I grew up with homeopathy all around me. I have not been vaccinated. I have had measles – I was sent to a measles party! – mumps and chicken pox, and all were treated homeopathically. I suffered from eczema when I was young. It too was treated with homeopathy and it has never come back. I can count the times I have been to the doctor on one hand. I am rarely sick.
Over the years, I have seen thousands of happy patients come and go from my father’s practice. When I studied homeopathy, the principles, methods and philosophy seemed clear to me and made good sense. Then, when I became involved with the School of Homeopathy, I witnessed further successful patient cases through the school’s clinics, the students and eventually my own practice.
Yet I find myself in a profession that is often misunderstood, criticised and ridiculed – why? Homeopathy is a form of medicine; it helps people and it does this naturally, with remedies that come from nature and work in line with nature. It does not help 100% of people, but no medicine does. From what I have seen and experienced, and from what research tells us, homeopathy is highly effective – and yet it does divide people.
The healing mechanism of ‘like cures like’ is well understood and is used in many systems of medicine as well as homeopathy. The word ‘homeopathy’ means ‘similar suffering’. Homeopathic treatment focuses on the entire person, not just the disease. A homeopathic remedy is selected according to ‘like cures like’, also known as the law of similars: a substance that provokes symptoms in a healthy person can heal those symptoms when given to someone who is sick. This principle was written about by Hippocrates (often called ‘the father of medicine’) and can be traced back to Egyptian times.
Dilution of remedies
The division seems to be around the highly diluted remedies – the chemistry and the potentisation of the medicine (dilution and succussion). Potentisation is done to remove the toxic effects of the substances. The founder of homeopathy, Dr Samuel Hahnemann, discovered the process through painstaking trial and error. He discovered that the patient only needed the tiniest dose of the medicine to stimulate the body’s own innate healing mechanism. However, in his day (200 years ago), with science as it was, he had no idea that by diluting a substance beyond 1023 (12c in homeopathy) he would surpass Avogadro’s number, the point at which no atom of the original substance remains in the solution – but amazingly this did not affect his work or results.
Today, homeopathic remedies are available with dilutions above and below Avogadro’s number. What science does not yet fully understand is how the dilutions above Avogadro’s number continue to work.
As a result of this, homeopathy as a system of medicine has been written off by sceptics. Their thinking presupposes that because the usual standards of science cannot explain highly potentised medicines, they must be ineffective – and therefore homeopaths must be fraudulent.
I have been in this situation. Thinking back on the conversation, I am not sure I would describe it as a discussion, but more of an attack. The sceptic had no intention of ‘discussing’ homeopathy with me; he just wanted to discredit it and me.
He came from a point of view that science, or more accurately scientism,1 explains everything. But the simple fact is that science does not. In reality, science has barely scratched the surface of understanding the physical world around us, let alone the energetic world. But the sceptic seemed to cling onto an old Newtonian view of the world that suited his materialistic paradigm; he refused to believe that science does not understand everything around us, and therefore he threw out anything that could not be explained scientifically.
Not all treatments are evidence-based
Both the brain and the immune system are still mysteries to us in many ways, although ignorance has not prevented the development of effective healing techniques. Through trial and error, observation and inference, humanity has developed many therapies. This is just as true for mainstream science-based medicine as it is for natural medicine.
It is also interesting to note that, as reported in the international peer-reviewed British Medical Journal (BMJ), 50% of all treatments prescribed through the National Health Service are not evidence-based2 – that is, they are not supported by scientific research. If we were to apply the same requirements being asked of homeopathy to the NHS, 50% of treatments would be removed. But if patients are telling you they feel better, you keep using a treatment – that is evidence. Just because you do not have the scientific evidence that a treatment works does not mean you stop using it.
Science still cannot explain how anaesthesia works, but we would never dream of getting rid of that; we rely on the clinical experience and our observations of it working, rather than a scientific understanding of the mechanism of action. Knowing how a medicine works has never been a prerequisite for its use. Aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) is one of the most widely used drugs in the world, yet it was used for over 70 years before its mechanism of action was discovered in 1971. The drug is still actively researched today, as it has numerous biological effects that are still not fully understood. To say homeopathy does not work because there is no scientific evidence does not make sense. It reminds me of the ‘experts’ in the early 17th century who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope and instead locked him up and continued to believe the Earth was at the centre of our solar system.
