Homeopathy 101
by Mary Cole Marquis, R.Ph. & Amy Lemley

Tapping into the body's inherent ability to heal.

HomeopathyCan the right clue jog the body's memory of how to fight illness? Homeopaths say yes, and the latest scientific research is beginning to support them. Since 18th-century German physician Samuel Hahnemann proposed the "law of similars," homeopathic remedies have gained devotees on both sides of the stethoscope.

Although homeopathy and herbal medicine are both labeled "alternative" care strategies and are therefore often grouped together, they differ sharply. Homeopathic remedies are not based solely on natural, plant-based ingredients. They are based on organic and nonorganic, even metal and synthetic, ingredients. Furthermore, homeopathic medicine is based on the premise that like cures like. Most herbal medicine, however, follows Western tradition by treating the symptoms caused by illness.

It's an Energy Thing
When illness strikes, symptoms such as nausea, swelling and fever are the body's defense mechanisms. Allopathic, or traditional, medicine works by suppressing these symptoms until the underlying illness subsides. Homeopathy, on the other hand, prompts the body to fight that illness. But how? The answer to this question continues to be somewhat nebulous, challenging our scientific capabilities and understanding. Here's why:

Homeopathy employs infinitesimal amounts of an ingredient that, in larger doses, would actually cause the symptoms of the condition being treated (Journal of the American Pharmacology Association, 1996, vol. 36). For example, a homeopathic physician might prescribe Coffea cruda (caffeine), a stimulant, for a person suffering anxiety and who needs calming; for someone with nausea, the treatment might be Nux vomica (poison nut).

But here's the catch: The active ingredient in a homeopathic remedy ? for example, the toxic poison nut ? is diluted so greatly it is all but undetectable using current scientific methods (Formulary, 1997, vol. 32). It is the active ingredient's imprint ? a kind of hologramic "essence" or energy left in the mixture ? that is believed to signal the body to battle illness (A Guide to Homeopathic Medicine for Pharmacists, Murdock Healthcare, 1993).

Most members of the scientific community would argue that such extreme dilutions leave too few molecules ? if any ? of the active ingredient to be effective, regardless of energy transfer. Consequently, some link homeopathy's effectiveness to the placebo effect. However, homeopathic remedies are not just diluted tinctures; they are potenized tinctures created through a process called potenization, which involves vigorous shaking that apparently causes the imprint or energy transfer into the water/alcohol solution.

The Creation Process
All homeopathic remedies are manufactured by diluting, in alcohol, the causative agent ? the substance that causes symptoms like the ones being treated. The original solution, called a mother tincture, is diluted 5 to 30 times. The final concentration of the homeopathic substance may be one part per million or less, with the more diluted solutions considered the most potent (Boiron Reference Guide, 1992, vol. 23).

With each dilution, the mixture is rigorously shaken, causing or contributing to the energy transfer or imprint of the active ingredient. This process, an integral component of homeopathy, distinguishes a potenized tincture from a diluted one.

Homeopaths distinguish between two dilution methods: Hahnemannian, in which a new container is used for each dilution; and Korsakovian, in which the same container is used for all dilutions. The resulting concentrations differ, so selecting a manufacturer that labels its dilution method is helpful. Hahnemannian concentrations are listed as 3X, 6X, 3C, 6C, etc. Korsakovian concentrations are specified with 3CK, 6CK, etc. (Boiron Reference Guide, 1992, vol. 23). The X signifies one part per 10, the C means one part per 100 and the K stands for Korsakovian. The greater the dilution, the higher the potenization, the stronger the remedy. Whatever the method or potency, the dilution is then blended into a delivery system for either local or systemic application.

What to Look For
Homeopaths go through rigorous training to learn the subtleties involved in their profession. Each homeopathic remedy is tailored to an individual's specific needs, addressing the patient's mental, emotional and physical states.

