Alternative Medicine - Homeopathy

Homeopathy is a system of natural remedies that centers around two basic laws. The first is the law of similars, which is built around the principle that "like cures like," meaning that a disease is cured by medicines that have the properties of producing in healthy persons some symptoms similar to those of the disease. For example, if an individual has a fever, is flushed, and has a high pulse rate, that person would be treated with an agent that would cause a healthy person to have similar symptoms. The second law is the law of infinitesimals, which states that medicines are more effective in smaller doses.

History of Homeopathy

Homeopathy grew out of a movement known as sectarian medicine. (Sectarian medicine can be compared to what today is called alternative medicine. That is, sectarian medicine was set apart from conventional medicine.) In the 1800s, sectarian medicine included Thomsonianism (the foundation for herbal medicine, based on the healing arts practiced by Native American women and popularized in mainstream society in the early nineteenth century by New Hampshire farmer Samuel Thompson, 1769–1843). Sectarian medicine also embraced Grahamism (named after Sylvester Graham (1794–1851), which advocated proper nutrition and hygiene to fight disease and sickness).

Alternative Medicine: Words to Know

A form of alternative medicine that involves stimulating certain points, referred to as acupoints, on a person's body to relieve pain and promote healing and overall well-being.
A kind of doctor who advocates the system of medical practice making use of all measures that have proved to be effective in the treatment of disease.
Alternative medicine:
Medical practices that fall outside the spectrum of conventional allopathic medicine.
Human-made; not found in nature.
Blood vessel:
Vessel through which blood flows.
A way of treating certain health conditions by manipulating and adjusting the spine.
Any of several diseases of humans and domestic animals usually marked by severe gastrointestinal symptoms.
Magnetism developed by a current of electricity.
Genetic predisposition:
To be susceptible to something because of genes.
Of or relating to the whole rather than its parts; holistic medicine tries to treat both the mind and the body.
A system of natural remedies.
Substances formed in certain glands that control bodily functions.
To make a tentative assumption in order to draw out and test its logical or observable consequences.
Immeasurably small quantity or variable.
Belonging to the essential nature of something.
The study of the iris of the eye in order to diagnose illness or disease.
The study of anatomy in relation to movement of the body.
Massage therapy:
The manipulation of soft tissue in the body with the aim of relieving and preventing pain, stress, and muscle spasms.
The number of deaths in a given time or place.
A kind of alternative medicine that focuses on the body's inherent healing powers and works with those powers to restore and maintain overall health.
An emotional disorder that produces fear and anxiety.
Not involving penetration of the skin.
A branch of science that focuses on the functions of the body.
A medicated or protective dressing that consists of a film (as of cloth or plastic) usually spread with a medicated substance.
Qi (or Chi):
Life energy vital to an individual's wellbeing.
A type of bodywork that involves applying pressure to certain points, referred to as reflex points, on the foot.
Sectarian medicine:
Medical practices not based on scientific experience; also known as alternative medicine.
Relating to particles smaller than atoms.
To stop the development or growth of something.
Something that indicates the presence of an illness or bodily disorder.
A bony piece of the spinal column fitting together with other vertebrae to allow flexible movement of the body. (The spinal cord runs through the middle of each vertebra.)
A form of exercise and a system of health that involves yoga postures to promote wellbeing of body and mind.

Homeopathy began its rise to popularity in America in the late 1840s, but Samuel Hahnemann (1755–1843), a German conventional physician, had created the practice in the late eighteenth century. Homeopathy grew out of Hahnemann's opposition to the medical practices of his peers, practices that were conventional but had grown from heroic medicine (see sidebar), which Hahnemann considered to be extremely crude in certain aspects.

Hahnemann's major homeopathic discovery came about while he was conducting an experiment involving cinchona, a Peruvian bark that was known to cure the disease malaria. Hahnemann had been ingesting the cinchona (he did not have malaria at the time) and found that he began to develop fevers similar to those suffered by people with malaria. When he ceased ingesting the cinchona, Hahnemann observed that the symptoms ended. This prompted Hahnemann to hypothesize (form an educated guess) that if taking a large dose of something brought on symptoms of a disease, then taking a small amount of that same substance would prompt one's body to use its defenses against that same disease. Of course, many years of experiments followed, years that led Hahnemann to form the two basic laws of homeopathy (listed above) as well as the holistic principle (emphasizing the whole of something is more important than any one of its parts) that each illness is specific to the individual.

