SPECIAL REPORT: Homeopathy -- Quack Medicine.
By Harry M. Murphy, January 21st, 2008
What is Homeopathy?
Homeopathy is a system of using infinitesimal doses of substances to cure certain diseases, touted as "Natural healing with no side effects." It is quack medicine and has been rightly called "the ultimate fake".
Who started it?
In the late 1700's, Samuel Hahnemann, a German physician, developed homeopathy's basic tenets. This was a time when medical procedures such as purging, leeching, bloodletting, and so forth, not to mention potions such as mercury and copper compounds, often did more harm than good. Believing that sickness arose when the body's "humors" were out of balance, Hahnemann invented a system of medicine called "homeopathy."
What are its basic principles?
Homeopathy is based on two fundamental principles:
The first is the "Law of Similars," which states that symptoms of a disease can be cured by extremely small amounts of substances that produce similar symptoms in healthy people when given in large amounts. This is like saying that if you drink coffee and find that it keeps you from sleeping at night, then taking a dose of extremely diluted coffee must cure your insomnia.
The word "homeopathy" comes from the Greek words, "homios," meaning similar and "pathos," meaning suffering or disease.
The second principle is the "Law of Infinitesimals," which claims that the smaller the dose, the more powerful the effect. This nonsensical idea lies at the heart of homeopathy and violates all common sense; it's like saying that the less sugar you put in your coffee, the sweeter it will taste.
What drugs or other materials are used?
Almost any thing you can imagine. Hahnemann once ingested cinchona bark, the source of quinine used to treat malaria.
He became thirsty, with a throbbing headache and ran a fever -- symptoms common in malaria. He believed that the ability
of cinchona to mimic the symptoms of malaria gave it the power to cure malaria. He and his followers went on to conduct
"provings" in which they administered herbs, minerals and other substances to healthy people and kept detailed records of
what they observed. Working this way, they developed a huge Materia Medica in which some 1200 substances and their
supposed effects are listed. However, the book does not say when or how the “provings” were done nor who reported
the specific findings.
Today, the ingredients in homeopathic medicines are usually given in Latin, perhaps to add a sense of mystery -- and hence power -- to the medicine. For example, "Allium cepa" means "onion" and "Apis" means "crushed bee". Other common ingredients include Deadly nightshade, Wild hops, Aconite, Marigold, Spanish fly, Black snakeroot, Copper, Bushmaster snake venom, Potassium dichromate, Mercury, Salt ("natrum mur"), Poison ivy, Cuttlefish, Stinging nettle and Zinc.
Does it make scientific sense?
In a word, NO!
The "Law of Similars" has no rational basis; it was simply Hahnemann's assumption, based at least in part on his cinchona experience.
And the "Law of Infinitesimals" is nonsense too, leading to extreme dilutions of the so-called "active ingredients".
In homeopathy, dilutions are measured in numbers such as "6X" or "8C" where "6X" means a dilution to one part in a million, "12X" means one part in a million million (That's 1 followed by 12 zeros.) and "8C" means 100 raised to the 8th power or 1 followed by 16 zeros. In fact, at such extreme dilutions there may not be as much as one molecule of the "active ingredient" left, but homeopaths claim that somehow water "remembers" the initial ingredients and that it's the "spirit" of the ingredient that does the work. This isn't science; it's nothing more than old fashioned sympathetic magic!
How do we know if homeopathy works?
Mainstream medicine tests new drugs by what are called "double-blind clinical trials" in which one group of people
get the drug being tested and another group gets an inactive sham drug, such as a sugar pill. Later the response of
both groups is compared to determine the effectiveness of the drug.
In such testing, it is important that the two groups be matched in terms of age, sex, general health, etc. For example, you wouldn't want one group to be high school students and the other group to be senior citizens.
And psychological bias must be avoided, too. For this reason, the people getting the drug or the sugar pill must not know which they are getting. And the those giving the drug or sugar pill must not know, either. And -- most important -- the people evaluating the response of the two groups must not know who got which. Only after the evaluations are complete can one compare the effectiveness of the drug with the response to the sham drug.
