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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Homeopathic Medicine has an effect!

Yes it's true. Us naysayers have finally been proven wrong about Alternative Medicine, in that in the news lately have been a story about a homeopathic remedy actually having an effect on some people. A negative one, but an effect the very same. Oh and it wasn't actually a homeopathic drug, it was only labeled as one. So yeah, the title of this post is somewhat in jest.

For those of you not in the know, homeopathy is based on the magical properties of water, in that water remembers what it has been diluted with, continuing to grant its effects. The more you dilute something homeopathically, the stronger the effect will get.

Samuel Hahnemann came up with the idea in the late 1700s, that 'Like cures like.' For example, if you are suffering from hay fever, with red eyes and a runny nose, you could cure that with something that produced the same symptoms. Chopping onions will also give most of us irritated eyes, so that could be used as a cure for hay fever.

The astute of you will have noticed that, if you think about some other symptoms you can cause, that most of them are bad in themselves. To continue with the onion example, the onion is actually releasing irritants into the air and into our eyes, and that is why our body tries to expel it by crying. So it itself is not a good thing. In fact, in order to cause bad symptoms, we have to use poisonous or harmful ingredients ourselves, as remedy.

So Hahnemann 'discovered' the magical properties of H2O, plain water, in that it does a grand thing. It remembers what has been put into it, but only the essence. So to cure hay fever, but to avoid overdosing his patient on onions, he would dilute the onion essence into water, 1 part in 10. Shake it ten times back and forth, ten times up and down, ten times in and out, and now you have a '1C' solution, which is the unit used for the Concentration of homeopathic remedies. If you take one part of that solution and dilute that into another ten parts of water, you get a 2C solution. In homeopathic terms, the 2C dilution is actually more potent than the 1C dilution. We can continue diluting this way, take another part of the 2C concoction and put into another ten parts of water, and you get a 3C dilution, even stronger. The next time you visit a place where they sell these things, check out the descriptions. They'll often be 20C or 30C dilutions, meaning they have one part in 10 000 000 000 000 000 000 of the actual original ingredient. This is literally less than a drop in the ocean.

But I digress, other than the initial background of homeopathy. The reason this is in the news now, is an American firm which marketed a homeopathic nasal remedy. The American Food and Drug Administration have gone out with a warning this week against the product, Zicam. It contained Zinc, in non-homeopathic doses, and this led to a loss of smell in a number of patients. As opposed to normal homeopathy which is 100% placebo, Zinc up the nose has an actual demonstrable effect.

Zicam was never tested for this, because it was labeled and marketed as homeopathic. The proper pharmaceutical companies have huge amounts of regulation and legislation making sure their products are well-tested, documented, and safe. Homeopathic producers have no such rules and regulations, so they do not. Normally, this only parts a fool with their money, as homeopathic remedies are 100% water. But this time, they sold an actual drug, only they did so unsafely because they were not regulated. The Food and Drug Administration did not test Zicam, as it was a homeopathic remedy. Alternative Medicine often gets special treatment compared to proper medicine.

Herein lies the root of the problem. Pharmaceuticals need to prove that their stuff works before they are allowed to sell it. In most cases, this takes years of testing and documenting. Alternative companies however, are exempt. They do not need to prove that their medicaments do what they claim to do. They do not need to prove all the side effects. Zicam was not a homeopathic remedy, although it was marketed as one. It had much too high a concentration of Zinc to be that. But when they applied the label Homeopathy to it, could go straight to market without oversight.

Zicam was only sold in America, not here in Norway. But we are not immune to the problem either, not by a long shot. When the old 'Quack law' was repealed in 2004, it opened up possibilities for alternative treatments by non-medically-trained-professionals. Fortunately we still have strict laws regarding their advertisements and what a treatment can claim to do. Still, as long as alternative treatments get special treatments in the certification tracks, we can risk the same happening again. And perhaps with an even more dangerous effect than loss of smell.

If you ever thought, or if anyone ever thought, even rationally, 'What's the harm of selling water to people if it makes them feel good?', we just found a potential cause of harm. Without oversight, this industry can place whatever they like, without much testing, onto the market. Which people will then happily ingest and inject. And that could prove dangerous, as Zicam has just demonstrated for us.

If the Alternative Medicine community want to be taken seriously, they will need to succumb to all the same rules, regulations, testing and documentation as big pharma. Though I don't see that happening anytime soon.


  1. The alternative movement's rather puzzling unwillingness to play by the rules is certainly not from a lack of knowing the rules. The following statement by Matrixx, the manufacturers of Zicam, illustrates this:

    “[...] there is no known causal link between the use of Zicam Cold Remedy nasal gel and impairment of smell. No well-controlled scientific study has demonstrated a potential cause-and-effect relationship between the use of Zicam and diminished smell function. No court cases have revealed any reliable evidence of any causal relationship.”

    Wait, let me get this straight: You don't have to prove that Zicam reduces cold symptoms (it doesn't) but we have to prove that it's not harmful? You guys are seriously deluded.

  2. Awesome blogpost, Bendik :)

    This alternative medicine business is dangerous :(

  3. isylvan

    Wait, let me get this straight: You don't have to prove that Zicam reduces cold symptoms (it doesn't) but we have to prove that it's not harmful? You guys are seriously deluded.-

    Or seriously diluted ;D