The alternative medicine industry is booming thanks to a growing mistrust of the health care industry. Profits have dominated people for decades in “Big Pharma.” While research costs are exorbitant, executive compensation is excessive. Appeasing a board of shareholders should not take precedence over human suffering. Patients feel powerless against market forces. Teasing out authenticity from one of America’s most leveraged capitalistic endeavors feels Sisyphean.
Our reaction has allowed for numerous questionable products to invade our medicine cabinets, to the tune of $34 billion annually. Marketed as “holistic” and “natural” cures, many consumers have little clue what’s inside of those bottles. While pharmaceuticals undergo rigorous testing to the tune of billions of dollars and extensive rounds of clinical trials, homeopathic products, as well as vitamins and supplements, receive little oversight even though the active ingredients are often similar and sometimes even identical to drugs being produced by medical science.
In fact, many people have no clue that numerous homeopathic remedies are nothing more than sugar water or contain active ingredients that have not been clinically tested or approved by a governing agency. Whereas homeopathy was nearly extinct in America — introduced here in 1825, the last homeopathic hospital shut its doors in the 1950s — a renaissance of magical thinking and the proliferation of anti-corporate sentiments arising in the sixties rekindled our fascination. While homeopathy was created as a response to the barbaric practices of nineteenth century medicine, the founding principles have since been disproven thanks to the hard work of tireless researchers. Still, homeopathy persists. Why?
In 1784, while serving as an American ambassador to France, Benjamin Franklin was asked by the Académie des Sciences to co-chair a commission on animal magnetism. The claim that invisible forces exerted by animals provide therapeutic relief in humans was first made by German physician Franz Mesmer in 1779. Franklin teamed up with French chemist Antoine Lavoisier to investigate mesmerism. Without realizing it they defined the future of medical science by creating the first blind trial.
Volunteers were given flasks filled with vital fluids to discover if the essence of certain objects, such as trees, improved their health. The answer was a resounding no. Franklin and Lavoisier then investigated the healing potential of mesmerism and inadvertently discovered a peculiar aspect of human psychology: the placebo effect. It wasn’t until the nineteen seventies that Rabi Simantov and Solomon Synder discovered endorphins, endogenous opioid neuropeptides produced by our pituitary gland and hypothalamus that bind to morphine receptors, which is the cause of the placebo response, and why many alternative therapies “work.”
These two advances — the blind trial, which would eventually lead to the gold standard today, the double-blind trial, and the placebo response — empowered researchers with the knowledge that biology is not always what it appears to be. Chemical interactions inside of our bodies are intricate processes. Being that nature provides both the cause and cure of many ailments, it makes sense we turn to it to seek help. But nature isn’t here for our benefit. We’ve evolved despite nature as much as because of it. The road to healing isn’t always obvious, yet in the modern holistic space we treat nature as if remedies are abundant at every turn. Samuel Hahnemann exploited this tendency when creating homeopathy.
Two antimalarial drugs have been used for centuries. Artemisinin, found in the Qinghaosu plant, is found in Chinese texts from the fourth century. In the nineteen sixties researchers stumbled upon citations of isolated artemisinin, which today is an effective and well-tolerated remedy. A half-world away in Peru locals bathed in water made bitter by the cinchona tree, which they believed to have magical healing properties. This is due to quinine, which subsequently gives tonic water its bite. Quinine has more side effects than artemisinin yet has been used to treat malaria since the middle of the seventeenth century.
Samuel Hahnemann discovered cinchona while translating Scottish physician William Cullen’s book on malaria. The German doctor left a career in medicine because he objected to practices like bloodletting, which he considered ineffectual and sadistic. Cullen’s A Treatise on the Materia Medica set off a light bulb that would forever change the trajectory of Hahnemann’s career. He slathered cinchona over his body to induce malaria-like symptoms. It remains unproven that he developed malaria; an inflammatory reaction is probable. Undaunted, he reasoned it would be the same for every healthy individual. This experience became the basis of homeopathy: like cures like.
Hahnemann wasn’t working in a vacuum. Austrian physician Anton von Störck speculated that toxic substances are beneficial in small doses — the basis of vaccination. Instead of ingesting minute quantities of a controlled substance, however, Hahnemann removed the active ingredient altogether. He believed the less of an active ingredient you ingest, the more potent the remedy is. He dubbed this process “potentization.”