It's very important that drugs be tested this way, comparing the drug against a sham drug or placebo. Research has shown that some 30 to 60 percent of people will respond to a placebo, even though it contains no active ingredient. This is called "the placebo effect". A drug for which the response is no better than that of a placebo is worthless.
Homeopathic drugs are rarely subjected to double-blind clinical trials, and those times that they have been tested, the results have been equivocal. Instead of clinical trials, homeopaths rely on anecdotal evidence, such as, "My Aunt Minnie had a bad cold and she took these homeopathic pills and now she's all better." Of course, most illnesses are self-limiting and it's very likely that Minnie would have recovered just as soon without those pills. And the placebo effect may have been working there, too.
Homeopathic medicines, with their active ingredients diluted nearly, or fully, out of existence, are placebos. Homeopathy depends entirely on “the placebo effect”
Is it still being practiced today?
Unfortunately, yes. Here in Albuquerque, homeopathic nostrums are found on the shelves of drug stores, grocery
stores and so-called "health food stores". Undoubtedly it's the same across the country. Here are three examples:
Recently we've seen television commercials for "HeadOn," a homeopathic medicine in stick form. The commercial says, "Apply directly to the forehead." HeadOn comes in three forms, "HeadOn Headache Pain Reliever," "HeadOn Sinus Headache Reliever" and "HeadOn Migraine Pain Reliever". Each sells for $7.49.
All three forms list Potassium dichromate, diluted to one part in a million, as an active ingredient, and White Bryony, a vine of the gourd family, diluted to one part in a million million.
The "Headache Relief" also contains Golden Seal extract diluted to one part in 10 to the 30th power. That's 1 followed by 30 zeros!
The "Migraine Pain Relief" also contains Blue Flag, a variety of iris, diluted to one part in a million million.
In a CBS News report, Dr. Dara Jamieson, director of the Headache Center of New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, is quoted as saying, "The only thing distinctive about this product is its commercial. There's nothing in its ingredients that would treat headaches. The concentration of the ingredients is so minute that you wouldn't think it would treat headaches." Dr. Jamieson went on to say, "If you believe that a headache product works, you may get some benefit from it. ... There's a large placebo response to headache treatment. That's what you may see with this product."
The second example is a "Similasan Cataract Care" homeopathic eye drops claiming that it "Relieves symptoms of diagnosed cataract" and sold in a local "big box" store for $7.83 for a 10 milliliter bottle.(0.34 ounces). A recent advertisement in a magazine for people over 50 says, "This product is indicated for symptomatic relief of cataracts."
The "active ingredients" are: Dusty Miller (Cineraria maritima, a perennial flower with silvery-gray fern-like foliage) diluted to one part in a million, Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum) also diluted to one part in a million and Phosphorus diluted to one part in a million million. The inactive ingredients are listed as a Borate buffer, Sodium nitrate, Silver sulphate and Water. (Poison hemlock is the fatal poison which Socrates was condemned to drink. It's just as well that it's diluted nearly out of existence in this product!) With its "active ingredients" so extremely diluted, “Cataract Care” is nothing more than an expensive placebo. In this case, there is probably more of the inactive ingredients than the “active ingredients”!
The Mayo Clinic web site says: "The only effective treatment for a cataract is surgery to remove the clouded lens, which usually includes replacing the lens with a clear lens implant. ... Cataracts can't be cured with medications, dietary supplements, exercise or optical devices. In the early stages of a cataract when symptoms are mild, a good understanding of the condition and a willingness to adjust your lifestyle can help. Some self-care approaches, such as using a magnifying glass to read or improving the lighting in your home, may help you deal with the effects of having a cataract."
It's sad to think of people wasting their money on this homeopathic product in the vain hope of relieving their cataract symptoms.
The third example is "Oscillococcinum," a homeopathic preparation touted as "Nature's #1 Flu Medicine". This sells locally in a natural vitamin store for $8.49 for 6 doses. The advertisement reads, "Take Oscillococcinum at the first sign of the flu to ease symptoms including fever, chills, body aches, and pain."
Sounds good, but what is it? The “active ingredients” are listed as "Anas Barbariae, Hepatis et Cordis Extractum". What are they?
