Definition and History

Homeopathy is a system for prescribing medicinal substances according to the "law of similars." This law states that the appropriate medicine for a sick individual is a substance that would create a similar set of symptoms if administered to a healthy person. In other words, substances that could produce symptoms when given to a healthy person can, with proper preparation, be used to treat sick people with those same symptoms. The word homeopathy is derived from the Greek root homoios which means "similar or like treatment" and the word pathos which means "of disease." Thus, the word together means "like treatment of disease.” The roots of the law of similars are ancient, having been described in the treatises of Hippocrates in Greece and by the Ayurvedic physicians in ancient India. Paracelsus, a fifteenth century European physician, referred to the principle underlying the law of similars in his discussion of the Doctrine of Signatures. He stated, "You bring together the same anatomy of the herbs and the same anatomy of the illness into one order. This simile gives you understanding of the way in which you shall heal."1 Practiced throughout the world for almost 200 years, homeopathy was rediscovered in the early 1800’s by the great German physician, Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843). Today homeopathy is widely practiced in North America, India, Mexico, South America, Germany, France, Great Britain, Russia, and other European countries. Homeopathy was first introduced in the United States in 1825, and the American Institute of Homeopathy, the first national medical association, was founded in 1844. (The second major medical association was the American Medical Association, which was founded in 1847.) In the late 1800s and early 1900s, many homeopathic hospitals and twenty-two homeopathic medical schools existed in this country, including the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and four medical schools in Chicago. Presently, there are no homeopathic medical schools in the United States. Most physicians learn homeopathy by apprenticing with a homeopath or studying with teaching organizations such as the National Center for Homeopathy summer program or the International Foundation for Homeopathy. Generally, doctors finish their traditional residencies before specializing in homeopathy. There are many homeopathic medical schools in the world including those in India and Mexico, and in France homeopathy is taught in several medical and pharmacy schools such as those in Bordeaux, Marseilles, Paris-Nord, and Lyon. Almost all pharmacies in France carry homeopathic remedies and thirty to forty percent of the French population use homeopathy. In the United States, an increasing number of pharmacies now carry remedies.

Law of Similars

Samuel Hahnemann, a practicing physician, became disillusioned by the dangers of existing therapies, such as the use of toxic doses of mercury for many ailments and the practices of bloodletting and blood leeching. He turned to studying the pharmacology and healing principles of ancient and indigenous medical systems. In his studies, Hahnemann became interested in the curative effect that quinine had in the treatment of malaria. He experimented with quinine by ingesting small amounts over a period of time and eventually developed many of the symptoms of malaria. His conclusion was that quinine could cure malaria because it could create the typical symptoms of this particular disease when given to a healthy person. Thus, Hahnemann rediscovered the law of similars. In light of this discovery, Hahnemann began a systematic study of many commonly known medicinal substances. He administered very small amounts of these substances to himself and other healthy volunteers over an extended period of time and carefully noted the symptoms that developed. This process of verifying the medicinal properties of these various substances is called "proving the medicine" and is derived from the German word prüfung meaning test. Through this work, a vast amount of knowledge was collected regarding the symptoms that these medicinal substances could produce in healthy people. According to the law of similars, one of these medicines could thus be administered and result in a curative effect in a sick person with a similar set of symptoms. Conventional allopathic medicine, which uses drugs to treat sick people and is the dominant system practiced in the United States, also has treatments based on the law of similars. Immunizations use very small amounts of viruses, bacteria, or toxins to stimulate an individual’s immune system. This produces antibodies which then protect the person from the same infection normally caused by the injected substance. Another standard practice in modern drug therapy that follows the homeopathic principle of similars is allergy treatment. Giving a person very small amounts of an allergen (dust, pollen, dander, etc.) to which they are allergic often helps to desensitize that individual to that same substance. When they come in future contact with the allergen, their allergic reaction to it may then be lessened or eliminated.

