Homeopathy- Why does it attract so much Controversy?

Robert Medhurst
It’s probably pretty obvious to most that complementary medicine (CM) in general attracts a great deal of criticism by advocates of orthodox western medicine. Vitamins are frequently described as agents that do little  more than produce expensive urine, herbs are labeled as useless if not outright dangerous. Bach flowers, reflexology and aromatherapy are dismissed as fanciful nonsense. Vast clinical studies with questionable methodology that find no benefit from these therapies are held up as proof that they have no effect while smaller properly designed studies that show them to be successful are ignored. Yet CM continues to provide relief for millions of people and every year sees more and more people turning to these therapies. This situation appears to cause enormous irritation for orthodox western medicine and as much as they’d like it to, CM refuses to go away.

Fortunately, in recent times the critics of herbs and supplements have become marginalised and their credibility has become increasingly dubious as they struggle under the weight of higher quality evidence of clinical effect. Regrettably, criticism aimed at homeopathy remains undiminished. It comes under regular attack in pharmacy and other orthodox journals1, 2. And it is vilified by national broadcasters3.Organisations have been established with the apparent aim of eradicating it4 and clinical trials that fail to show an effect receive inordinate levels of attention while successful trials are ignored.

What are the criticisms of homeopathy?

There is no scientifically plausible mechanism for Homeopathy.
This is certainly true, but it’s also true that the mechanism for the action of many commonly prescribed drugs, such as dexamphetamine in the treatment of ADHD, is yet to be determined. The failure to understand the mechanism of a therapeutic substance, particularly where that substance is a drug, does not normally diminish the enthusiasm for it by prescribers. Why then should homeopathy be criticised for this?

The concept of a memory for water is unscientific.
This relates to the fact that many researchers have speculated that the potentisation process used to manufacture homeopathic medicines causes the water in which the medicines are made to retain a “memory” of the starting material from which the potencies are derived. In response to this criticism, we should be clear on what “science” actually is. Science is not a body of facts. It’s a process used to study, by deduction and inference, specific issues that one seeks to understand. The fact that the memory of water has yet to be adopted by orthodox science does not make it unscientific. In fact, various studies have shown that water may be imprinted by the electromagnetic energy signature derived from physical substances to which it is exposed5-7. These studies would tend to support the concept the memory of water.

There’s nothing in a homeopathic medicine so it couldn’t possibly work.
Those making these kinds of assertions seem to miss the point that past certain potencies (12C or 24X), a homoeopathic medicine will contain the base substance (alcohol and water in the case of a liquid, or sugar in the case of a solid dose form such as a pilule) and it will also contain the electromagnetic energy that’s derived from the starting material via the process of potentisation. This latter component is not detectable by normal assay techniques, but its effects are certainly demonstrable. Studies have confirmed that biological systems can be influenced by these electromagnetic frequencies8-12. The criticism that there’s nothing in a homeopathic medicine is also frequently leveled at products, often homeopathic combination products, where the medicines are used at potencies below 12C or 24X. Anyone making the statement that there’s nothing in these products , may have a little difficulty with the information in the following table, which demonstrates the levels at which the human body responds to normal human hormones and metabolites.

Lower Limit of Biological Activity of Human Hormones and Metabolites

Substance Limit Equiv. homeopathic potency
Parathyroid Hormone 10 picograms/mL 11X
Free Oestrogen 0.6 picograms/mL 12X
Brain Natriuretic Hormone 4 picograms/mL 12X
ACTH 20 picograms/mL 11X
Oestrogen 10 picograms/mL 11X
Vitamin B12 150 picograms/mL 9X
Testosterone 200 picograms/mL 9X
Progesterone 100 picograms/mL 10X
Free Thyroxine (Pregnancy) 5 picograms/mL 12X
Triiodothyronine (Children) 1 picograms/mL 12X
Acetylcholine (miniature end potential) 0.0001 picograms/mL 16X