Here's how Oscillococcinum is prepared: In a liter bottle, pour in a mixture of pancreatic juice and glucose. Next, decapitate a muscovy duck and add 35 grams of its liver and 15 grams of its heart to the mixture. Seal the bottle and allow it to autolyse (disintegrate) for 40 days into a kind of goo. Presumably, at some point distilled water is added to the liter bottle.
The goo is then "potentized" using the Korsakov method.
In the Korsakov method, the bottle is shaken exactly 100 times and then emptied and refilled with water. The dilution factor is assumed to be 1 part in 100. For Oscillococcium this shaking and dilution is repeated 200 times, corresponding to a dilution of "200C" -- or a dilution of 1 part in 100 to the 200th power. That's 1 followed by 400 zeros! Finally a drop of the solution is added to a 0.04 oz. tablet.
Fortunately for people taking oscillococcium, it's almost certain that not so much as a single molecule of duck liver or heart remains in the solution after such an extreme dilution. But homeopaths would claim that the water would somehow remember its "spirit". Of course, there is absolutely no scientific evidence at all for this claim.
If someone believes in it, what harm can it do?
Other than being a waste of money, it may delay seeking competent medical advice. For example, suppose that A unt Minnie's "cold" was actually pneumonia; a few days delay, while she waited for the homeopathic pills to cure her, could have been fatal.
Where can I learn more about homeopathy?
Check out www.quackwatch.org, a site run by Dr. Stephen Barrett, a retired physician. His site contains reviews of many dubious or fraudulent nostrums or treatments, including, in addition to Homeopathy: Acupuncture, Aromatherapy, Ayurvedic Medicine, Chelation Therapy, Chiropractic, Colloidal Silver, Craniosacral Therapy, "Detoxification" Schemes, Hair Analysis, Hyperbaric Medicine, Iridology, Magnet Therapy, Naturopathy, Psychic Practices, Reflexology, Therapeutic Touch, and many more.
(1) Dodes, John E., “The Mysterious Placebo”, Skeptical Inquirer, Jan/Feb 1997, pp 44-45.
(2) Talbot, Margaret, “The Placebo Prescription”, New York Times Magazine, Jan 9, 2000.
(3) Barrett, Stephen, “Homeopathy, The Ultimate Fake”, at www.quackwatch.org
(4) Victorian Skeptics, “Homeopathy”, at www.keypoint.com.au/~skeptics/Homeopathy
(5) Nienhuys, J. W., “The True Story of Oscillococcinum” at www.homeowatch.org/history/oscillo.html/
(6) The Mayo Clinic, www.mayoclinic.com/health/cataracts/DS00050/
SPECIAL REPORT: BERNALILLO COUNTY COMMISSION VOTES INDUSTRIAL REVENUE BONDS FOR HOMEOPATHIC MEDICINE COMPANY.
Analysis by Harry M. Murphy, Nov. 7th, 2003
In an article printed on August 18, 2003, the Albuquerque Journal reported (Ref 1):
Homeopathic pharmaceutical company Heel Inc., a fixture in Albuquerque since 1978, is planning a new 55,000-square-foot manufacturing plant in Sandia Business Park.
The company has applied for industrial revenue bonds through Bernalillo County, said Dan Brown, chief financial officer.
German founder Hans-Heinrich Reckeweg opened the company at 11600 Cochiti SE in October 1978, where it has been ever since. But the manufacturer and distributor, with 70 employees, has outgrown that 33,533-square-foot space on nearly two acres.
Brown said his company is already hiring more help and expects to create 200 jobs over the next 10 years. He is waiting for approval of the bonds before starting construction.
On October 14th, 2003, the Bernalillo County Commission authorized up to $8,000,000 in industrial revenue bonds for Heel, Inc., an Albuquerque company which makes homeopathic "medicines." (Ref 2)
This is an incredibly bad decision by the County Commission, roughly on a par to issuing industrial revenue bonds to a Haitian company making voodoo dolls. It's not clear what -- if anything -- can be done to reverse this action. Taxpayer money will be supporting a maker of worthless homeopathic "medicines" !
