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Biology 103
2002 Second Paper
On Serendip

How Does Homeopathy Work?


The litany of side-effects warned against for even the most mundane of mainstream medications often seems enough to drive one to explore alternatives. Homeopathy is one such alternative. First systemized in the late 1700's by Samuel Hahnemann, M.D.(1), homeopathy is a form of medicine based on stimulating the body's own immune responses, while minimizing the risk of exacting any harm in the process (2).

Although homeopathy is now often regarded as something of a "fringe" form of medicine in the United States, this was not always historically so (3). In fact, in 1900, homeopathic physicians made up 15% of all physicians (3). However, homeopathy has since been subjected to attempts by the American Medical Associations and other practitioners of conventional medicine to marginalize its practice - due largely to concerns over the criticism of mainstream pharmaceuticals inherent in homeopathy and the economic threat which homeopathy was seen to pose to conventional medicine (4). Its popularity is nonetheless growing domestically (3). And, abroad, homeopathic medicines are quite popular and widely-accepted: 39% of French physicians have prescribed them (and 40% of the French public has used them), 42% of British physicians refer patients to homeopaths, and 45% of Dutch physicians considered them to be effective (3).

Specifics on the Workings of Homeopathy
The Law of Similars
Also known as "like cures like," the Law of Similars is a central tenet of homeopathic medicine (5). This law refers essentially to the premise that a substance which in overdose will cause certain symptoms can, in small and appropriate doses, stimulate the body's immune system to help cure the disease marked by these symptoms (2). It is also worth noting that this particular aspect of homeopathic theory (though not some other aspects of it) is made use of in conventional medicine as well (2). Vaccinations, allergy medications containing small doses of allergens, and radiation as cancer treatment (given that radiation in large doses can cause cancer) are all examples of such instances (2). It remains somewhat unclear why this type of "like cures like" is effective (although there is much evidence that suggests that it is so) (6). One study found specifically that a homeopathic remedy known as Silicea stimulated parts of the immune system known as microphages (which fulfill the role of swallowing up foreign substances) (6).

Symptoms as Manifestations of the Body's Attempts to Heal Itself
Another important idea in homeopathy is the recognition that symptoms, biologically speaking, symptoms of a disease are not the disease but rather manifestations of the body's attempt to heal itself (2). Thus, suppressing symptoms may not be the most effective means of treating an illness (the recent realization that suppressing fever may not always the best course of action is one example of this premise) (2). Homeopathy, instead, attempts to work with the body's natural immune system rather than to suppress it (6).

Homeopathic medicine also places a high value on the importance of individualization of treatment (2). Although some ailments may have similar general symptoms, often specifics of these conditions differ and may result from different causes (2). So, it is important to recognize this and treat illnesses in as individualized a fashion as possible. In fact, homeopaths may often inquire into personality traits or seemingly less related common complaints of patients in order to get a overall sense of the workings of the patient's body, all of which is, after all, inter-connected and inter-dependent (2).

Homeopathic Medicine and Its Relationship to Conventional Medicine
A number of clinical studies have provided evidence to support claims of the effectiveness of homeopathy (several such studies are discussed in an excerpt from Consumer's Guide to Homeopathy, see note (7)). They also offer the substantial benefit over conventional medicine of being extremely safe (8). However, although most homeopaths object to certain facets of conventional medicine (such as its tendency to often work simply to eradicate disease symptoms rather than focusing on the underlying disease) most will acknowledge that there are instances in which other methods should be used (8). For example, some ailments may be best treated through changes in lifestyle choices, others may require surgery (something which homeopathic remedies may help to prevent in some cases, but not all) (8).

Homeopathy Today
With its rich history, homeopathy remains immensely relevant and useful today, even providing medicines effective in treating post-traumatic stress disorder in this time of terrorist threats (9). And, over the past ten years, there has been a 25-50% annual increase in the domestic sale of homeopathic medicine (3).

The relationship between homeopathic medicine and the conventional medical community also raises interesting questions about science. If science involves endeavoring to be "less wrong" so to speak, might there be an added responsibility with specific respect to the field of medicine to minimize the risk of adverse effects when one is wrong - to, as homeopathy does, attempt to first not do harm?.


1)Homeopathy Timeline, from the Whole Health Now website

2)A Modern Understanding of Homeopathic Medicine, from the Homeopathic Educational Services website

3)Ten Most Frequently Asked Questions on Homeopathic Medicine, an article by Dana Ullman, M.P.H., from the Homeopathic Educational Services website

4)A Condensed History of Homeopathy, from the Homeopathic Educational Services website

5)What is Homeopathy?, from the National Center for Homeopathy website

6)Homeopathic Medicine and the Immune System, from the Homeopathic Educational Services website

7)Scientific Evidence for Homeopathic Medicine, an excerpt from Consumer's Guide to Homeopathy, on the website

8)The Limitations and Risks of Homeopathic Medicine, from the Homeopathic Educational Services website

9)Homeopathy Responding to Crisis, from the website of the National Center for Homeopathy

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