What is homeopathy, and can it fit into your regimen?
What is homeopathy, and can it fit into your regimen?
Can homeopathic remedies really cure my migraines, or help my kid kick a cold?
Homeopathy is a 200-year-old holistic healing practice and health philosophy that has been hotly debated in Canada in recent years. But it’s tricky to explain exactly how it works and even harder to demonstrate its effect, so, as a result, many have chosen to dismiss the modality entirely. Some have gone so far as to call it quack science, woo-woo—and worse. But in other parts of the world, including France and Germany, homeopathy is integrated into the mainstream medical system as an accepted form of complemen-tary therapy, like acupuncture or massage. And it’s used to treat everything from allergies to headaches to joint pain.
What is homeopathic medicine?
“One of the difficulties in understanding homeopathy is that it works opposite to conventional medicine,” says Nicole Duelli, a certified classical homeopath based in Vancouver. Homeopathy is based on the principle that “like cures like,” meaning that a disease or disorder and its accompanying symptoms can be cured with a product that’s known to produce sim-ilar symptoms at a higher dosage. For example, if you are prone to headaches, your doctor might suggest taking a painkiller like acetaminophen, while a homeopath may suggest you also try a remedy like a belladonna tincture to trigger your body into healing the pain you are experiencing. (Belladonna, also known as deadly nightshade, is a plant that can be poisonous—and so could cause pain—but is highly diluted in a homeopathic medicine.) “The word ‘homeopathy’ comes from the Greek homeos pathos, meaning ‘the similar suffering,’” says Duelli.
Homeopathic solutions are made of plant, mineral or animal starting materials that are then put through
a repeated dilution and intense shaking process (known as succussion) before being incorporated into pellets, oral droplets, syrups and ointments. Some remedies, like arnica cream, which is often used at home for sore spots and bruises, can be purchased over the counter at the drug store, but complementary health-care practitioners trained in homeopathy, like some naturopaths, can also give personalized remedies to their patients.
Although not all physicians endorse it, about five million Canadians use some form of homeopathy on a regular basis, either on their own or following the advice of a natural health practitioner. And all homeopathic medicines are regulated by Health Canada as natural health products.
Ho•me•op•a•thy (1826): the treatment of disease by minute doses of drugs that in a healthy person would produce symptoms of the disease.
Homeopathy is sometimes described as a substitute for mainstream medicine, but it should be seen as “a complementary approach to use alongside allopathic (or conventional) therapies to bring relief to patients’ ailments and symptoms,” says Dr. Christiane Laberge, a family doctor based in Montreal. “It’s not an alternative—they can work together,” she says. For example, when treating a patient with seasonal allergies the two modalities can often work in tandem. “We don’t recommend that the patient not use antihistamines,” she says. “But if they present with symptoms like itching at the back of the throat, and the medication isn’t already helping with that, a homeopathic medicine like sabadilla pellets may help to bring relief.” (Sabadilla is a flowering plant native to Central America and Mexico.)
“All the different alternative medicines, including homeopathy, are in fact complementary, but I think homeo-pathy is the most complementary to what medical doctors are doing,” says Dr. Shahram Ayoubzadeh, a naturopathic doctor, classical homeopath and the dean of the Canadian College of Homeopathic Medicine. That’s because, due to the high dilution of all active ingredients, they don’t pose a threat of interacting with prescription medications. Though, of course, a practitioner of homeopathy will do a full medical history on new patients and be up to date on which prescriptions they are taking. And, if you are picking up an over-the-counter homeopathic remedy at the pharmacy, you should confirm with the pharmacist that it’s safe for you to take.
A large study conducted in France (where homeopathy is widely integrated with mainstream medicine) and recently published in the journal Clinical Breast Can-cer looked at how homeopathic treatments could be used to support conventional therapies, including radiation and mastectomy. Researchers concluded that homeopathy could help alleviate treatment side effects and as a result lead to a better adherence to treatment plans and improved quality of life during breast cancer treatment. “Homeopathy is an integrative tool for taking care of patients as a whole,” says Dr. Laberge.
The power of plants
There have been hundreds of controlled and standardized studies conducted to improve knowledge of homeopathic medicines. In one example, duckweed plants that were poisoned with arsenic, then treated with the homeopathic cure arsenicum album were revived and returned to a healthier state than the plants that were not exposed to the treatment. In a different laboratory study, a homeopathic solution of Gelsemium sempervirens boosted through neuronal cells the production of a hormone that reduces stress and anxiety. “Of course, when we see this research on cells and plants, we can’t extrap-olate that to humans, but that kind of evidence helps people to see that there is something here,” says Anne-Laure Leclere, head of global scientific and medical affairs for Boiron, one of the largest manufacturer of homeopathic products in the world.
Is it just placebo effect?
At this point, there isn’t much question that homeopathy has an effect of some kind—in a lab, and in the real world. In one systematic review of high-quality clinical trials, homeopathic treatments prescribed on an individual basis were up to two times more effective than placebo. Plus, the placebo effect doesn’t explain the effects of these medicines on plants, animals, or cells under a microscope. Or why so many people seem to find relief with homeopathic remedies when pharmaceuticals alone have failed them. “When patients have tried four or five allopathic remedies without much help, then they take a homeopathic remedy and it works, it’s illogical to say it’s just placebo,” says Dr. Ayoubzadeh.
Physicists and chemists have used a variety of techniques to analyze homeopathic medicines and are able to observe different physiochemical properties, but there’s still no simple way to explain how they work. And we are uncomfortable with things we can’t fully explain, says Leclere. In the meantime, supporters of homeopathy are satisfied to just see results. Boiron Canada’s bestseller, Camilia, is a solution for teething babies (containing Chamomilla vulgaris, Phytolacca decandra and Rheum) that’s designed to relieve the restlessness, pain and diarrhea that come along with cutting teeth. Infants can’t tell their parents if it works, of course, but in a survey of nearly 600 customers across three countries, 94 percent of parents who responded were satisfied with how it helped their little ones.
“In my practice, I clearly see the benefits of homeopathy on my patients,” says Duelli. “Again, we’re not talking about a replacement therapy here, we’re talking about a complementary medicine that has its place and its benefits.”
Homeo to Go!
To get the full benefits of this healing modality, it’s best to visit a homeopath or naturopathic doctor who practices homeopathy. But, if you’d like to give an over-the-counter remedy a try, these three are trusted favourites from Boiron Canada.
Get relief of flu-like symptoms, including body aches, fever and chills.
Banish bruising and swelling and soothe muscle and joint pain.
Designed to relieve minor sleeping disorders and night waking, so you can catch more z’s. And there’s a version for kids, too!