Homeopathic medicines depend entirely on the "placebo effect" for their action. Commonly known as "sugar pills," placebos are pills, liquids, ointments, or treatments with no active ingredients, or no scientific basis. Research has shown that between 30 to 60 percent of people respond to placebos. In the case of homeopathic medicines, the "active ingredients" are diluted nearly, or entirely, out of existence; such medicines are placebos, and are basically ineffective. Unlike mainstream medicine, homeopathic medicines are not subject to clinical trials using double-blind protocols to evaluate their safety and effectiveness as compared to placebos. What trials that have been done, show no evidence that homeopathy is more effective than placebos. (Ref 3, 4, 5, 6)
The National Council Against Health Fraud (NCAHF) says (Ref 7):
NCAHF is primarily concerned with homeopathy in the marketplace. It believes that marketing unproven homeopathic products and services precisely fits the definition of quackery. "A quack is anyone who promotes medical schemes or remedies known to be false, or which are unproven, for a profit."
To Basic Scientists: Homeopathy conflicts more with basic laws of physics, chemistry and pharmacology than with clinical medicine. . . . Because homeopathic theories contradict known physical laws, tests of homeopathic remedies require controls beyond those normally required of double-blind clinical trials including additional measures to show that fraud was not possible.
Heel, formerly known as Biological Homeopathic Industries (BHI), has been in Albuquerque since Dr. Hans-Heinrich Reckeweg, a German physician who practiced homeopathy, came here in 1979. Since then, his company has been making homeopathic medicines at its plant on Cochiti Road in southeast Albuquerque. When Reckeweg died in 1985, the company changed its name to Heel, Inc. (Ref 8)
Dr. Stephen Barrett, whose "Quack Watch" internet site contains over 200 reports on dubious and fraudulent medical devices and treatments, says, "In 1984, FDA officials concluded that BHI was one of the three most flagrant violators because they marketed products for very serious disease conditions. Soon afterwards, the agency warned Reckeweg that it was `unaware of any substantial scientific evidence which demonstrates that any of your marketed homeopathic drugs are generally recognized as safe and effective for their intended use' and that `continued marketing of these drugs is a serious violation of the Federal Food and Drug and Cosmetic Act.'" (Ref 9, 10)
Barrett also notes other FDA actions warning BHI to stop claiming effectiveness against "mumps, whooping cough, chronic respiratory diseases, herpes zoster, all viral infections and measles." BHI also illegally claimed remedies effective against "otitis, pleurisy, bronchitis or pneumonia, conjunctivitis and tracheitis." (Ref 11)
In Summary, if Bernalillo County issues industrial revenue bonds to Heel, Inc., not only will taxpayer money be used to construct buildings for manufacturing worthless homeopathic products, but the very fact that these bonds have been issued will imply endorsement of such dubious products by Bernalillo County.
(1) Velasco, Diane, "Heel Inc. Is Planning a New,
Larger Plant," the Albuquerque Journal, August 18, 2003.
On-Line: http://www.abqjournal.com/biz/74248biz08-18-03.htm (subscription required)
(2) McKay, Dan, "Higher Tax Rates a Step Closer," The Albuquerque Journal, October 15, 2003. (See sidebar: "Other action"). On-Line: http://www.abqjournal.com/news/metro/97190metro10-15-03.htm
(3) Dodes, John, "The Mysterious Placebo," Skeptical Inquirer, Jan/Feb 1997, pp 44-45. On-Line: http://www.csicop.org/si/9701/placebo.html
(4) Talbot, Margaret, "The Placebo Prescription," New York Times Magazine, January 9, 2000. On-Line: http://www.nytimes.com/library/magazine/home/20000109mag-talbot7.html
(5) Barrett, Stephen, "Homeopathy: The Ultimate Fake," April 4, 2001, Internet at www.quackwatch.com.
(6) Barrett, Stephen, "Overview of Homeopathic Research," Internet at www.quackwatch.com.
(7) National Council Against Health Fraud, "NCAHF Position Paper on Homeopathy," Internet at www.ncahf.org/pp/homeop.html.
(8) Heel, Inc., "About Heel," Internet at www.heelbhi.com/about.html.
