400 homeopathic practitioners and lay people will gather in Baltimore to discuss subjects ranging from the treatment of common childhood conditions to the philosophy and methodology of homeopathy.

Begun in the late 18th century by the German physician Samuel Hahnemann, homeopathy is based on the principle of "like cures like." For a head cold, for instance, a practitioner may prescribe a very diluted dose of Allium cepa, a substance made from onions, to relieve symptoms of watery eyes and a runny nose. A remedy made from coffee is used to calm nerves and help induce sleep. Ipecac, a substance that usually causes vomiting, is used to relieve nausea.

The reasoning is that a remedy that would cause a problem in a large dose will actually stimulate the body to heal faster if it is administered in a homeopathically prepared small dose.

Homeopathic medicines use extremely diluted preparations of plant, mineral and animal substances to treat illnesses. Regulated by the Food and Drug Administration as drugs, approximately 95 percent are available over the counter.

Because the medicine is so diluted, it carries virtually no toxic material. However, it often lacks any molecules of the original substance upon which it was based. That fact has fueled scientific disbelief in its effectiveness.

Although scores of clinical studies indicate that homeopathic remedies work, critics say that relief of symptoms is due to the placebo effect: A patient's expectation of a cure will lead to his or her recovery.

Homeopathic physician Dr. Brian Berman, director of the Division of Complementary Medicine at the University of Maryland Medical Center and assistant professor of family medicine, says many of his colleagues consider homeopathy to be a medicine of sugar pills.

"Basically, you have two polarized camps. One is saying, 'There is no evidence that this works, it's placebo.' The other is saying, 'If you look at the literature, there are more than 107 randomized controlled trials of homeopathy and 80 percent have had a positive outcome."

(Even though the methodology of some of these trials was criticized, nearly 70 percent of the best-quality studies did show positive results, according to the National Center for Homeopathy.)

The major impediment to accepting homeopathy is that no one can explain how it works.

Some homeopathic practitioners believe the vigorous shaking that occurs when medicines are being diluted infuses them with a kind of healing energy.

Peter Hinderberger, Baltimore's only full-time homeopathic physician, believes homeopathy works on the same principle as acupuncture.

"What acupuncture calls chi, we call vital force: An energy that keeps us alive and keeps us healthy," he says. "That energy can be blocked by physical and emotional injuries which a homeopathic remedy can relieve."

But scientific understanding requires testing. The University of Maryland's Project for the Integration of Orthodox and Complementary Medicine, a program examining acupuncture, herbs, homeopathy and mind-body therapies, will begin its study of homeopathy this summer. Along with clinical trials to consider homeopathy's success at relieving pain, researchers will look at the basic mechanisms of the process.

Meanwhile, Americans are buying lots of homeopathic medications -- approximately $165 million worth last year, according to the National Center for Homeopathy. Once confined primarily to health food stores and a few private pharmacies, the industry has spread into such drugstore chains as Revco, Payless and K mart.

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