By - Jun 1st, 2003 02:52 pm
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By Jan Wolfenberg

Homeo-what? Or, homeopathy demystified

I am a homeopath. This means I practice the art and science of homeopathic medicine. I use these medicines first and foremost whenever faced with a health challenge. And so, in the columns I’ve been writing for Vital Source over the last few months, I naturally mention homeopathic medicines (usually called “remedies”) as options for the conditions I’ve been discussing.

It has been brought to my attention that a number of you have been asking the $65 question: what the heck IS homeopathy?? Well, folks, that’s a question that rightly requires more space than this magazine is able to give me to answer really well. But, in the hope of providing some kind of explanation to you, the Vital Source readers, I’ll do my best to describe the gist of this wonderful system of medicine.

There’s no oatmeal in homeopathy.

First of all, let me tell you what homeopathy is NOT. It is not a blanket term for any and all forms of alternative medicine, folk remedy or old wives tale cure. A common misconception is that, because it begins with “home”, it is an umbrella term for all “home” remedies — from herbal medicine to oatmeal baths. Homeopathy is a method of self-healing practiced all over the world that is a separate and unique science of medicine. It has its own methodology and unique remedies, different from all other forms of alternative or complementary treatment. The first part of the word, “homeo” comes from the Latin for “similar;” and the ending, “pathos,” is the Latin for “suffering.” So the word “homeopathy” means “similar suffering.” So, what in the world could THAT mean?

“Cure by similars”…and that would be…?

At the heart of homeopathy is the phenomenon of cure by similars. What is a “similar?” A similar is a substance that could produce pathological symptoms in a healthy person when given in excess; this substance, in a specially prepared form, is used to invite a healing response in an unwell person presenting with similar symptoms. For example, one of the most common homeopathic remedies for nausea is Ipecac, a substance known for its ability to induce vomiting.

Knowledge of this principle of cure by similars actually predates the development of homeopathy into a medical science by several centuries. Hippocrates records the use of this approach to healing (c. 400BC in Greece). We find references to it from the Oracle of Delphi, from Indian medical texts as old as 4,000 years, and from ancient Chinese medical texts. Samuel Hahnemann, a German physician of the late 1700s, rediscovered this principle of cure and, through experimentation, formulated the science that became known as homeopathy.

What’s the difference between homeopathy and Western medicine?

In practical application, how is homeopathy different from conventional western medicine? First of all, in homeopathy, as in many other forms of natural medicine, the wisdom of the body is respected. Symptoms are therefore understood as the efforts of the body to heal itself, rather than as unpleasant and senseless occurrences that must be suppressed. Suppressing symptoms with strong medicines goes against the attempts of the body to heal itself. The wiser course of action, especially in the long term, is to aid and stimulate the body’s immune system, allowing the body to regain homeostasis by working with the body instead of against it. Homeopathic medicines are individually chosen to match the symptoms that a person is experiencing to assist the body’s natural defenses.

Another difference is the remedies themselves. Homeopathic remedies are completely natural and almost completely side-effect-free. They are made from plants, minerals and animals, and are highly diluted to minimize the risk of toxicity, while enhancing the depth and subtlety of their action. They are inexpensive, FDA regulated, and almost all of them are available without prescription.

Remedies can mostly be found in health food stores, although some drug stores carry a line of combination remedies, labeled by the health concern they are meant to address, such as “headache” or “menstrual cramps.” These products are combinations of the most common remedies for a given diagnosis. While harmless, they do not adhere to the principles of classical homeopathy and are not as reliable as the single, individually-indicated remedy would be for the condition. Each of these remedies is labeled by its Latin name, such as: Pulsatilla (whose herbal name is wind flower), Taraxacum (dandelion), Apis (honeybee), or Natrum Muriaticum (sodium chloride). With proper handling and storage, homeopathic medicines have an unlimited shelf life.
A third and critical difference is the manner in which a remedy is chosen for an individual. To borrow the words of one of my favorite living homeopaths, Richard Moskowitz of Boston:

Sick people seeking treatment are interviewed in detail and matched with the single remedy whose total symptom-picture most closely resembles their own. Because it must fit the unique individuality of the patient as much as the pathological diagnosis, close attention is paid to personal features that the standard medical workup tends to ignore. The minute doses also insure that remedies will have little effect unless they are enough like the illness for the patient to be highly sensitive to them — a built-in safety feature.

While homeopathy can be helpful in the treatment of virtually any condition, it is particularly useful for chronic conditions for which modern medicine offers medications to manage symptoms but little hope of cure — conditions like arthritis, allergies, auto-immune disorders, and ADD. It is also very useful for acute conditions like headaches, ear infections, colds, flu, etc., and positively remarkable when used to help heal injuries.

You can learn more about homeopathy by searching online or reading some introductory books. One author who is particularly readable for the layperson is Dana Ullman, the author of Discover Homeopathy: Medicine for the 21st Century and several others. You can also learn to use homeopathy successfully at home for common injuries and routine acute illnesses by taking an introductory class in fundamental homeopathy.

(Disclaimer: This information is for educational purposes only and not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor.)

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