What Is Homeopathy?

Homeopathy is a medical system based on the belief that the body can cure itself. Those who practice it use tiny amounts of natural substances, like plants and minerals. They believe these stimulate the healing process.

It was developed in the late 1700s in Germany. It’s common in many European countries, but it’s not quite as popular in the United States.

How Does It Work?

A basic belief behind homeopathy is “like cures like.” In other words, something that brings on symptoms in a healthy person can -- in a very small dose -- treat an illness with similar symptoms. This is meant to trigger the body’s natural defenses.

For example, red onion makes your eyes water. That’s why it’s used in homeopathic remedies for allergies. Treatments for other ailments are made from poison ivy, white arsenic, crushed whole bees, and an herb called arnica.

Homeopathic doctors (who also are called “homeopaths”) weaken these ingredients by adding water or alcohol. Then they shake the mixture as part of a process called “potentization.” They believe this step transfers the healing essence. Homeopaths also believe that the lower the dose, the more powerful the medicine. In fact, many of these remedies no longer contain any molecules of the original substance. They come in a variety of forms, like sugar pellets, liquid drops, creams, gels, and tablets.

During your appointment, a homeopath will ask a number of questions about your mental, emotional, and physical health. He’ll prescribe the remedy that best matches all of your symptoms. Then he’ll tailor the treatment for you.

You can also buy over-the-counter homeopathic remedies at drugstores and health food stores. The dosage and quality of these products depend on the manufacturer.

What Conditions Does Homeopathy Treat?

It’s used for a wide variety of health issues, including some chronic illnesses:

It can also be used for minor issues like bruises, scrapes, toothaches, headaches, nausea, coughs, and colds.

Don’t use homeopathic medicine for life-threatening illnesses, like asthma, cancer, and heart disease, or in emergencies. You should also avoid using it in place of vaccines. Some homeopathic products called “nosodes” are marketed as an alternative for vaccines, but there’s no research to prove they’re effective.

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Does It Work?

Research is mixed. Some studies show that homeopathic remedies are helpful, while others don’t. Critics chalk up the benefits to the placebo effect. That’s when symptoms improve because you believe the treatment is working -- not because it really is. This can trigger the brain to release chemicals that briefly relieve the pain or other symptoms.

Doctors are divided because some of the theories behind homeopathy don’t line up with the principles of chemistry and physics. Scientists argue that a medicine with no active ingredient shouldn’t have an effect on the body.

What Are the Risks?

The FDA oversees homeopathic remedies. But it doesn’t check to see if they’re safe or effective. In general, most are so watered down that they don’t cause any side effects. But there are exceptions. Homeopathic medicines can contain a large amount of an active ingredient, like a heavy metal, that can be dangerous.

Case in point: In 2016, the FDA issued a warning against using homeopathic teething tablets and gels because of possible health risks to infants and children.

If you’re thinking about trying these alternative treatments, talk to your doctor. He can make sure they’re safe and won’t interact with any other medications you’re taking.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by David Kiefer, MD on November 01, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Homeopathy.”

American Institute of Homeopathy: “What Is Homeopathy?”

British Homeopathic Association: “Helping People.”

FDA: “Over-the-Counter Asthma Products Labeled as Homeopathic.”

American Cancer Society: “Placebo Effect.”

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