Few alternative therapies are more divisive than homeopathy. Whenever I write about the subject, I get bucket-loads of hate mail. Somehow, homeopathy has the power to touch raw nerves and strong emotions. And it makes fallacies appear like mushrooms after the rain:

·         It has stood the test of time.

·         It is approved even by Nobel Prize winners.

·         It has millions of satisfied customers.

True, many consumers use homeopathy; but most do not even understand what it is. They think homeopathy is holistic, natural or herbal medicine. In truth, all these terms describe different entities. Crucially, many homeopathy-fans assume that homeopathy is effective and safe. This notion is as wide-spread as it is erroneous.

So what are the facts about homeopathy?

Homeopathy is based on the ‘like cures like’ principle: if a substance causes a set of symptoms in a healthy person, homeopaths will use it for curing these symptoms in their patients. This may sound complicated but, in fact, it could not be simpler: coffee prevents sleep, therefore homeopaths use it to treat insomnia; opium makes you constipated, therefore homeopaths employ it to treat ileus; onions make your eyes water, therefore homeopaths use it to treat hay-fever.

But homeopaths do not administer pure coffee, opium or onion; they endlessly dilute their remedies in a process called ‘potentisation’ (essentially this means serial dilutions with vigorous shaking at each step). The term already hints at the second main principle of homeopathy: according to homeopaths, potentisation renders the remedy not weaker but more potent. Thus the vast majority of homeopathic remedies is far too dilute to contain even a single molecule of what it says on the bottle.

Homeopaths and their followers know all this, of course. In their defense, they claim that science is as yet unable to explain how homeopathy works, implying thereby that homeopaths are ahead of their time. The truth, however, is that science can easily explain that an explanation which would be in line with the known laws of nature is an impossibility. Homeopaths are not ahead of their time; they are about 200 years behind it!

Considering the extreme implausibility of homeopathy, it comes as no surprise that the evidence fails to show that highly diluted homeopathic remedies are effective. Currently there are some 300 clinical trials of homeopathy; their results are, of course, not uniform but, based on the most reliable of these studies, investigators have demonstrated over and over again that homeopathic remedies do not work. And if you don’t trust me, perhaps you believe the ‘National Health and Medical Research Council’ of Australia; they recently published a very thorough evaluation of homeopathy which concluded that “there are no health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective.”

But at least homeopathy is safe, enthusiasts say. Wrong again! Highly dilute remedies cannot cause side-effects, of course, unless they are contaminated or adulterated. Yet homeopathy as a medical practice is certainly not safe. Every time seriously ill patients replace effective treatments with homeopathic remedies, they put their lives in danger. The Internet abounds with recommendations to treat conditions like cancer, AIDS, diabetes or asthma with homeopathy, and an uncounted number of patients have been gravely harmed by following the advice from homeopaths. For instance, dozens of studies show that homeopaths across the world tend to advise parents against immunizing their kids and recommend useless ‘homeopathic vaccinations’ instead. This behavior not only endangers the child in question, it also jeopardizes our herd immunity and thus puts us all at risk.

So, why are some doctors (35 years ago, I was one of them myself) so impressed with the progress their patients make after homeopathic treatments? The answer is much simpler than we might think. Most patients do get better whatever clinicians do with them (sometimes even despite their doctors). This is due to placebo effects, regression towards the mean, the natural history of the disease and several other phenomena. In essence, if physicians are kind and compassionate to their patients, nature does its work. Voltaire already knew that when he wrote: “nature cures the disease, while doctors amuse their patients”.

I think this is a message which we, patients and healthcare professionals alike, should remember; it teaches us to be humble, makes us think critically, and hopefully protects us from becoming the victims of quackery.

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