A good scientist would start from the hypothesis, if homeopathy works, and people experience its positive results, then how and why? Instead of demanding, “Prove that it works,” why not, “Prove that it doesn’t work”? Science is to be curious, to explore the unknown, to find things out and discover, to measure and quantify.
Homeopaths believe that one day science will discover the mechanism through which homoeopathy works, that one day we will have the tools that are sensitive enough and the understanding to figure it out. But until then we should continue to use this effective and safe form of medicine.
Homeopathy is used by millions
The sceptic believes all homeopaths are wrong and all patients are wrong, ruling out the views and experiences of thousands of highly educated homeopaths. (Most homeopaths are degree-educated before training in homeopathy.) These homeopaths are branded liars, cheats, con artists and thieves – they prey on the weak, steal their money, and kill them by preventing them from going to the ‘proper’ doctor when they are sick (which they do not). But, worse than that, the sceptic ignores the experience of millions of patients who benefit from homeopathy every year. They simply write these people off as delusional, desperate and ignorant, or they claim that they would have got better anyway. But can the estimated 500 million (1 in 12) people who use homeopathy every year really be wrong? And why is homeopathy the second-largest system of medicine in use worldwide today (after Chinese medicine)? Patients are often the strongest advocates of homeopathy; why would they recommend it to their friends and family if it didn’t work?
Because science has yet to understand how homeopathy works, it is often stated that there is nothing in the pills and that therefore any healing response must just be the placebo effect (a false effect). However, as already mentioned, not all homeopathic remedies are potentised (diluted) beyond Avogadro’s number. We also see homeopathy working on babies, young children, animals and the unconscious – those unable to be affected by placebo. I would also ask why these patients that come to see homeopaths have not been affected by the placebo when they are taking other forms of treatment. Often those who come to homeopathy do so as a last resort and have had many other forms of medication – why no placebo effect then? And what about those patients who do not get the correct homeopathic remedy first time? Why did it take three or four different remedies for the placebo effect to start for them?
Scientific trials clearly demonstrate that homeopathy has a greater effect than placebo. There have been several different and easily repeatable scientific experiments that demonstrate this.
By the end of 2013, 104 placebo-controlled randomised controlled trials (RCTs) on homeopathy had been published in peer review journals. 44% demonstrated that homeopathy works above and beyond placebo, 5% were negative, and 47% were non-conclusive.3 These percentages are strikingly similar to those found in conventional medicine.
In 2013 the Homeopathy Research Institute (an innovative UK charity) held a research event in Barcelona: a programme dedicated solely to high-end, robust scientific research, with forty speakers presenting over 65 papers (abstracts).4 All the speakers were highly educated clinicians, PhD academics and researchers – most of them from outside the world of homeopathy. We saw presentation after presentation that demonstrated through clear research and evidence that homeopathy works and is effective.
The presentation by Dr Stephan Baumgartner from the Swiss Institute of Complementary Medicine stood out. He has been researching potentised ultra-dilutions on wheat. He takes healthy wheat seeds and treats them all with a sub-lethal dose of arsenic, which stunts their growth. Each seed is attached to an identical disc of soil, which is then glued to a piece of paper and placed in a plastic wallet. One set receives plain water, a second set receives plain water that has been through the potentisation process up to 45x (45th decimal potency –above Avogadro’s number) and a third set receives homeopathically medicated (using arsenic) water that has also been potentised to 45x. All this is blinded and randomised, so the researchers do not know what solutions are being used. Each day the seeds are monitored and scanned. The growth and development of each seed is measured. The results are always the same: the development of the seeds that receive the homeopathic preparation is greater by 25%. This experiment has been duplicated many times by different people and in different labs.5
Another interesting presentation was by Dr Gustavo Bracho, from the Carlos Finlay Institute, part of the Ministry of Public Health in Cuba. Out of necessity, the decision was taken to use homeopathic preparations of leptospirosis to control the annual outbreak of the same disease in Cuba. Vaccines are usually prepared each year, but in this particular year there were severe rains and floods, and the outbreak was going to affect far more people than there were vaccines for. Vaccines take months to create, and there was insufficient time to develop what was needed. Instead, a homeopathic programme was developed. The numbers are staggering: two doses, 7 to 9 days apart, were given to a population of 2.5 million. Fewer than 10 people were infected, and there were no fatalities. Previously, conventional treatment of the population with a vaccine had failed to prevent thousands of infections, including a number of fatalities, at a cost of US$2 million. The homeopathic solution cost just 10% of this. Sceptics would say that this was blind luck, that it would have happened anyway. Homeopaths say that this should be looked at and repeated with careful monitoring so that we can understand what is going on.6
Research paper after research paper presented in Barcelona demonstrated the effectiveness of homeopathy.
