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Homeopathy

By Steven Novella, MD, Assistant Professor of Neurology, Yale University School of Medicine

Homeopathy, which was developed in Germany in the late 1700s, is based on the principle that like cures like (thus the name homeo [Greek for “like”] and patho [Greek for “disease”]). In other words, a substance that in large doses causes illness is believed to cure the same illness if given in minute doses. The minute dose is thought to stimulate the body’s healing mechanisms.

Homeopathy aims to restore the flow of the body's innate life force. Treatments are based on a person’s unique characteristics, including personality and lifestyle as well as symptoms and general health.

The remedies used in homeopathy are derived from naturally occurring substances, such as plant and animal extracts and minerals. These substances are thought to stimulate the body’s innate capacity to heal. Remedies are prepared by diluting these substances over and over and rapidly shaking the resulting solution. The more dilute the homeopathic remedy, the more potent it is considered to be. Many homeopathic remedies are diluted so much that none of the original substance is present. However, some homeopathic remedies contain other ingredients that can affect the body.

No scientific explanation for how ultradiluted remedies used in homeopathy might cure illness has been proved. Nor is there any physical or chemical basis for the homeopathic principle that "like cures like."

Did You Know...

  • Some homeopathic remedies contain none of the active ingredient.

In the United States, homeopathic remedies are classified by the Food and Drug Administration as over-the-counter or prescription drugs, but the FDA exempts these remedies from several requirements that other drugs must meet. For example, the identity and strength of each active ingredient do not have to be tested by a laboratory before the remedy is sold. Also, manufacturers of homeopathic products are not required to provide evidence that the products are effective. Homeopathic remedies may contain alcohol, which is often used to dilute drugs. There are currently no limits on the amount of alcohol that these remedies can contain.

The label is required to have the following:

  • The word “homeopathic”

  • The manufacturer’s name

  • Mention of at least one way the drug can be used

  • Instructions for safe use

  • The active ingredient and amount of dilution (unless specifically exempted)

Some homeopathic drugs are available by prescription only.

Medicinal claims

Homeopathy has been used to treat various disorders, such as allergies, rhinitis, digestive problems, musculoskeletal pain, and vertigo. Homeopathic remedies for many of these disorders have been extensively studied. However, homeopathy has not been established as effective treatment for any specific disorder.

Possible side effects

Most people tolerate homeopathic remedies well, and taking these remedies has few risks. However, side effects, such as allergic reactions and toxic reactions, can occur. The greatest risk of harm occurs when a homeopathic remedy, rather than a proven conventional treatment, is used to treat a serious disorder.

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