One of Hahnemann's students, Dr. Constantine Hering, considered the father of American homeopathy, continued Hahnemann's work, bringing homeopathy to America in the early part of the nineteenth century. By 1835, Hering had opened the first homeopathic medical school in the United States. Less than ten years later, the American Institute of Homeopathy (which was the first national medical association in America) was formed.

Bnnjamin Rush. (Library of Congress)
Bnnjamin Rush. (
Library of Congress


When one thinks of going to the doctor, it is most likely a conventional, or allopathic, physician that the individual will be seeing. However, up until the late eighteenth century, most medicine could be considered sectarian, or alternative. Thereafter, however, allopathic medicine, or conventional health care, which stems from heroic medicine, began to rise in popularity.

Heroic medicine was an inexact branch of medicine practiced in the early nineteenth century, the forerunner to today's conventional medicine. Heroic medicine was called such because heroic measures were taken to cure a patient. The foundation of heroic medicine was that all diseases resulted from an excess of fluids in the body, and the cure was to relieve the body of the excesses through bloodletting (the letting of someone's blood in the [false] belief that it was a remedy for fever, inflammation, and other disorders) and purging. In heroic medical practices, doctors did not hesitate to add to a patient's pain in the name of a cure; furthermore, natural causes and treatments were completely discounted. Many people believed heroic methods worked as the treatments did provide visible and predictable effects (though not necessarily cures).

For example, Dr. Benjamin Rush (also a signer of the Declaration of Independence), a major figure in heroic medical practices, advocated the use of bloodletting on women in the throes of childbirth as he viewed childbirth as a disease. Rush also utilized techniques such as blistering the skin with camphor and tartar plasters on a patient's chest (when blisters or second-degree burns appeared, Rush concluded that the infection had been drawn out because of the appearance of pus in the blisters).

The success of homeopathy in combating several widespread epidemics helped popularize the practice. In 1849, an outbreak of cholera in Ohio proved homeopathy's validity when only 3 percent of those treated homeopathically died from the disease; compared with a mortality rate of 40 to 70 percent for those treated with conventional, or allopathic, health care methods. Similar success was seen in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1879 when homeopaths (as practitioners of homeopathy are called) treated 1,945 people with yellow fever with a mortality rate of only 5.6 percent; conventional treatment used during the same epidemic yielded a 16 percent mortality rate.

Another factor lending itself to the popularity of homeopathy is that there long existed in the traditional medical practice community a prejudice and misunderstanding toward women and ailments particular to their bodies. Women's frustration with traditional health care, coupled with the fact that women, as the primary child-rearing force in the home, typically made the health care choices within their families, led many to seek out homeopathic solutions for their children's ailments. Thus, this too led to the surge in homeopathy.

Homeopathy soon became so popular that books on the practice appeared in several languages, some of which even offered up cures for animals' ailments. By the turn of the twentieth century, there were almost one hundred homeopathic hospitals and twenty-two homeopathic medical schools in the United States. It is also estimated that nearly 15 percent of American physicians were engaging in homeopathic practices at the time.

By the 1930s, homeopathy's popularity had begun to decline due to competition from conventional medicine and the American Medical Association (see sidebar on page 274). However, in the 1990s, homeopathy, like many other age-old alternative health care practices, enjoyed a growing resurgence in the United States and around the world.

Principles of Homeopathy

LAW OF SIMILARS. Hahnemann's law of similars actually stems from the observations and studies of another great medical mind, Hippocrates (c. 460–377 B.C. ), who observed the law of similars in the fourth century B.C. The notion that "like treats like" has been proven again and again, specifically by scientific minds of the twentieth century, such as Jonas Salk (1914–1995) with his invention of the vaccine against polio. Salk and others who have developed similar vaccines use small amounts of the actual disease to help an individual's body "immunize" itself against the disease. For example, individuals who receive allergy shots today often receive small amounts of an allergen (the allergy-causing substance) to boost their bodies' tolerance to that allergen.

Samuel Hahnemann. (UPI/Corbis-Bettmann. Reproduced by permission.)
Samuel Hahnemann. (
. Reproduced by permission.)

LAW OF INFINITESIMALS. The law of infinitessimals states that medicines are more effective in smaller doses and involves using trace amounts of a substance. A mixture is prepared by using one part of a particular substance that brings on the symptoms of a disease and mixing it with ninety-nine parts of either pure water or alcohol. This procedure is then repeated anywhere from twenty-four to thirty times to further dilute the mixture. The process also involves shaking the substance vigorously, something Hahnemann believed imbued the mixture with energy.

