Friday, February 25, 2011

Homeopathy: Beyond Flat Earth Medicine: An Introduction for Students and Patients

Book Review: Homeopathy: Beyond Flat Earth Medicine: An Introduction for Students and Patients: A family physician explains this holistic medical science
by Timothy R. Dooley, N.D., M.D. (Timing Publications 1995)

This was a nice introductory book about a holistic-style medical evaluation and treatment system of which I personally was not very aware. Modern homeopathy began in the late 1700’s under the auspices of a German physician named Samuel Hahnemann. Homeopathy is based on - the Law of Similars – or that which a substance can cause, it can also cure. So homeopathy insinuates that – like cures like, and conventional medicine, which Hahnemann termed – allopathy – insinuating that medicines cause symptoms other than which the disease they are given for cause – so allo, or other.

The author compares homeopathy and allopathy to round earth and flat earth ideas – where homeopathy attempts to treat the patient rather than the appearances, or symptoms. As many holistic practitioners note, treating the symptoms is not the same as treating the source and after one set of symptoms is treated another set may appear.

Apparently, Hahnemann first noted that Cinchona bark (from which quinine is derived) which treats symptoms of malaria also causes similar symptoms in non-malarial patients. He then tested many medicines in very dilute quantities that he called ‘provings.’ The provings are collected in the compilation of medical indications known as the homeopathic Materia Medica. Homeopathic medicines are so diluted that toxicity is never an issue. Dilutions are often as low as parts per million. These minute doses are low enough to be safe for pregnant women, children, and animals as well.

In homeopathy all symptoms of a person are noted and regarded as a whole. In conventional medicine, symptoms are isolated as pertaining to the main problem and treated individually, often ignoring the totality of symptoms. Of course, diagnosis and patient analysis needs to be more detailed and individual with homeopathy . Typically, the patient is first thoroughly interviewed. Sometimes the patient’s closest relatives or companions are interviewed as well. The attempt is to get a clear picture of the patient’s symptoms, habits, and influences. Emotional and mental health and functioning are also noted in detail. Successful homeopathic treatment is said to be just as dependent on the actions and sincerity of the patient as the physician.

Regarding medicines, the author notes that so-called side effects of medicines are really undesired effects caused by the medicines. These effects are very important in homeopathy as indicators of what the medicine can cause, and in some cases cure as well.

The author gives several cases and case histories where cures were apparently effected. He notes the overuse of antibiotics in conventional medicine and negative affects on patients who overuse them. The case histories show that choosing the best medicine may be the most difficult part for a practitioner.

In discussing historical bases for homeopathy, the author notes the healing action of ‘similars’ noted by Hippocrates. The use of snake and spider venom to treat snake and spider bites is a well known successful use of the principle. Using poisons to treat poisons was known in India 3500 years ago in the early Ayurvedic principle called visa chikitsa. In Hahnemann’s time apparently disease treatment was still crude in terms of medicines. People would be given large and toxic doses in desperate attempts to effect cures. Hahnemann studied many medical texts of the day in the course of translating them in and out of his native German and interestingly enough he drew on the European female herbal healing tradition (ie. the Witches) to some extent. When Hahnemann became outspoken against allopathic medicine after developing his system he touched off a battle that is still around today. Most allopathic doctors considered the extremely dilute dosages of homeopathic medicines to simply be too small to have any real effects. After homeopathy came to America, the American Homeopathy Association (AHA) was founded. Not long after came the American Medical Association (AMA). Homeopathy was very accepted in America as at the turn of the 20th century 1 in 4 physicians in America was a homeopath. However, within a generation, the credibility of homeopathy fell drastically as more scientific advances were made such as the discovery of penicillin and better diagnosis and surgical techniques. Homeopathy fared much better in Europe being still quite popular there. In fact, just the other day I was discussing homeopathy with a woman from Hungary who swore by it. The Queen of England is traditionally treated by a homeopathic doctor and it was also made popular (by the Brits) in India. As well these days as alternative, complimentary, and holistic medicine rises is usage and popularity it is seeing some revival even here in America.

One notion in homeopathy, as in many traditional holistic medical systems, is that of ‘vital force.’ This is one point where conventional medicine tends to disagree since this so-called vital force cannot (thus far) be physically identified, isolated, and analyzed. Hahnemann considered the cause of disease to be a disorder in the vital force and only when that order is restored can the patient be healed. So based on that idea, the theory is virtually identical to traditional holistic healing systems. “Hahnemann also felt that homeopathic remedies are sufficiently subtle to directly correct morbid drangements in the vital force.”

Often noted in homeopathic healing is a response known as aggravation where the patient gets worse before he or she gets better and this is usually considered a good sign and that healing is taking place. Diseases are seen as having a whole range of symptoms and when healing is effected often the most serious symptoms will heal first causing a return of less serious symptoms. 

The author is also a medical doctor (MD) and notes that conventional medicine is preferred in life-threatening situations, diagnoses requiring surgery, and other cases. He does note that homeopathy can be effective for both acute and chronic conditions and gives example cases of each. He notes also that holistic medicine can be generally allopathic in the character of its treatments, such as medicinal usage in Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine.

There have been some suggestions that homeopathy relies heavily on the ‘placebo effect’ and I am not convinced this is not true, at least in some ways. Whether it is the full effect or just a supporting effect is unknown. Certainly likes treating likes have a solid scientific background. There have been studies that suggested that the placebo effect is likely not the whole story and the author lists a few. The effect of the heavily diluted medicines is certainly one factor that causes scoffing but subtle effects of small amounts of substances have been noted in studies. As I think about it, with the advent of literally hundreds of man-made, potentially toxic, and known toxic substances in very dilute amounts in typical tapwater, we can be affected homeopathically by these hundreds of substances in the same way as homeopathic cures. Since many of us take herbs, vitamins, and foods rich in these substances, it may be difficult to distinguish affects of various meds as we have so many meds, herbs, and substances (as from tapwater) in our systems.

It should be noted that even though homeopathic remedies have been apparently successful in treatment it is unknown exactly how they work and this is one point that affects the credibility of homeopathy. While the diluted meds may well subtly affect the life force affecting change it will be difficult to get scientific confirmations. Of course, as the author notes, just because exact mechanisms of action are not understood, does not mean that the techniques and meds cannot be used with success. He notes that:

“The exact nature of this energetic property or how a living organism responds to it is not understood. Various theories have been proposed and research into these areas is ongoing.”

Maybe this research will yield some positive results and give more credence to homeopathy in our modern world where people are quite often over-medicated. A senior woman from one of my yoga classes once said that when she went to the doctor he asked her what medicines she took and when she said that she took none he retorted with, “Why not.” The assumption that older people in particular need to be constantly heavily medicated is a common misconception in our society , though of course people with specific conditions such as high blood pressure do need regular medication.

Anyway, it was a good introductory book and I am glad that I read it and now have a fair idea of how homeopathy works. I may find myself actually using it at some point as there are local suppliers of remedies and ‘kits’ (a typical self-evaluation format) – both homeopathic supply places and some meds at health food stores.

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