Homeopathy Put Into Perspective
Last week, I was discussing various forms of alternative medicine with some colleagues over lunch, and figured that I should write a blog post about a popular branch of alternative medicine that’s been getting lots of attention in the media: homeopathy.
First, let’s start with a brief introduction: alternative medicine is a practice that is described as having similar effects to medicine, but does not follow the scientific method, makes claims that can’t be tested or reproduced, lacks research to back up the claims it makes, or is contradicted by findings already made in science. Alternative medicine includes practices such as naturopathy, homeopathy, and crystal healing.
Due to the lack of evidence behind alternative medicine, and the continuously mounting evidence for its non-effectiveness, it is denounced by the medical community. Many forms of alternative medicine have been tested for effectiveness, and have been shown to be no more useful than placebos.
For this post, I’m going to focus on homeopathy. Other alternative medical branches are better left for another blog post.
Homeopathy (which, in Greek, translates to ‘same suffering’) is centered on the belief of ‘like cures like’, meaning that a substance that makes a healthy person ill will be able to cure someone who is suffering from the same disease. An example of this is: using a cat’s hair to cure a cat allergy.
In order to cure someone, homeopathy states that the substance must be highly diluted in water before taking it. Their reason for this is centered around the idea that water is able to retain the memory of substances it’s previously been in contact with, and therefore is able to still carry out the actions of the medicine that’s been diluted into it.
Based on the previous paragraph, you might ask: “If water has memory, why doesn’t it retain the properties of all the other stuff it’s come into contact with, such as minerals, bacteria, and likely human waste?” The solution is simple: the idea of water memory is nonsense. It hasn’t been proven in science at all, and if it did exist, we would have discovered it long ago.
Homeopaths also believe that dilution increases potency, because increasing dilution will increase the amount of memory that the water has. This is also completely contrary to science: dilution doesn’t increase potency. It decreases it because you have less of the original substance which is successive dilution.
Now, at first guess, you’d probably say that ‘highly diluted’ would be 1 part of substance in 100 parts of water, or maybe even 1 part of substance in 1000 parts of water, right? Nuh-uh. We’re going much, much, more diluted than that.
Homeopathic remedies are typically diluted so excessively that NO molecules of the original substance are present in the actual remedy. Essentially, this means that if you purchase a homeopathic remedy from the drugstore, you will be buying nothing but pills of lactic acid and water, which makes it no different from placebos used in drug trials. I encourage you to watch CBC’s Marketplace special on homeopathy, where they demonstrate that even the most sophisticated analytical instruments can’t detect any medicine in a homeopathic pill. What they did detect in the pills, though, was sugar.
These remedies can range in dilutions from 1 molecule of substance in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules of water, and can even go up to a 1/10^400 dilution, which is one molecule of substance for every 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
000,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules of water. That’s what I call dilute.
It’s tough to get an appreciation for how large of a number this is unless it’s made a little easier, so I did some number crunching to give this analogy.
1/10^400 is equivalent to taking one grain of rice, crushing to a powder and dissolving it in a sphere of water the size of the Solar System, with the Sun at the center and the orbit of Pluto at the outside (giving this sphere a radius of 3.67 billion miles), and then repeating that process 8 more times in a series. Now, if that isn’t dilute, I don’t know what is.
Alternatively, you could take a mixture containing every single atom in the observable Universe, dissolve one molecule of medicine in it, and then repeat that dilution four more times in a series.
Hilarity aside, the Australian National Health and and Medical Research Council conducted a meta-analysis of studies on homeopathy. They looked at 1,800 papers about homeopathy’s effectiveness and found no evidence that it is effective. Again, this makes sense. The claims made by homeopathy don’t stand up in science at all, and go against decades of research and, often, common sense.
Should these pills be sold as medicine? Absolutely not. There’s nothing in them. However, homeopathic remedies are sold in pharmacies across the world. In the United States, Americans have spent 3 billion dollars on homeopathic remedies. This is a scary fact.
An even scarier fact is that some homeopaths are selling homeopathic vaccines as an alternative to conventional vaccines for polio, whooping cough, and measles, among other vaccines. For a homeopath to sell a pill with nothing in it, and claim that it has the ability to protect you from a serious disease, is very problematic. It may end up tricking parents into giving their child something described by their homeopath to be just as effective as a conventional vaccine, but in reality has no protective effect at all.
When all of this is put into perspective, it is very scary. I’m giving the facts on this whole scenario to make sure that people understand what homeopathy is all about, and so they don’t get scammed. It is something that has no business being available in a pharmacy.