“Waiter, I ordered iced tea. This is just water!”
“But sir, this is homeopathic iced tea.”
In a recent D&C health column written by Les Moore, homeopathy was referenced as a treatment for emotional health. Homeopathy is widely defined as using an extremely minute amount of a substance to treat various disease states. An example of a homeopathic remedy is the red onion, which causes watery eyes and runny noses in healthy people. A very dilute preparation of the red onion might be used as a homeopathic treatment for seasonal allergies. This illustrates the homeopathic principle of “like cures like.”
Though there is no solid medical evidence that this idea is medically useful, perhaps the most fascinating feature of homeopathy is how the dilute homeopathic “medicines” are created.
Imagine your physician told you to dissolve a single aspirin tablet in an Olympic-size swimming pool full of water. Then, he tells you to take a spoonful of this water daily. You would probably begin to question the doctor’s credentials, and would be absolutely right to do so. You would have to drink more than half of the swimming pool just to have a reasonable chance of ingesting just one molecule of the aspirin. I hope you are awfully thirsty if you choose the homeopathic approach.
The strength of a homeopathic solution is given by a number, then the letter C. A 1C dilution corresponds to a 1 to 100 dilution of the original medicine or substance. Our Olympic-sized solution corresponds to roughly a 15C dilution. The higher the number before C, the weaker the concentration of the original substance. A 15C dilution would be the 1 to 100 dilution process repeated 15 times in a row, leaving you with a solution that is only 0.000000000000000000000000000001 times as potent as the original. That’s 30 zeros in all if you lost count. A solution that is 12C or higher is unlikely to contain even one single molecule of the original medicine.
In other words, homeopathy is just plain water (or another diluting substance such as sugar for homeopathic tablets).
Oscillococcinum, an extract of duck liver and heart, is a popular homeopathic remedy for flu symptoms that is sold as a 200C dilution in sugar pellets. A well-known retail website sells a package of 30 of these sugar pellets for a little more than $18. Pure sugar can be purchased for much less at your local grocery store. Even if you were to find a single molecule of duck extract in any given package, there is no reliable evidence that Oscillococcinum cures flu symptoms. In fact, a 2012 analysis of available studies on homeopathic Oscillococcinum failed to detect any utility in the prevention or treatment of flu-like illnesses.
Wider studies have been done regarding homeopathic remedies. A 2005 study in a prominent medical journal, The Lancet, failed to detect efficacy in an analysis of 110 controlled homeopathy trials. The conclusion was that the clinical effects from homeopathy are no different than from a placebo, a sham treatment. So before you shell out $73 for that homeopathic first-aid kit, just remember that’s a lot of dough for vials of water.
As a practicing physician, I would never recommend the use of homeopathic remedies. As a restaurant patron, if I want homeopathic iced tea, I would simply ask for a glass of water.
Jonathan Bress, MD, is a board certified internist and nephrologist.