Homeopathy is a practice based on the premise that “like cures like.” Those who use homeopathic remedies believe symptoms of illness are a normal response in the body to regain health. If a particular substance is causing these symptoms, homeopathic practitioners believe that giving a person a very small amount of that same substance will help boost the body’s normal healing process and cure the illness.
According to the National Center for Homeopathy, more than 500 million people worldwide use homeopathic remedies.
The highly diluted active ingredients in homeopathic remedies are usually made from plant material, although some are made from specific minerals, salts, and insects. Very few are made from animal products or disease material itself. Most homeopathic remedies start with these active ingredients but have very little left after the dilution process. They are available in various forms, including capsules and tablets, creams and ointments, gels, granules, liquids, and sprays.
Some medicines can cause unwanted and even harmful effects if you have certain medical conditions (e.g., diagnosis, contraindication, allergy). For example, taking a medicine to which you have an allergy can result in severe breathing and skin reactions. Or, you may worsen your condition (e.g., high blood pressure) by taking an over-the-counter medicine (e.g., decongestant such as pseudoephedrine). Keep in mind that a medicine's inactive ingredients (e.g., soy, gluten) can also cause reactions with existing medical conditions.
Most homeopathic remedies are available over-the-counter (OTC) because they treat minor health problems, like a cold or headache, which typically go away on their own without treatment. If a homeopathic remedy claims to treat a serious disease such as cancer, a prescription from a licensed practitioner is needed.
Critics of homeopathic remedies believe any positive effect from homeopathic remedies is from a placebo effect—meaning that thinking it will be helpful makes it so. Supporters of homeopathic remedies believe that the diluted active ingredients contain enough medicine for the body to recognize and react to it. However, actual evidence of effectiveness is conflicting. While several earlier studies1,2 suggested that the clinical effects of homeopathy were only due in part to a placebo effect, later studies, including a 2005 study published in The Lancet,3 concluded that the positive effects of homeopathic remedies were due only to the placebo effect.
1) Linde K, Clausius N, Ramirez G, et al. Are the clinical effects of homoeopathy placebo effects? A meta-analysis of placebo-controlled trials. Lancet. 1997; 350:834-43.
2) Taylor MA, Reilly D, Liewellyn-Jones RH, et al. Randomised controlled trial of homeopathy versus placebo in perennial allergic rhinitis with overview of four trial series. BMJ. 2000;321:471-6.
3) Shang A, Huwiler-Muntener K, Nartey L, et al. Are the clinical effects of homoeopathy placebo effects? Comparative study of placebo-controlled trials of homoeopathy and allopathy. Lancet. 2005;366:726-32.
Most homeopathic remedies are considered to be safe. But like all remedies, care should be taken to avoid misuse and errors. Consider the following: