What is wrong with homeopathy?

You probably have already heard it – homeopathy is not science; homeopathic treatment is nothing but a lot of self-suggestion and placebo effect, and homeopathic remedies are no more than sugar pills. You might even have met someone who tried homeopathy, but you never really took them seriously.

Homeopathic pills. Photo by Dr. Vishwajeet Singh
Homeopathic pills. Photo by Dr. Vishwajeet Singh

It is safe to say that homeopathy, along with other forms of alternative treatments like acupuncture and Chinese medicine, sounds somewhat mystical to many people.

Homeopathy was created in the 18th century by the German doctor Samuel Hahnemann, under the idea that the very same substance that caused symptoms in a healthy person could be used to cure the same symptoms in someone who was ill. That substance – the medicine itself – is then highly diluted, and the water is believed to gain a therapeutic effect. That concept is known as “the memory of water”.

Mystical as it may sound, it is important to highlight that homeopathy is not taught in the dungeons of a castle by an old alchemist preparing potions, it is a post-graduate training course for M.D.s as an area of specialisation.

The practice never reached scientific status; one of the main arguments against this system of medicine is that it cannot be scientifically proven.

It is not surprising, therefore, that many question the validity and reliability of homeopathy as a kind of science. However, the practice has been around since the 18th century and, more importantly, it has been allowed to continue to exist by health bodies around the world.

The Irish Medicines Board, the regulating body for all medicines in Ireland, recognises and regulates homeopathic medicines in the country.

Homeopathy has also been incorporated into mainstream medical systems in Britain, which has five specialised homeopathic hospitals.

Interestingly enough, private health insurers operating in Ireland, like Quinn Healthcare and Aviva, offer cover for their clients for homeopathic treatment. Almost all private European health insurance schemes and a number of American ones will reimburse homeopathy if prescribed by a physician according to standardised codes.

For a practice that many argue is not more than 18th century magic and superstition, homeopathy seems quite determined to stand as a serious alternative way to conventional medicine.

As with many other controversial issues, the debate in society about the effectiveness of homeopathy finds enthusiastic supporters for both sides.  In 2010, a group of anti-homeopathy protesters gathered outside Boots Store on Grafton Street. Boots is a well-known seller of homeopathic medicines.


The group decided they would swallow hundreds of homeopathic pills in a mass overdose to illustrate their claim that such remedies are “nothing but sugar pills”. The “overdose”, as the group predicted, caused no harm to the protesters. By not dying of drug overdose, they hoped to have made a point against the “sheer con of homeopathy”.

The protesters’ anger against homeopathy also target its growing commercial appeal. Homeopathy has probably never been so popular; the over-the-counter market in homeopathy currently stands at around £40 million in the UK.

In order to understand the strong positions involved in the dispute, we need an insider’s look at homeopathy. Fortunately, I can provide that angle, since I’ve made use of homeopathy for most of my life.

An appointment with a homeopath is a very different experience than an appointment with a regular doctor.

The first difference you will notice is that an appointment with a homeopath lasts for usually an hour. A regular GP, for instance, would have easily seen three patients in that same time span.

In a world where time is money, homeopathy still believes in long conversation. It is important for the doctor to have an in-depth understanding of the complete spectrum of the patient’s health, which includes feelings, emotions and even mood swings.

The doctor will ask quite broad questions like “how would you describe your health since our last appointment?”, and he will keep asking you to remember the smallest of details about your health complaints.

My homeopath doctor, Sérgio Benevides, who has been treating me since I was born, states that “homeopathy doesn’t treat the disease, but instead it treats the whole body by stimulating its natural defences. If you come to me with a headache, I’m not going to give you a pill to cut off the pain. What I will do is try to find out what is causing the headache in the first place, and then proceed to treat the cause. Our main objective is to understand the body as a unit, instead of treating individual symptoms separately. It is a treatment that requires time, but the outcome is extremely satisfactory.”

Is homeopathy a con? / Photo by Marren Wischnewski
Is homeopathy a con? / Photo by Marren Wischnewski

Dr Benevides believes that today’s society demands too much of our bodies and minds. “We simply don’t have time to understand what our bodies are telling us, we can barely afford to treat the effects of our life style. By only treating the effects, we leave the causes untreated and you can be sure that they will come back nastier in the long term. Conventional medicine is extremely important and it definitely plays a major role in the treatment of diseases, but in a way it is just reflecting our needs for quick and shallow solutions,” he explains.

Conventional medicine, one could argue, is not without its flaws. The use of antibiotics is known to disrupt the ecology of the body; they will kill thousands of bacteria – including the good ones that the body actually needs – in order to heal a specific infection.

This indiscriminate killing of bacteria has major negative side effects on the human body’s defence system.  The US Center for Science in The Public Interest estimates that 20% of the US population is at risk for infections because of weakened immune-defence systems.

Is homeopathy a con designed to trick people? Many people certainly seem to think so, but others simply believe that it is a valid and healthy alternative to conventional medicine. It most definitely doesn’t work the same way as conventional medicine, its logic is far from scientific, but it would have disappeared long ago if it didn’t actually help people.

It is estimated that around 30 million people across Europe regularly use homeopathic remedies.

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