Critics of homeopathy have wondered how homeopathy actually works, if after twenty-four successive dilutions of a remedy are performed, there is virtually no trace of the original substance remaining in the remedy; therefore, the so-called remedy is actually only water and/or alcohol. Advocates of homeopathy have proposed theories that center on subatomic activity that takes place within the remedies themselves. Specifically, it has been suggested that structures form in the remedies that are capable of holding electromagnetic signals that may carry a message to the body, prompting the body's immune system to respond appropriately.

HOLISTIC DIAGNOSES. The holistic principle that is also employed by homeopathy centers around the fact that not all illnesses are alike even though they may fall into similar categories. For example, one person's headache should not be treated in the same manner as another person's headache as their symptoms will never be identical. In fact, according to homeopathic theory, there are more than two hundred diverse patterns of symptoms for headaches alone, with different remedies for each pattern.


The American Institute of Homeopathy, founded in 1844, was the first formal medical association in the United States. It wasn't until 1847 that the American Medical Association (AMA) was founded, some say in large part to combat the popularity of homeopathy. In fact, by examining historical records, it appears that the primary mission of the AMA at its inception was to abolish the practice of homeopathy. The zeal with which the AMA attacked homeopathic medicine was due, in large part, to financial considerations. The homeopaths were taking business away from conventional allopathic physicians. Still, many allopathic physicians did embrace homeopathic solutions to illness.

By the early twentieth century, however, competition between medical schools, hospitals, and practitioners was on the rise. The AMA discouraged allopaths from associating professionally with homeopaths. And to compound matters, the AMA forged a bond with many major pharmaceutical companies. This bond centered on a mutually beneficial financial relationship; doctors received free samples of drugs and endorsed certain pharmaceuticals while the pharmaceutical companies purchased advertisements in the Journal of the American Medical Association. These advertisements gave the AMA the financial power it needed to improve its medical schools.

Soon, rating systems for medical colleges were created. These ratings contributed to the closing of the less financially stable homeopathic medical schools and organizations. By the 1930s, homeopathy had faded from the American medical field.

HERING'S LAWS OF CURES. Dr. Hering introduced yet another principle to the practice of homeopathy with Hering's laws of cures. These laws of cures upheld that healing begins from the deepest part of the body and then moves toward the extremities. Likewise, healing originates with emotional and mental aspects before moving to physical aspects; and finally, healing begins at the head and works its way down to the feet.

Another element of these laws includes Hering's assertion that the body will begin to heal its most recent disorder before moving to an older, preexisting condition. All of this means, then, that a homeopath will treat a condition in layers (from the inside to the outside, from the new to the old, from the top to the bottom, etc.). Yet, Hering also postulated that, as healing begins (new and old), a patient's condition might worsen before it gets better. This is what is known as the "healing crisis."

Homeopathy Helps Many Conditions

Homeopathy has been touted as being effective in treating a variety of diseases, from skin disorders to asthma to arthritis to diabetes. Practitioners believe this is so because it cures a disease at its deepest level. Many conditions, however, upon which homeopathic remedies have proven effective center around colds, influenza, or the flu, headaches, digestive disorders, and hay fever.

Other research indicates success in using homeopathic remedies to treat Parkinson's disease, bronchitis, sinusitis, pain, and rheumatoid arthritis.

Homeopathy Today

Currently, more than 500 million people in the world have received or are seeking homeopathic treatment for their illnesses. The World Health Organization has recommended that homeopathy be integrated into conventional medical practices so that health care demands worldwide will be met by the early twenty-first century.

Homeopathy is widespread in Europe, particularly in Germany, France, and Britain. Britain has a national health care system that includes homeopathic hospitals and clinics. India, too, has long advocated homeopathy; the country has more than 25,000 homeopaths. Homeopathy is also popular in Mexico and parts of South America.

In the United States, homeopathy, although its popularity is growing, still faces challenges. The Food and Drug Administration's lengthy approval process ( see Chapter 9: Over-the-Counter Drugs) requires a great deal of funding. Many homeopathic remedies are extremely inexpensive (thus, unprofitable for a manufacturer) so the likelihood of homeopathic remedies appearing on pharmacy shelves is less than that of traditional over-the-counter or prescription drugs. As health care reform continues to be a topic of discussion in the United States, and individuals continue to explore and embrace alternative medicine, homeopathy may once again become an integral part of American health care practices.

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