September 16, 2008
From Poison to Pill Homepathic Medicine Dilutes Some of Nature’s Nastiest-and Nicest Ingredients to Treat Ilness and Pain.
By Pam DeFiglio
She uses it for many different health problems.
If a workout leaves the Mount Prospect mom sore or her 12- and 14- year-old sons strain muscles in sports, she turns to a homeopathic medicine called arnica for relief.
She uses a homeopathic combination remedy made by a company called NatraBio to ease one son's wheat and dairy intolerances.
She discovered homeopathic remedies back when her sons were teething and she was looking for medicine safe for infants. Hyland's teething tablets, a homeopathic formulation, relieved their pain.
"It's almost within minutes that you feel relief," she says. For pain, "the alternative would be acetaminophen, which we're discovering is not good for the liver."
Homeopathic remedies are a class of medicines that work in a different way than pharmaceuticals - a fact that has led some doctors to champion them and others to criticize them.
In general, though, Americans are warming up to homeopathy. It's one of the alternative medicine practices being bolstered by scientific research.
"We believe as many as 54 million Americans use homeopathy in some form each year. That has dramatically increased in the past 10 years," says Peter Gold, communications director for the National Center for Homeopathy and a biologist. "As usage increases, conventional doctors are becoming more aware of it and more accepting."
The FDA regulates homeopathic medicine, and it's widely accepted in Europe and other parts of the world.
Homeopathy is based on the "like cures like" principle, which says that a tiny amount of an illness-producing substance can stimulate the body to heal.
For example, slicing an onion causes you to sneeze and your eyes to water. So one of the homeopathic remedies for sneezing and watery eyes (usually a result of allergies) is allium cepa, the Latin name for onion.
The medicines are made from plants, minerals and animals. Some of the source substances are gentle, like daisies, others poisonous, like arsenic, poison ivy or deadly nightshade.
However, manufacturing the medicines requires a series of dilutions, often 30 or more, rendering them safe, Gold says.
The research documenting homeopathy's effectiveness is not as complete as it is for pharmaceuticals, but positive results have begun coming out of studies in recent years.
Clinical research done at major universities and published in reputable medical journals has reported homeopathy to be effective for many conditions, including ear, nose and throat ailments, attention deficit disorder, sepsis, fibromyalgia and childhood diarrhea.
One of homeopathy's chief advantages is safety, a fact advocates like to bring up in a time when several major pharmaceutical drugs have been recalled for adverse effects.
"The only way you'd ever get hurt by homeopathic remedies is if a box of them fell on you," says Dr. Patrick Massey, medical director for alternative and complementary medicine for Alexian Brothers Hospital Network in the Northwest suburbs and a Daily Herald columnist.
"It's unbelievably safe."
While some doctors are not convinced that homeopathy works, voices as authoritative as the National Institutes of Health's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine are calling for homeopathy to be a tool in the doctor bag.
Dr. Iris Bell, a University of Arizona professor who has done research on homeopathy for NIH, says, "There are some very large- scale observational studies with results pretty universally positive in favor of homeopathy.
"I think it has great potential for being helpful to many people."
Pick the right one
As a family practice doctor in Lombard, Dr. Timothy Fior practices exclusively homeopathy.
When a patient comes to see him for the first time, he spends about two hours taking a detailed medical history so he can prescribe the right remedy out of the 200 or so he commonly uses, or the thousands of rarer ones available.
For minor, temporary ailments, such as colds, coughs, indigestion or muscle soreness, he suggests simply going to a health food store and picking out a combination homeopathic remedy geared to that ailment.
For example, Boiron, a manufacturer of homeopathic medicine, makes a popular remedy for colds called Coldcalm.
Combination remedies often include five or six of the most common homeopathic medicines used to treat that condition.
"If they don't help you, it doesn't mean that homeopathy doesn't work," Fior says. "It just means that of the thousands of homeopathic remedies, you haven't found the right ones at the right strength."
