Does homeopathic medicine really cure diseases

Homeopathy: cure or humbug?

Homeopathy is arguably the most controversial, but also the most popular form of alternative medicine. While some dismiss it as a pseudoscience, others have no doubts about its effectiveness. But one thing is certain: it is huge business.

Globules - millions of people swear by homeopathic sugar globules. 50% of Austrians aged 15 and over use homeopathic remedies at least once a year, in Germany it is around 60%. However, the form of therapy is highly controversial and divides the medical profession and patients. While their opponents attack them as humbug, their advocates defend them as utterly effective. So what is it about homeopathy? Does it work or not? And what can modern medicine learn from it?

Heal the like with the like

The German doctor Samuel Hahnemann developed homeopathy at the beginning of the 19th century. With his healing art he turned against the medicine of his time: He wanted to heal something similar with something similar. This is also the first basic principle of homeopathy. Homeopathic remedies use active ingredients that produce the exact symptoms that are to be cured. The deadly nightshade, for example, causes fever and is therefore used against fever.

The "20 million duck"

The second basic principle is a special type of preparation - the so-called Exponentiation. Hahnemann was convinced that by diluting substances, their healing powers are strengthened. It works like this: The active ingredients are dissolved in alcohol or distilled water. Then part of this solution is diluted to a tenth of the initial concentration and shaken. The result is a decimal power, or D1 power for short. This step is repeated. Mix another part of the mixture with nine parts of water and shake. This results in a D2 power.

In short: the stronger the dilution, the higher the potency. A D20 potency, for example, is as diluted as an aspirin tablet in the whole of the Atlantic Ocean.

But there are much more extreme examples. One of the best-selling homeopathic remedies is Oscillococcinum 200C, which is also called the "20 million duck". It is a homeopathic cold remedy. With 400 zeros, its power number is much larger than the estimated number of molecules in the entire universe. For its production, the manufacturer only has to buy one barbarian duck per year. Annual sales: $ 20 million. Strictly speaking, it doesn't even need a whole animal, just the liver and heart tissue.

Why should it work so well? According to homeopathic theory, the higher its potentiation, the stronger the effect of a remedy - i.e. the more often it has been diluted and shaken. The only problem with this: Already after twelve dilutions in a ratio of 1: 100, the drug does not contain a single molecule of the starting substance (i.e. the duck) any more. Where there is no active ingredient, there no effect, right?

The water memory

Potentiation is one of the main arguments in homeopathic criticism. In principle, almost all homeopathic remedies are so diluted that no active ingredient can be found in them. Homeopaths are aware of this and refer to the "memory" of the water, which is supposed to store the information about the active ingredient. However, that would mean that any substance that comes into contact with a drop of water leaves a trace. Just think of everything that is floating around in the sea. Every sip of sea water would be a highly potent homeopathic cocktail.

The question arises: How could homeopathy still be so successful?

Time of change

Eighteenth-century medicine wasn't exactly squeamish. Treatments like bloodletting were more likely to debilitate patients than to help them. Hahnemann was looking for a gentle, natural healing method and developed homeopathy. Indeed, homeopathic hospitals soon became successful. In the end, no effect was better than a harmful one ...

However, medicine has changed radically in the last 150 years, bacteria have been discovered, imaging processes developed, medicinal substances discovered and found up to the most modern precision medicine. We have never been healthier than now. We have never been this old before. We owe this to technological achievements in medicine and general healing methods. Modern diagnoses, double-blind studies and scientific analyzes tell us what works and what doesn't. And thanks to these aids, we can now state without a doubt: Homeopathy has no effect beyond the placebo effect.

He who heals is right

But even if homeopathy is ineffective, does it matter how something works if it helps? Ultimately, the following applies: whoever heals is right.

The placebo effect is not imaginary. Just the belief that something works works - and it can be proven. The relationship with the alternative medical therapist can also be beneficial to health. Because the most powerful tool in homeopathy is simply time. While the average doctor-patient conversation lasts 7.6 minutes, a homeopath likes to schedule several hours for his patients. For a corresponding fee, of course. The complementary medicine researcher Edzard Ernst therefore even considers homeopathy "a kind of effective psychotherapy".

Appearance instead of being?

Homeopathy likes to present itself as an alternative to the pharmaceutical industry. Which it is by no means. She is part of it. And it too has its own lobby and relentlessly fights its opponents. A lot of money is at stake here. In 2015 pharmacies in Austria made around 45 million euros in sales with globules & Co, in Germany it was almost 600 million. By 2024, sales are expected to grow to over 17 billion US dollars worldwide. And if the economy is doing well, we are all well known to be doing well. Or is it not?

Critics see it differently: Although the industry is so successful, it is damaging the health system as it sows distrust of scientifically-oriented medicine. Trust in homeopathy often goes hand in hand with vaccination skepticism. Far too often people opt for homeopathic therapies and against agents with proven effectiveness. In doing so, they not only risk their lives, but also endanger others (keyword: herd immunity).

Time and empathy

What can homeopathy do? It offers time and empathy. The initial consultation with a homeopath is detailed and very personal. For patients who have already run the gauntlet from doctor to doctor, this attention and care makes a big difference. Modern medicine may be efficient and save millions of lives every year, but it is also tightly organized: budgets are tight, treatments have to be carried out quickly. Patients often feel like "numbers" and not really taken seriously.

Medicine can also learn something from homeopathy. It meets the human need for attention and listening. Empathy is a proven (!) Remedy. With just as proven limits: Maybe faith can move mountains, but sugar globules cannot cure cancer.

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Tanja Unterberger, Bakk. phil.
Medical review:
Dr. Ludwig Kaspar
Editorial editing:
Nicole Kolisch

Updated on:

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Override: homeopathy

The doctor Samuel Hahnemann was not satisfied with some medical methods of his time and looked for a new healing method.