There have been other interesting studies as well. Laboratory experiments in petri dishes have repeatedly demonstrated that homeopathically prepared substances have biological effects. For example, Philippe Belon’s work with homeopathically prepared histamine at 30c inhibits the allergic response in white blood cells.
It is also worth mentioning the work of Luc Montagnier, 2008 Nobel Prize-winner for his discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). He is researching and working with ultra-diluted DNA and has said his work has parallels with homeopathy. In an interview for Science magazine, when asked, “Do you think there’s something to homeopathy?” he replied, “What I can say now is that the high dilutions are right. High dilutions of something are not nothing. They are water structures which mimic the original molecules.” But this work is not easy: Luc Montagnier considered leaving Europe and moving his research to China because of what he called the terror of working in Europe. Scientists are afraid to talk about innovative research that does not fit with conventional ideologies.
This is just a handful of some of the more striking research using simple, easily replicable experiments. One of the issues with research in homeopathy is that each patient receives a different medicine based on his or her individual set of symptoms. There is no one remedy for flu, so it is hard to set up randomised controlled trials for homeopathy in the same way as for conventional drugs.
Why not more research?
So, why don’t homeopaths just pay for more research? Research is extremely expensive; usually only governments and the major pharmaceutical companies can afford to conduct research trials, and typically they run into the millions. The money is then recouped through the licensed drugs developed from successful trials. It is not possible to license homeopathic remedies, because the substances they are made from cannot be patented, so any pharmacy can manufacture them freely and no money is being made that can be put into research.
The homeopathic profession does not have the millions required for research, but the newly formed Homeopathy Research Institute is beginning to attract modest funding and commissioning some research. However, we need much more – homeopaths would welcome that.
The Swiss health authorities conducted a large-scale study in 2011 that was almost completely ignored by the UK media. The report, Homeopathy in Healthcare: Effectiveness, Appropriateness, Safety, Costs, was commissioned to inform decision-making on the further inclusion of homeopathy in the list of services covered by statutory health insurance, and includes the full Health Technology Assessment. It offers a differentiated evaluation of the practice of homeopathy in health care; it confirms homeopathy as a valuable addition to the conventional medical landscape – a status it has been holding for a long time in practical health care.7
By contrast, in the UK we had the biased Parliamentary Scientific and Technology (S&T) Committee Evidence Check 2 report on homeopathy in 2010. This report is often quoted as proving that homeopathy does not work. It is not a scientific peer-reviewed report, and it cannot be viewed as evidence. No homeopaths or patients were asked to give evidence, even though both groups submitted detailed submissions to the committee. Only three out of the fourteen MPs on the S&T Committee actually approved the report, and the very next day over seventy MPs moved an early day motion against it, expressing serious concerns about the manner in which the investigation was conducted, and its conclusions. Neither the government nor the Department of Health has acted on the recommendations of this flawed report. For more information visit www.homeopathyevidencecheck.org. It is interesting to look at the full report and the evidence submitted by the homeopathic organisations.8
Another often-cited report appeared in The Lancet in 2005, with an accompanying editorial titled ‘The End of Homoeopathy’. The report, ‘Are the clinical effects of homoeopathy placebo effects?’, written by Aijing Shang et al., purportedly matches 110 homeopathy trials with 110 allopathic trials. It clearly demonstrates selection bias, since only eight out of the 110 homeopathy trials were selected for final analysis. These statistical differences between the trials selected were not taken into account, and there was also an interpretation bias. The authors ‘cherry picked’ the resulting data in order to present a predetermined outcome. Using all of the 110 homeopathy trials would have given a positive result, as would changing just one report of the selected eight.9
Homeopathy has an incredible track record, but amazingly it is sometimes accused of being dangerous and killing people. However, globally to date there have been only four recorded cases of death associated with homeopathy. By contrast, according to a report in the BMJ, the number of adverse drug reactions from conventional medicines reported in the UK in 2014 alone was 31,550, of which 5% were fatal.
