Why I lost faith in homoeopathy
As kids we learned to swear by gentle, kind, holistic homoeopathy. But as a thinking adult, I have to ask: could anyone really believe this?
They say my mother cured two deaf children one day back in the 1970s. She had a reputation as an intuitive homoeopath, someone who could readily home in on the correct remedy by asking a few questions and then consulting the Materia Medica, the bible of homoeopathy compiled by Samuel Hahnemann, its founder.
The children lived in the same building, several floors below, and had been under treatment with my mother's little white pills for some weeks. One day their mother excitedly rang our doorbell — there had been a crash in their kitchen and both children had turned their heads towards the sound. It is said that from then on they gradually got better and eventually completed regained their sense of hearing.
When we travelled as children, my mother would always carry her homoeopathic first aid kit of little white pills: Arnica Montana (for shock, trauma, nervous breakdowns, cuts and bruises); Rhus Tox (to ward off colds and flus after getting unexpectedly wet); Acid Phosphoricum (for sudden watery diarrhoea); and Nux Vomica (for upset tummies, food poisoning, stomach aches). There were others, for excessive menstrual bleeding, tetanus, farting too much, bad breath, headaches and body aches.
I am no longer a child and life has taught me to question things, especially ideas once accepted without reflection. Today, I feel surprised and some regret that I believed in homeopathy for so, so long. I'd like to explain why I don't any more.
Homoeopathy claims that like cures like. If an onion makes you weep, homoeopathic onion will cure watering eyes. If poison ivy (Rhus Toxicodendron) produces rheumatism-like symptoms such as ache and swollen joints, homoeopathic Rhus Tox would cure it. The Materia Medica is a painstaking list of all the possible symptoms caused by hundreds of substances, including radium, platinum and potassium cyanide.
There is an attractive symmetry in this logic, as though we have stumbled upon a secret which some god planted for us to discover.
I was past middle age when I asked the obvious question: did someone actually consume all these toxic substances to document their effects on humans? Turns out that Hahnemann, reading that cinchona, the bark of a Peruvian tree, could cure malaria because of its astringency, decided to feed himself cinchona and see what happened. He noted that it produced malaria-like symptoms in him.
He developed a theory that a substance in low doses can cure conditions it causes in high doses (though later research established that it was the alkaloid quinine, present in cinchona, that killed malaria's germs). Hahnemann tested hundreds of substances on healthy persons and carefully recorded what he thought were the symptoms they caused.
He believed that all substances had a 'vital energy' which emerged through progressive dilution. It's a bit like saying that if you dilute a cube of sugar a thousand-fold, it will make your coffee exquisitely sweet.
He offered no scientific evidence to support this slightly magical belief but went ahead anyway to develop a method of 'potentising' substances through extreme dilution. A millilitre of a compound is mixed with 100 ml of water. A millilitre of that is mixed with another 100 ml of water and shaken up. Repeat this 30 times and you get the 30th potency of that substance. It will have one molecule of the compound in a million trillion trillion molecules of water. You'd have to drink 8,000 gallons of water to get one molecule of the medicine.
Hahnemann claimed, however that this water, containing not even a single molecule of the compound, had tremendous vital power — and could somehow heal problems caused by that compound. He offered no proof for asserting this.
The English have a good word for such thinking — poppycock.
I am troubled that homoeopathy has always failed to prove its claims whenever it has been rigorously tested. Its best evidence is always anecdotal.
I wonder how Hahnemann could assert that Rhus Tox would prevent colds if taken after a drenching. How could you record something that didn't happen and credit some pills as the cause?
What if the compounder has had a bad day and drops homoeopathic Belladonna instead of Ipecac into your prescribed pills? How would you, or anyone even know there had been a human error? Who sets and enforces quality standards in homoeopathy?
I gave homoeopathy a big chance for the better part of 40 years, first to help rid me of my teenage hemorrhoids, and later of tendency towards nosebleeds. I was no better after decades of treatment. If I felt worse, the homoeopath called it a sign the pills were working. If I got better, the pills naturally got the credit.
My hemorrhoids finally were removed surgically, and I still deal with nosebleeds in my own way. Today I believe that homeopathy just took me — and a long list of others — for a long, deceptive spin.
Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at email@example.com
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The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper
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