Homeopathy is not evidence based- there are no successful trials.
This is an interesting point. It’s true that the number of successful homeopathic trials is relatively small, the numbers of people participating in the trials is often relatively small and few trials have been replicated. The reason for this is that unlike drugs, homeopathic medicines in most cases cannot be patented, so there is little incentive to invest the vast quantities of money that the drug companies often spend to mount large clinical trials if the sponsors cannot monopolize the results. However, homeopathy has produced successful clinical trials, and they’re relatively easy to find13-17. As a final point, surveys have found that only 10-20% of all standard medical procedures have been validated by controlled clinical trials18 and yet orthodox medicine is held up as the gold standard to which homeopathy should aspire.

Homeopathy stops people from using drugs that may provide better results in disease control.
This again is an interesting issue, and the criticism can be answered with a few simple facts. Trials comparing homeopathy with standard medical treatment have found that it can provide outcomes as good as or better than orthodox medicine for particular conditions19, 20. It’s also useful here to put the relative safety of various forms of medicine into perspective. The total number of adverse reactions to drugs in Australia from the year 1999-2000 was 400,00021. The total number of adverse reactions from CM for the same year was 2322, and none of these were caused by a homeopathic medicine23. Even more interesting is the fact that only 1-10% of all adverse drug reactions are reported24. In the US up to one fifth of all new prescription drugs may ultimately be recalled or produce potentially harmful side effects25. No homeopathic medicine has ever been subject to a product recall on the basis of toxicity, or has been recorded as producing serious side effects.

Homeopathy keeps people away from medical doctors.
The facts would indicate that this, in many circumstances, may not be such a bad idea. In the US, doctors are the third leading cause of death, with iatrogenic (medically induced) disease accounting for 250,000 deaths every year (I2,000 from unnecessary surgery, 7,000 from medication errors in hospitals, 20,000 from other errors in hospitals, 80,000 from infections in hospitals, 106,000 from the negative effects of drugs)26.

Homeopathy is expensive.
This is rarely the case. US doctors who used homeopathy were found to use less diagnostic testing and conventional medicines, resulting in a significant reduction in their impact on the cost of public health27. Patients using homeopathy cost the French government half of what it cost for patients who used orthodox treatments28 . French researchers have noted that the number of paid sick leave days taken by patients under the care of homeopathic physicians was 3.5 times less than patients under the care of medical practitioners29 . UK doctors using homeopathy cost the government 12% less than UK doctors who do not use homoeopathy30. In Germany researchers found that homeopathic care for infertility was 30 times less expensive per successful delivery than orthodox medical care31.

Criticisms leveled at homeopathy seem more often than not to be based on emotion rather than logic, and the types of criticisms made and the way they’re articulated ,would tend to indicate that orthodox medicine has great difficulty in accepting anything outside of itself, regardless of the evidence. If one looks at it objectively, and when in possession of the facts, the criticisms of homeopathy can be shown to be largely baseless.

The author discusses the criticism directed at homeopathy.


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  20. Riley D., Fischer M., et al, Homoeopathy and Conventional Medicine: An Outcome Study Comparing Effectiveness in a Primary Care Settings. J Alt and Comp Med, 2001, 7, 2, 123-5).
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  22. Australian Journal of Pharmacy, 83, June 2002, 516-517
  23. ADRAC private correspondence, 2002
  24. New Scientist 17 July 1980, 218
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  27. Jennifer J et al, Patient Characteristics and Practice Patterns of Physicians Using Homeopathy,Archives of Family Medicine. 1998, Nov/Dec, 537-540
  28. Caisse Nationale de l’Assurance Maladie des Travailleurs Salaris, 1996 Fisher P, Cost Savings for the NHS, Natural Medicine Society News, June 1992, 21
  29. Gerhard, I, G. Reimers, C. Keller, and M. Schmuck, Weibliche fertiltitasstorungen. Vergleich homoopathischer einzelmittel–mit konventioneller hormontherapie Therapeutikon. 1991;7:309-315