From Abracadabra to Zombies
In a nutshell: Homeopathy is water medicine. The science shows that there's nothing in homeopathic medicines that could cure anything. Still, many people say they've been helped by homeopathic potions.
Homeopathy is medical treatment by water. For example, if you have a rash, a homeopathic medicine will usually be made by taking a small amount of a plant that causes a rash and mixing it with 100 times as much water. The mixture is shaken and then one part of the mixture is added to 100 parts water. There is then more mixing, shaking, and diluting. The mixing, shaking, and diluting goes on until only a few or no molecules of the original plant remain in the last batch. Any medicine taken from the last diluted batch will be nothing but water.
(Note: some things used in homeopathic medicines can't be mixed with water. Some will be mixed in alcohol. Some will be ground to a fine powder. Some will be prepared as liquids; some as pills. But all homeopathic medicines have either no molecules of any medicine or only a few molecules. Since medicines work depending on the dose—the amount taken—homeopathic medicines are of such low doses as to have no effect on the human body.)
It may seem strange but many people will find a rash goes away after using a homeopathic medicine. Homeopaths say that the fact that people get better after using homeopathic medicine proves that homeopathy works. Why does it work? They say the medicine works for two reasons: (1) like cures like and (2) the water was turned into a powerful medicine by being vigorously shaken after each dilution (dynamization).
The belief that like cures like is a superstition, not science. A plant that causes a rash is not going to make your rash go away, even in small amounts. You may be sad, but eating a flower that looks happy isn't going to make you happy. It might even make you sick. Drinking water that has been mixed with a bit of the happy flower and dynamized many times isn't going to make you happy, either. For one thing, common sense tells us that the weaker you make a medicine, the less strength it will have no matter how many times you shake it.
Homeopaths think that water medicines work because shaking a mixture lets "energy" escape that "awakens the life force" in a person's body. They think their medicines help the body bring back its energy. There is no scientific support, however, for the idea that there is a "vital energy" flowing through the body. In the 19th century, when homeopathy was created by Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843), many people believed in the life force.
Homeopaths use a special method of shaking and mixing that they call succussion. They strike their mixtures against things like a leather pad or the heel of the hand. Hahnemann thought that doing so would release spiritual powers and make the dilution stronger. There is no scientific evidence to support the idea of succussion.
Even if there is a life force, why would water have any effect on it? Hahnemann didn't have an answer to that question, but modern homeopaths think they know. They say water has a memory. The potion that starts with a bit of a plant that causes a rash works because the water it is diluted with remembers something it learned from the plant. This doesn't make much sense. Why would water remember only what it learned by coming in contact with the plant? Think of all the other things any drop of water might have come in contact with over the millions of years the water has been around. Why wouldn't the water remember all those other things? And wouldn't all those other things become stronger with each dynamization? Why would homeopathic water have such a selective memory and selective dynamization? What would it be remembering, anyway? There don't seem to be any answers to these questions that make sense.
So, how do homeopathic medicines work if not by like curing like, dynamization, and water memory? Scientists say that homeopathy works by tricking people into thinking that they feel better after visiting the homeopath because of the homeopathic treatment. The rash did go away, but it would have gone away on its own. The sneezing and coughing went away after taking the homeopathic medicine for an allergy, but it was because the pollens and molds (that caused the sneezing and coughing) in the air went away.
Homeopathic remedies sometimes work because patients believe they will work. They expect the medicine to help, which gives them hope. Hope takes away some stress. Stress slows down healing that the body does on its own. The less stress an ill person has the better. Sometimes the kind and caring manner of the homeopath (or any healer) takes away some stress in the patient and this puts the patient in a better mood.
Few people visit their doctor or homeopath at the first signs of an illness. They wait until it gets really bad, then they seek help. By that time, most illnesses will be going away on their own. Very few illnesses last for years and years. The ones that do aren't going to be helped by water, no matter what the patient believes.
As silly as homeopathy seems, the way doctors treated patients when Hahnemann came up with his ideas was even sillier. Most doctors thought that disease was due to "bad humors" being in the blood. They opened veins to bleed patients and force disease out of the body. Hahnemann rejected bloodletting because he did not believe disease had anything to do with "bad humors" in the blood. Science has proved that Hahnemann was right about bad humors being the cause of disease. But he was wrong about treating disease to help the "vital force" restore the body to harmony and balance. Homeopathy was less likely to cause harm than bloodletting and other medical practices of his day. Homeopaths were unlikely to cause infections in patients, for example. So, homeopaths often had better success than other doctors. Now, scientific medicine has replaced both bloodletting and homeopathy as standard practices. Homeopathy is still popular with some people, probably because its medicines can't harm anyone and it is easy to trick ourselves into thinking something helped us just because we got better after taking it.
In case you are wondering, the term 'homeopathy' comes from two Greek words: homeo (similar) and pathos (suffering).
A word of caution: Some medicines labeled homeopathic are not diluted the way Hahnemann's were. Some are diluted with alcohol. Some actually contain enough molecules to have an effect on the body, though none have proved to be good medicines in scientific testing. Some homeopaths today even believe that their medicines should make people spit up phlegm, vomit, and go to the bathroom. They don't believe these things will get rid of bad humors, but they do believe that these actions are nature's way of getting rid of the causes of illness.
Also, beware of tricky labels on homeopathic medicines. The list of what's in the medicine makes it look like there is some real medicine in the bottle, when there's really nothing but water or some other stuff that holds the water but isn't medicine. Brauer sells a liquid medicine for colic (when a baby cries and is irritable for a long time). The label says the medicine has active ingredients and lists them as Bryonia 30C, Chamomilla 6C, Colocynthis 6C, Mag. phos. 6C. Those Cs tell you that something has been diluted with one hundred parts water 30 times or 6 times. There will be just a few molecules left if you dilute something by a factor of 100 six times. There will be no molecules left if you dilute something by a factor of 100 thirty times. So this medicine for babies has only a few molecules of anything that might affect a baby's body. You might as well give your baby a teaspoon of tap water.
Hahnemann used mostly 30C potions, so his medicines had no molecules left of whatever he thought would help an illness. He didn't know about atoms and molecules. So, he didn't know that once you dilute something by a factor of 100 more than twelve times, there won't be anything left of the original stuff.