However, homeopathic preparations to treat a variety of conditions are available over the counter. These remedies, which have a decidedly allopathic bent ? targeting specific symptoms rather than whole-self healing ? reportedly have clinical benefits for many health problems. These include respiratory conditions such as allergies, asthma, bronchitis and cough; the skin conditions dermatitis and eczema; pain and swelling from sports injuries and arthritis; teething discomfort; digestive disorders and morning sickness; sore throat, earaches and influenza; emotional conditions such as anxiety and depression; chronic fatigue syndrome; and menopause (Formulary, 1997, vol. 32).

If you're buying remedies from a retailer rather than a homeopath, note that there are several different delivery systems available (Drug Topics, 1994, vol. 11).

Tablets or pellets are the most common and preferred homeopathic dosage form. Taken orally, they are generally placed under the tongue where they are quickly absorbed into the system, bypassing the digestive tract. Sublinguals are easy to take and quite portable. They store well and take up less shelf space than bottled liquids or other dosage forms. Some tablets may be swallowed, but this lengthens the activation time. Pellets ? tiny, sweet-tasting globules often sold in small vials ? contain 85 percent sucrose and 15 percent lactose and are coated with the remedy. Tablets are lactose-based and, unlike pellets, do not always contain sugar, so their unpleasant flavor may mean choosing a different delivery system, particularly for children.

Tinctures and Syrups/Elixirs
Tinctures usually have an alcohol or glycerin base that preserves the active ingredients and mediates transport across mucous membranes. As with tablets, the flavor can be unpleasant. Syrups/elixirs are water- or sucrose-based liquids to which medication has been added; some also may be flavored.

These liquids are taken orally and are slightly absorbed by the mucous membranes in the mouth. Most, however, are rapidly broken down by liver enzymes in the digestive system. Because this process may break down the essential ingredients, more medicine is sometimes required, and these remedies may not take effect as quickly as sublinguals or suppositories. Although liquids are a good alternative for lactose-intolerant patients, alcohol-based tinctures are unsuitable for those who wish to avoid alcohol.

Suppositories are appropriate for both local use and systemic treatment. Inserted into body cavities, they bypass the hepatic enzymes of the digestive system. Ideal for patients who are nauseous, they don't irritate gastric mucosa. Suppositories are especially useful for small children and patients unable to swallow. They can be hard to maintain in the body cavity, however, and absorption does vary.

Ointments, creams, lotions and liniments utilize the skin as a delivery organ. Both ointments and creams are used homeopathically to achieve systemic effects, but they are more commonly used to achieve topical relief. There are four kinds of topicals:

  • Ointment ? A fatty-type vehicle that is the most occlusive.
  • Cream ? An oil-and-water mixture with an emollient effect, it spreads evenly and rarely causes irritation.
  • Lotion ? Boasts a protective effect similar to cream, but it's thinner and dries more quickly, which makes it appropriate for areas with a lot of body hair.
  • Liniment ? Commonly referred to as a rub, a liniment combines alcohol or an alcohol-water vehicle in an oily base. Because it increases blood flow to the affected area, it's a preferred choice in healing massage. This topical is not recommended for bruised or bleeding areas of the skin, however.

Nasal sprays
Homeopathic remedies such as Euphorbium compositum are mainly used locally for the treatment of sinus conditions. Homeopathic nasal spray does not carry the same risk for overdose or addiction as allopathic nasal spray, such as oxymetalozine hydrochloride, which can cause rebound congestion after several days.

The Best Remedies
While homeopathy continues to evade Western logic, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies support it. Until scientific research catches up with homeopathic experience and can give us the "why," the belief in an energy immeasurable by current standards will be left to continued studies ? and perhaps a modicum of faith.

Mary Cole Marquis, R.Ph., is a practicing pharmacist and herbalist. Amy Lemley is a freelance health and psychology writer. Both authors live in Charlottesville, Va.

Photography by: Jeff Padrick