(9) Barrett, Stephen, "Heel-BHI: The World's Most Outrageous Homeopathic Marketer," May 5, 2003, Internet at www.homeowatch.org/reg/BHI/bhi.html.
(10) Michels, D., Regulatory letter to Dr._Hans Heinrich Reckeweg, December 11, 1984.
(11) Health Fraud Actions, October 1993 - September 1994, Rockville, MD: FDA, 1993, p3.
Beware of Medical Quackery
By Harry M. Murphy
People suffering from chronic medical conditions are often desperate and willing to try anything to get relief. They don't care if it's "scientific" or not -- "as long as it works". Sadly, such people often fall prey to medical quacks, whose remedies are both unscientific and worthless.
Most quack products depend on the "placebo" effect. If you believe something will make you feel better, then it's very likely that you WILL feel better. For example, if your hands sometimes feel numb and cold, I might say, "I know how much you're suffering and I have something that I'm sure will help you." Then I give you some small green pills and say, "This is a new discovery -- so new that it hasn't been reported in the medical journals yet; it's a treatment for just your condition. Very powerful. Put one pill under your tongue and lie down until the pill dissolves. Do that twice a day, morning and night, but not more often."
Sounds good, doesn't it? And, if you try it, it's very likely you will feel an improvement in your symptoms -- even though the wonderful green pills are only sugar. They're placebos. Placebos can be drugs with no active ingredients, such as homeopathic "remedies," or they can be "treatments" with no scientific basis, such as "therapeutic touch," "crystal healing" or "magnet therapy". And if you feel better, you're likely to tell others about your experience -- and so the legend begins. Medical quacks depend on such stories.
Researchers estimate that some 30 to 60 percent of people respond to placebos. In fact, in conducting clinical trials to test the effectiveness of new drugs or treatments, it's important that some randomly-selected subjects in the trial be given placebo drugs or treatments, while others are given the actual drug or treatment under study. And, to avoid subtle psychological bias from affecting the results, it's important that both the subjects and the people administering the drug or treatment NOT know whether a subject is getting the real drug or treatment, or a placebo. Such trials are called "double blind" trials and are now the "gold standard" by which new drugs or treatments are evaluated.
Medical quackery abounds, especially in situations where conventional medical treatment doesn't always result in a cure or relief of symptoms; for example, some forms of cancer, arthritis or back pain. Before you spend precious time and money on a new "cure," ask for the facts, including journal articles, documenting the treatment. Don't settle for anecdotes, such as "My aunt used this and it cured her arthritis right away!"
If you have access to the Internet, I strongly recommend that you visit Dr. Stephen Barrett's "Quack Watch" site at www.quackwatch.com. Dr. Barrett's site contains over 200 reports on various dubious and fraudulent medical devices and treatments, including Alternative medicine, Aromatherapy, Ayurvedic medicine, Chelation therapy, Chiropractic, Colloidal silver, Detoxification schemes, Faith healing, Holistic dentistry and the Mercury-amalgam scam, Hair Analysis, Herbal medicine, Homeopathy, Magnet therapy, Naturopathy, Organic foods, Power lines and cancer, Qigong, Reflexology, and so forth.
In medical matters, a healthy skepticism is your best asset. A good motto is, "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn't true."
(1) Barrett, S., "Health frauds and quackery," FDA Consumer, 11:12-17.
(2) Barrett, S., & Herbert, M.D., "Twenty-Five Ways to Spot Quacks and Vitamin Pushers," on the Web at www.quackwatch.com.
(3) Dodes, John E., "The Mysterious Placebo," Skeptical Inquirer, Jan/Feb, 1997, pp 44-45.
(4) Ramey, David W., DVM, "Magnetic and Electromagnetic Therapy," The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, Spring 1998. (Also on the Web at: www.hcrc.org/contrib/ramey/magnet.html )
(5) Talbot, Margaret, "The Placebo Prescription," New York Times Magazine, Jan 9, 2000.
(6) Vedantum, Shankar, "Against Depression, a Sugar Pill Is Hard to Beat / Placebos Improve Mood, Change Brain Chemistry in Majority of Trials of Antidepressants," The Washington Post, May 7, 2002, p A1.
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