Sorry for the length between posts on my look at this book, they're involved and I've had my head in other things. This week we investigate homeopathy and its efficacy.
"A system of treating illness based on the premise that like cures like. The homeopath treats symptoms by administering minute or non-existent doses of a substance which in large amounts produces the same symptoms in healthy individuals. Homeopaths focus on treating patients as individuals and claim to be able to treat virtually any ailment, from colds to heart disease." (Ernst & Singh, p92, 2008)Homeopathy, according to Ernst and Singh has gained huge popular status in the last couple of decades (p93), and they suggest that from this a kind of argument from popularity is occurring whereby people use (and promote) it simply because it is popular.
The authors trace the beginnings of homeopathy to Samuel Hahnemann who used a Malaria treatment, as a cure all tonic, working under the assumption "if I take something that cures me of illness it will make me feel even better if I'm not sick". This, however made his health decrease, moreover, it led him to experience some of the symptoms of Malaria. This gave a Hahnemann a thought, that what if he experimented with other treatments to see if he got the same results? He did, and he did. He, by reversing the logic of his experiments came up with an ultimate principle: "that which can produce a set of symptoms in a healthy individual who is manifesting a similar set of symptoms". (pg95) This bizarrely led Hahnemann to the conclusion that he could improve remedies by diluting them (to this day it still remains a mystery why he came to this conclusion).
Hahnemann was not without his merits, he tested his hypothesis on others, administering daily doses (in an experimental procedure he called "provings") to several healthy people, who were asked to keep detailed diaries of their symptoms. This gave Hahnemann some figures with which to work from, he argued that the identical remedy given to a sick person could relieve the same symptoms (p96).
This is where it gets interesting, and well, bizarre (more so?), Ernst and Singh explain the procedure to accrue homeopathic remedies:
"If a plant is to be used as the basis of a homeopathic remedy, then the preparation process begins by allowing it to sit in a sealed jar of solvent, which then dissolves some of the plant's molecules. The solvent can be either water or alcohol, but for the ease of explanation we will assume it is water...After several weeks the solid material is removed- the remaining water with its dissolved ingredients is called the mother tincture.
The mother tincture is then diluted, which might involve one part of it being dissolved in nine parts water, thereby diluting it by a factor of ten. This is called a 1X remedy, the X being the Roman numeral for 10. After the dilution, the mixture is vigorously shaken, which completes the potentization process. Taking one part of the 1X remedy, dissolving it in nine parts water and shaking again leads to a 2X remedy. Further dilution and potentization leads to 3X, 4X, 5X and even weaker solutions- remember that Hahnemann believed that weaker solutions led to stronger remedies." (Ernst & Singh, p97, 2008)There was a reason I put such a long quote up, I want you, the reader, to fully appreciate just what homeopathy is and what it sells you (at a high premium). Ernst and Sing accentuate their point:
"A 4X remedy, for instance means that the mother tincture was diluted by a factor of 10 (1X), then again by a factor of 10 (2X), then again by a factor of 10 (4X), and then again by a factor of 10 (4X). This leads to dilution by factor of 10x10x10x10, which is equal to 10,000... homeopathic pharmacists will usually dissolve one part of the mother tincture in 99 parts of water, thereby diluting by a factor of 100. This is called 1C remedy, C being the Roman numeral for 100. Repeatedly dissolving by a factor of 100 leads to 2C, 3C, 4C and eventually to ultra-dilute solutions.
For example, homeopathic solutions of 30C are common, which means that the original ingredient has been diluted 30 times by a factor of 100 each time. Therefore the original substance has been diluted by a factor of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,0000,000,000,000,000. This string of naughts may not mean much, but bear in mind that one gram of the mother tincture contains less than 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules... The bottom line is that this level of dilution is so extreme that the resulting solution is unlikely to contain a single molecule of the original ingredient (emphasis added). In fact the chance of having one molecule of the active ingredient in the final 30C remedy is one in a billion, billion, billion, billion. In other words a 30C remedy is almost certain to contain nothing more than water. (emphasis added)" (Ernst & Singh, p98-9, 2008)Again, sorry for the long quotes but for me personally that should be the end of this post, what more do you need to know about homeopathy?
Ernst and Singh continue mentioning that some homeopathic pharmacists stock 100,000C remedies which means they've diluted 30C remedies "already devoid of any active ingredient" further by a factor of 100, another 99,970 times, this costs money, upwards of 1,000 pounds! (p100)
Obviously from a scientific perspective there is no reason a homeopathic remedy should work (apart from the placebo effect). There are some ad hoc theories given by homeopaths to describe how it works: some suggest that the remedies have a "memory" of the original ingredient (p100), Hahnemann proposed that a "vital force", something close to a spirit, determined a persons well being (p105), they have also been known to hold a pendulum over a shortlist of possible remedies to determine which one to use (p104) . The authors continue explaining just what homeopathic remedies have been suggested to be effective on: diarrhoea, coughs, headaches, to arthritis, diabetes and asthma, from bruises and colds to cancer and Parkinson's disease (pg100).
Both DARPA (U.S Defense force), scientific studies and even James Randi have tested the efficacy of homeopathy, with no positive results. In 1999 Dr Andrew Vickers meta-analysed 120 research papers on homeopathy and found no reproducible effect (p125). In fact James Randi is still offering his $1million dollar prize to anyone who can demonstrate its efficacy, no-one has. Randi also ingested sixty-four times the dosage of a homeopathic sleeping remedy before a meeting of the U.S congress and "didn't even feel drowsy." (p126)
If you want to drink water please use filtered bottled water, if you want to get medical treatment, see your doctor!
Ernst E., Singh,. S. (2008). Trick Or Treatment. New York, New York. W.W Norton & Company. Pp- 93,93,95,96,97,98,99,100,104,105,125,126.