Homeopathy and the NHS
It is also said that homeopathy is a waste of NHS money. But given that we all pay for the NHS via our taxes, when we are ill we should receive the treatment of our choice, the one we know works best for our individual needs. Homeopathy has been available on the NHS since its inception in 1948. In fact, many homeopathic hospitals were gifted over to the NHS at that time, as there was a lack of conventional medical centres. At that time, guarantees were made to protect the hospitals and homeopathy, but these are long forgotten now. The NHS now costs over £100 billion a year to run, with homeopathy costing just £4 million (0.00004%). SSRIs (anti-depressants) cost the NHS £230 million per year, yet they have been proven not to work.
In 2005 a six-year study at the Bristol Homeopathic Hospital (the largest service evaluation of homeopathic treatment) reported that 70% of 6,500 follow-up patients experienced improvement in their health. Eczema, asthma, migraine, irritable bowel syndrome, arthritis, depression and chronic fatigue improved.10
Also in 2005, a report commissioned by Prince Charles and carried out by economist Christopher Smallwood found that a pilot study where patients were treated with complementary and alternative medicines showed a 30% drop in the number of consultations with general practitioners (GPs) and a saving in prescription drugs bills of 50%.
These are meaningful numbers. With 70% being helped and GP time and drug bills savings being reported, why aren’t more studies being done like this in the UK? Two German and French studies have had similar findings. They recorded the outcomes and costs of treatment by German and French GPs and found that those who integrated homeopathy in their practice achieved better results for similar costs than those who did not. In the UK the NHS uses homeopathy to treat over 40,000 patients a year, many of whom present with chronic illness that was previously managed with much more expensive drugs.
We should not be asking why homeopathy is on the NHS. We should be asking why it is not more widely available on the NHS, who are the people campaigning for its removal from the NHS, and what motivates them.
I understand that there are both positive and negative research studies in homeopathy, but it does seem that UK homeopathy has been dealt an unfair hand and that the demand should be for more research, not for the removal of homeopathy.
It is clear that homeopathy is misunderstood; whilst around 80% of people in the UK have heard of it, only 20% have any idea what it actually is. Just as there is no money for homeopathic research, there is also no money for homeopathic advertising; there has never been a TV or billboard advert for homeopathy. Homeopaths generally rely on referrals for work, and yet the number of people using homeopathy is increasing. People refer because they get better, and because homeopathy works.
When I worked in design and people asked what I did, I would proudly say I was a creative director, and they often eagerly asked what I was working on. Now they ask and I cautiously let them know I am a homeopath and wait to see what sort of response I get. Yet in this work I give more back to the community and help many more people in a meaningful way; I feel I help make a difference. I am proud to work in homeopathy, and I look forward to the day when it is better understood.
Mani Norland is the Principal of the School of Homeopathy. His father is the well-known homeopath Misha Norland so Mani grew up with homeopathy all around him, training in 1999 at the school his father established in 1981. Later he attended Jeremy Sherr’s Dynamis post-graduate course and has studied with many leading homeopaths. Mani is a founding member of the Homeopathy Course Providers Forum and a founding member and vice chair of 4Homeopathy (the pro-homeopathy group of 11 organisations in the UK). He is passionate about the positive promotion of homeopathy to the general public. He has written many consumer-facing articles on homeopathy and has been interviewed on BBC radio several times. He has lectured on the subject many times in the UK and many other countries. www.homeopathyschool.com
Many of the references in this article are taken from a new booklet, Homeopathy: Twenty Questions Answered, produced by the School of Homeopathy as part of the effort to disseminate better information about homeopathy and to celebrate the School’s 35th anniversary. www.alternative-training.com/books/homeopathy-20-qa/
- Scientism has been defined as “the view that the characteristic inductive methods of the natural sciences are the only source of genuine factual knowledge and, in particular, that they alone can yield true knowledge about man and society”. Allan Bullock & Stephen Trombley (eds.), The New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought (HarperCollins, 1999), 775.