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ISSUE 121 VOL 18 PUBLISHED 4/25/2008

Homeopathy provokes skeptcism

By Adam Ludvigson
Staff Photographer

Friday, April 25, 2008

Ever since people have gotten sick, there have been people telling them how to get better. Everyone's familiar with folk remedies: "Feed a cold, starve a fever," "Beer before liquor, never been sicker," and so on.

Modern scientific medicine, on the other hand, has developed a system wherein the treatment of what ails ya is accomplished by pharmaceuticals, which have to be taken at specific times and in specific amounts and oh my God you're not also taking this other drug at the same time, are you? Yeah, you just went blind. Well, usually that doesn't happen.

We take this system for granted, but the notion that our diseases and maladies can be treated by little molecules kind of has to be taken on faith by the average consumer, who has no way to test concentrations or half-lives or other drug measurements. We take our pills and expect to feel better, without really considering what it is that brings about these miraculous effects. Some kind of chemical, we guess, but not the scary ones like in "Erin Brockovich," but the good ones, like in Tylenol. Even doctors don't really have to know exactly how a drug works, just that it does. If the placebo effect can get the job done just as easily, which it often can, who cares?

Which brings us to a curious type of healthcare called homeopathy. This is an ancient practice which, frankly, runs so completely contrary to modern scientific understanding as to be laughable and illegal, if it weren't for the psychological effect it can have on people. The basic claim of homeopathy is that, instead of molecules and chemicals, there's a strange, diffuse energy that's responsible for the therapeutic effect. Homeopaths usually don't claim to know exactly what it is, but throw around theories like "water memory" or "vibrations."

A homeopath will mix a substance with something like water, physically hit the mixture a few times to cause the water to "capture" this energy or memory or whatever, then dilute the mixture to the point where literally none of the substance remains, or perhaps a dozen or so molecules. They then administer the treatment, usually as a pill, which by this time contains none of the original substance but plenty of mysterious energy.

The substances aren't what most people would usually call drugs. Homeopathy holds that to be effective, a drug must be used that causes the symptoms you're trying to treat; for example, to treat vomiting, you need to use something that causes vomiting. This is another reason the mixture is diluted so dramatically, since if you have to use something like mercury you could get yourself into pretty obvious trouble.

Logically and scientifically, this is stupid. However, not all logically stupid things are bad -- I dare you to watch "Independence Day" and not think it's awesome. Very literally, homeopathic remedies are nothing at all, just a glass of water or a sugar pill, so it's hard to hurt yourself by taking them. And there is some truth to being cautious of modern drug treatments that simply mask symptoms or hinder the body's natural defenses, like fevers or coughing. The problem is when you start eating grass in place of something like insulin.

Most homeopaths aren't going to tell you to quit your heart meds and try water that was once infused with pine needles -- they're not idiots, unlike people who refuse to vaccinate their kids because of "the autism thing." What's that you say? Autism diagnoses have gone up with increased vaccination rates? Well, so have automobile accidents, the average global temperature and the number of doctors who know what autism is and how to diagnose it. The most detrimental effect vaccines have had recently is population growth, and if you start saving your kids the terror of a needle prick the statistics that'll be going up will be measles epidemics and child mortality. Forgive my rant.

No, the most likely problem homeopathy is likely to have is the fact that it's allowed and protected as a legitimate alternative to mainstream medicine. Alternative medicine is one thing, but homeopathy is pure placebo -- which is fine, but a stretch to be called medicine. It doesn't help that to practice "effectively," a homeopath must research the patient extensively and construct a detailed, personalized remedy, which isn't free, of course.

I did some extensive research of my own recently, and found a website that offers homeopathy software; you type in your symptoms, and it comes up with an approximate remedy. I decided to try "vomiting, black toenails, and cardiac arrest," but had to change the last one to "chest pains" because someone without a pulse is in no condition to drink something. I was then presented with literally pages of check boxes that narrowed down the symptoms into incredibly specific descriptions (does the vomit taste like coffee? Does the chest pain alternate with pains in the womb?) before the program suggested tiger lily, while cautioning it wouldn't help with the nausea. The hypothetical toenail discoloration wasn't addressed, which is too bad because sandal season is coming up.

So if I were to crush up tiger lilies, dilute 1 to 100 trillion, drink it, and find my symptoms cured, does it matter? Of course not, but the 21st century college student deep within me would probably suggest you get a pedicure and go to the emergency room. It's something I suggest to most people with ugly nails having severe chest pains in front of me.

And that's the reason I can't really fully accept homeopathy -- I'm all for using your own way to feel better, but I don't like the way it's seriously discussed as legitimate medication. No amount of placebo effect is going to remove that inflamed appendix of yours, and like I said, most homeopaths wouldn't suggest these kinds of extremes. Still, if you go to a drugstore you'll see things marked "homeopathic." Just know exactly what that means: you're paying for water. If you're cool with that, it's your money.

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