Homeopathy (Science Review)

N.B. This science review was originally published in Optimyz Magazine in June 2011 by Mandy Wintink, PhD.

In my sports bag, I have my frisbee gear, cleats, band-aids, hair elastics, and cliff bars. About 3 years ago I swapped my Ibuprophen for Arnica Montana, upon consultation with our team Naturopathic Doctor. 

Arnica Montana is a homeopathic remedy for injury and inflammation. Homeopathic remedies are often scrutinized, largely because the medical philosophy under which they are prescribed are counter-intuitive to the way many of us think.

Homeopathic remedies function on the like-cures-like philosophy. The best analogy with Western medicine is to vaccinations, where small amounts of a known causal agent (like last year’s flu bug) are given to a person to help stimulate his or her own immune system and to develop antibodies, with the hopes that those antibodies will launch an attack should that foreign invader enter the body in the future. Homeopathics, on the other hand, are given to stimulate a person’s own healing processes at the time of the illness or injury. Another main feature of homeopathic remedies is that the amounts given are exceptionally small. In fact, according to its philosophy, lesser, not greater, amounts produce a more potent therapeutic!

These very small amounts are, in fact, so small that the actual substance itself is not even present, just the molecular or energetic resonance of it once being there. Homeopathics are prepared by diluting the original substance over and over and over again. The more diluted, the greater the strength, and the higher the number on the homeopathic container (e.g., 6C, 30C, 200C).

General skepticism exists among medical doctors and scientists believing that there cannot possibly be any biological effects in such diluted substances. However, Nobel Prize Laureate Luc Montagnier, the scientist who discovered HIV, disagrees. Dr. Montagnier is currently researching the structural changes in water produced by the DNA of bacteria after really high dilutions. Although he does not study homeopathy himself, in an interview with Science magazine in December 2010, he was specifically asked what he thought about homeopathy, because of the parallel to his research. He responded by stating that what he knows is that high dilutions are not just nothing. They leave residues in the form of electromagnetic resonance. He did qualify his answer by saying that his own research was not using as high of dilutions as homeopathy does but that even at 10-18, when he cannot detect a single DNA molecule of the bacteria he can still detect the electromagnetic signals.

This line of research is actually quite exciting for homeopathy. Until recently, the science on homeopathy hasn’t been so hot. With hundreds of homeopathic remedies out there, some researchers have attempted to answer the simple scientific question “does homeopathy work?”  Many studies, and studies of studies (i.e., meta-analyses) suggest it does not. There are a limited number of both good- and bad-quality studies demonstrating therapeutic effects of several homeopathics, but an even greater number have yet to undergo the scientific scrutiny. All of this just goes to show that us scientists don’t know the answers yet!

So why do I still carry arnica in my bag? I did read a few convincing studies. For example, a 2007 study did show that topical arnica was as effective as corticosteroids for reducing edema following surgery. Given that corticosteroids are known to have negative side effects, an alternative would be welcomed. Also, a research group in Brazil has focused on Arnica 6C and shown many positive results, for example, in an animal and cell-culture model of inflammation, arnica reduces a variety of inflammatory chemicals in the body. In a study published this year, they also reported that the therapeutics effects were only visible in those who had a delayed inflammatory response, rather than an immediate response, which begs the research question, why is this? The authors suggest individual differences are important factors to consider. And so would homeopathic doctors!

Homeopathy is actually much more complicated than our current way of doing medical research can handle. We also must remember that science is a tool, not the final answer, and together with other pieces of evidence, science helps form the big picture.