Law of Proving

The law of proving is the systematic verification of the law of similars. During the proving of a substance, healthy people take a remedy over a certain period of time and report any symptoms or sensations that represent a change from their normal state of health. When the symptoms are found to be common to a specified proportion of experimenters, they are considered the "proving" of that remedy. Hahnemann stated, "There is . . . no other possible way in which the peculiar effects of medicines on the health of individuals can be accurately ascertained - there is no sure, no more natural way of accomplishing this object, than to administer the . . . medicine experimentally, in moderate doses, to healthy persons, in order to ascertain which changes, symptoms, and signs of their influence each individually produces on the health of the body and of the mind."2 Approximately 1,500 different remedies have been proven over the years. Plants, minerals, and extracts from animals, such as snake or bee venom, are among the many agents used in the preparation of homeopathic remedies. Proving a remedy involves the observation of the unique mental, emotional, and physical symptoms peculiar to each medicinal substance. Food cravings and aversions, mood fluctuations, memory and concentration, sleep quality, and sensitivity to external stimuli such as weather - are all carefully recorded, along with the areas of bodily discomfort and any factors that either increase or decrease the discomfort. In the proving of a remedy, mental and emotional symptoms are often reflected in physical signs and symptoms. For example, the remedy Sulphur is associated with a personality that tends to be easily angered, argues about philosophical matters, and is quite irritable and disorganized. Physical symptoms correspond with those of the mental sphere; hence the person's emotional volatility is shown in a red, flushed, "hot" appearance, profuse sweat, and skin eruptions. He or she is often haggard looking, disheveled, and dirty, qualities that correspond to mental disorganization. The specific mind and body symptoms that each medicine is capable of producing during the proving have been collected and compiled in books called Materia Medica. Other books called repertories, which are compendiums of symptoms, listing the substances that cause each physical and psychological symptom in the provings, complement these books. This detailed knowledge of the symptoms caused by each medicinal substance provides for a high degree of specificity in prescribing for each individual. The importance of sharp selectivity in prescribing medicinal substances has been emphasized by the Nobel Prize winning microbiologist René Dubois: "It is obvious that the sharper the selectivity of a biologically active substance, the greater the probability that it will be innocuous for cells and functions other than the one for which it has been designed. In other words, a substance is more likely to be therapeutically useful if it acts almost uniquely against a structure or an activity peculiar to the organism or function to be affected.”3 Two children who suffer with middle ear infection (otitis media) might provide an example of specificity in homeopathic prescribing. One child may appear extremely irritable and oversensitive and may be sweaty, thirsty, and susceptible to drafts, wishing to be well covered with blankets. The pain in the ear may be worse with cold applications and better from warmth. Homeopathically prepared Hepar sulph (calcium sulphide) produces these symptoms in a healthy person and would act curatively in this particular case. The other child may display a mild and weepy disposition, wanting to be held and comforted. Lack of perspiration, thirstlessness, and wanting to be uncovered and outside in the open air may be apparent. The ear pain may improve with cold packs and become worse from the application of heat. Pulsatilla (windflower) would be needed to cure this child and Hepar sulph would probably not help at all. The reaction of the vitality as expressed through perspiration pattern, thirst, and reaction to weather and temperature are totally opposite in these two children. The selection of the remedy, which is most similar to the symptoms, will lead to a rapid and lasting cure of the illness.

Law of Potentization

When Hahnemann first began treating people according to the law of similars, many of the medicines he used were potentially toxic substances such as mercury and arsenic. To prevent toxic reaction to these substances, they were sequentially diluted before being administered. Though toxicity was reduced by dilution, there was also a decrease in therapeutic effect. As a result of his extensive knowledge of ancient medicinal systems and practices, Hahnemann was aware of a method of increasing the activity of a medicinal solution by vigorously shaking it in its container, so he methodically shook his medicines after each dilution. He found that as the toxic properties were steadily reduced with each dilution, the therapeutic efficacy increased with the shaking - a seemingly paradoxical effect. It is this method of increasing therapeutic effect with each sequential dilution by shaking which is known as potentization. The resulting product of potentization is referred to as a micro dilution or potency. The potency of small amounts of medicinal substances is not novel, as is demonstrated in the case of thyroid hormone; free thyroid hormone in the human is one part per 10,000 million parts of blood plasma. Potentization also provides a means for releasing medicinal qualities from supposedly inert substances such as common table salt (Naturm Mur). In the actual preparation of the potentized medicine, one part of the medicine is either diluted with ninety-nine parts of alcohol and water solution or ground with ninety-nine parts of milk sugar (lactose). This mixture undergoes vigorous shaking (succussion) or grinding (trituration) to produce what is called a 1c potency. One part of this mixture is added to another ninety-nine parts of alcohol and water solution or lactose, and the shaking or grinding is repeated, resulting in a 2c potency. Potencies may range from 1c to 500,000c. If the dilutions are one part remedy to nine parts of either alcohol and water or lactose, then this is called an "x" (decimal) potency rather than a "c" (centesimal) potency. Potentization is controversial because, according to the laws of chemistry, by the time the 12c or 24x potency is reached, there are few if any molecules of the substance left in the solution. However, potencies such as 200x, 200c, or 1000c are effective over a longer period of time, and thus require fewer doses than the 3x, 6x, or 6c preparations. Homeopaths speculate that the process of potentization liberates the energetic essence of the substance and that the solvent (alcohol and water solution or lactose) acts as a template or vehicle in which the energy of the medicine is imprinted and preserved. This concept of a template can be better understood in light of the effects that pressure has on ice crystallization of freezing water. The late Harvard Physics Department Chairman, P. W. Bridgman, reported different crystallization patterns for water freezing at higher altitudes than for water freezing at lower altitudes. When the ice from the higher altitude was melted and refrozen at lower altitudes, the crystallization pattern of the higher altitude was maintained.4 The effect of pressure on crystallization was demonstrable and indelible. Perhaps the homeopathic remedy exerts a similar effect on its solute. Critics of homeopathy suggest that homeopathic medicines could only exert a placebo effect because the high dilutions do not contain measurable amounts of the medicinal substance. However, provings of homeopathic medicines using dilutions greater than 12c or 24x are a strong argument against this. It is unlikely that many different people would experience the same set of symptoms from a given medicine if the medicine were simply a placebo.