Homeopathy can treat many chronic and acute illnesses, he says.
Cancer, type 1 diabetes and low thyroid are some of the conditions it cannot treat. Fior refers patients with such conditions to other doctors. Sometimes he works with those doctors, using homeopathy to help patients feel better after radiation and chemotherapy.
Bell notes that, for minor complaints, patients can research and experiment with homeopathic medicines on their own. If patients have a serious illness, though, she cautions, they should get to an M.D. right away so as not to lose valuable treatment time.
She has seen homeopathy used successfully for autoimmune diseases, allergies, migraine headaches, infections, sprains, fractures and ADHD.
A fracture or broken bone would, of course, require a trip to the emergency room and a visit to an orthopedic specialist. However, homeopathic medicine can help in a complementary way, such as reducing swelling and pain and speeding healing, says Gold.
Locally, people turn to homeopathy for many medical issues.
Dave Reczek of Lisle suffered severe vertigo from Meniere's disease. Doctors prescribed Valium but he didn't like the "out of it" way it made him feel. After five years of searching, he found a homeopathic remedy called cocculus that relieved his symptoms.
He has also used homeopathic medications for flu, a sty and insomnia.
Homeopathic medicines generally come with instructions to take them 15 minutes before or after eating, and not in conjunction with strong flavors like coffee or mint, which can negate their effects.
Does it work?
A German physician, Samuel Hahnemann, discovered homeopathy in the 1700s. He was searching for safer treatments than those that existed in his day.
He based his research on the "like cures like" principle, also called the Law of Similars, which Hippocrates wrote about 2,000 years ago.
Hahnemann figured out how to dilute the substances and make the medicines, then tested them on healthy volunteers to document their effectiveness, Gold says.
Modern critics such as Dr. Steven Novella, a Yale University assistant professor, and others say research studies have not conclusively proven homeopathy works. Gold and Bell respond that, while results have been mixed in the past, more recent studies have supported homeopathy's effectiveness.
Gold cites studies published in medical journals, such as Rheumatology, Pediatrics and The Lancet. The studies found evidence of homeopathy working in a wide variety of chronic and acute conditions. Some examples include arthritic diseases, neurological problems and skin afflictions such as chronic eczema.
"There are a large number of high-quality studies that show homeopathy is effective, and more than a placebo," Gold says.
Massey, of Alexian Brothers, explains it's hard to do double- blind research studies because homeopathic treatments are so highly individualized to the patient.
For example, a relatively healthy young patient with early diabetes might get a different remedy than an older, cigarette- smoking, overweight patient with diabetes. That, he says, makes it hard to study how well homeopathic remedies work in diabetes patients.
Anecdotally, many people who take homeopathic medicines report positive results.
"Seventy to 90 percent of patients report significant benefits from treatment," Bell reports.
Fior in Lombard says, "In practice, we see these things seem to work quite well."
No recalls here
The last word on homeopathy may be "safety." Parents of small children recently watched in frustration as drugstores pulled cough syrups off the shelves; patients who took Heparin and Vioxx have worried as pharmaceutical manufacturers pulled those drugs off the market for safety reasons.
"Homeopathy is very safe and nontoxic. It's even safer than herbal medicines, because of the dilution," says Fior.
That makes it one of the few choices for pregnant women and newborns.
Practitioners say that while drug interaction poses a risk if a patient is taking more than one pharmaceutical, this is not a risk with homeopathic medicines due to their gentleness.
"By the time you're on five drugs, you've doubled your risk of a drug interaction," Fior says. "By nine medications, you've tripled your risk."
Fior says he can sometimes find one homeopathic remedy to treat all of a patient's symptoms - such as respiratory allergies, eczema and asthma - instead of the two or three pharmaceuticals they had been taking.
"This is a great moment for medicine," says Gold. "We can make it nontoxic - or at least a lot less toxic."
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