To understand potentization let’s consider the most popular homeopathic flu remedy, Oscillococcinum. One of France’s top-selling medicines, it rakes in an annual $20 million in America. The remedy is based on French physician Joseph Roy’s discovery of an oscillating bacterium he termed Oscillococcus in the blood of flu victims in 1917. (The bacterium was never confirmed by anyone else; some speculate it was dust on a slide.) Roy believed Oscillococcus responsible for a host of diseases, from eczema to cancer. He reported discovering the same bacterium in the blood of a Long Island duckling. To manufacture Oscillococcinum today technicians mix one part duck heart and liver with one hundred parts sugar in water. The process is repeated two hundred times. Well, lactose is continually added in; that one part duck is the only active ingredient introduced.
Homeopathic dilutions range in intensity. Over-the-counter drugs may contain active ingredients, depending on scaling. A potency of 6x means there’s one part active ingredient per million bits of sugar. By the time you get to 6c there is one part in ten trillion. By 13c no parts remain. A typical homeopathic medicine is 30c. Former U.S. Air Force flight surgeon and family physician Harriet Hall points out that at this level you need a container thirty times the sizes of the earth to find one molecule of an active ingredient. Oscillococcinum is 200c. One thousand dilutions is 1M, with 10M being the most potent homeopathic medicine available.
Boiron, Oscillococcinum’s manufacturer, claims its wonder drug — chemically one gram of sugar per dose — reduces the severity of flu symptoms. Duck liver is not the only magical ingredient to not exist in remedies. Are you feeling confined and oppressed? A treatment of Berlin Wall is just for you. One part concrete diluted to 200c also treats asthma, shifty eyes, terror, and headaches. The south pole of a magnet, eclipsed moonlight, tears from a weeping young girl, dog’s earwax, arsenic, and poison ivy are all used in homeopathy. This is further confused by the fact that some doctors claim an improvement in symptoms is proof homeopathy works while also believing a turn for the worse is positive proof as well. Hall calls this entire charade sympathetic magic. It’s hard to argue against her point.
Our frantic need for immediate gratification blinds us to the slow process of medicine. We still have no clue how to protect ourselves against the common cold or seasonal flus. As evidenced by the placebo effect, our bodies just deal with the reality of sickness. Time, rest, and hydration remain our best defenses.
Our survival as a species relies on an intricate understanding of biology. Today we enjoy the fruits of millennia of experimentation. While Samuel Hahnemann believed the cause of disease could never be known and that sickness is a spiritual state, advancements such as the double blind trial, as well as germ theory and disease specificity, have disproven his theories. Yet we still buy in.
We should be suspicious of pharmaceuticals, especially in a capitalistic health care system. An over-reliance on antibiotics, for example, has created stronger responses from the environment. Gene editing might prove to be a solution, though that too arrives with concerns. This does not mean we should return to superstitious thinking. While our great strength is resiliency, our weakness remains a volatile temperament prone to mysticism.
It’s not as if ancient remedies don’t have value; artemisinin was in use for fifteen hundred years before scientists clinically proved its efficacy. Many plants, herbs, and minerals have healing properties. The lack of credible scientific studies comes not from lack of interest but lack of funds. Who’s going to sponsor research on a plant that cannot be patented? Why would any pharmaceutical company invest in compounds that can be purchased for a few dollars at an Indian grocer? It’s hard to decide whether or not turmeric helps inflammation when the hospital can charge a day’s wages for one Tylenol. It also doesn’t mean turmeric works, which is another problem many consumers face thanks to the proliferation of wellness blogs.
We should question the multi-billion dollar alternative healing industry that relies on no clinical science beyond the consequences of the placebo response. The notion that pieces of a Fascist wall or duck liver that do not actually exist in the bottle you’ve purchased is healing is a slap in the face to the innumerable professionals who have dedicated their lives to understanding the complex mechanisms of biology.
Samuel Hahnemann once stated that since the root cause of disease is invisible we’ll never know the origins of our ailments. He was wrong. Practitioners of his system should honor that fact.
Derek Beres is a Los Angeles-based columnist and fitness professional. His latest book is Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body for Optimal Health. This is excerpted from his book-in-progress, Soul Market: Spirituality in a Consumer Culture.