Friday, 6 May 2011

Homeopathetic remedies

Every so often it’s time for Government to get tough. No, I’m not talking about disgraceful industrial action by essential health workers, but I would if you asked.

I’m talking about consumer protection and the occasional need for the Powers That Be to get their hands dirty when people’s lives are at risk.

Throughout Europe new rules have recently come into force which outlaw the sale of a variety of so-called “herbal medicines”. According to the BBC News web site:
“The EU law aims to protect consumers from possible damaging side-effects of over-the-counter herbal medicines. For the first time, new regulations will allow only long-established and quality-controlled medicines to be sold. But both herbal remedy practitioners and manufacturers fear they could be forced out of business.”
Well it’s a shame if people are put out of business but perhaps they should have started an honest and safe business in the first place?

Yes, I DO think that much of the so-called “alternative health” movement is either dishonest, unsafe or sometimes both. While most of their products are worthless, having no effect whatsoever, other than a placebo effect, some of the substances they peddle DO actually have an effect on the human body. The trouble is it’s utterly unpredictable.

Some of them are known to interfere with properly prescribed medicines like the contraceptive pill. Others are just so unpredictable that you have no idea how much of an active ingredient you’re going to get. If you go to a pharmacy and by paracetamol you know exactly how much you’re going to get in each tablet. With herbal stuff you really don’t know.

Then there’s homeopathy. This is genuinely deceptive.

The idea behind homeopathy is quite simple. Homeopaths suggest that an ailment can be treated with minute quantities of substances that produce similar symptoms to those of the ailment. Quite how this works is never explained although homeopaths no doubt want us to think that it's a bit like vaccination where an inert form of a dangerous infectious agent is given to the patient so he or she can form a resistance to it.

However, homeopathy and vaccination are completely different. One has a scientific basis and can be proved to work and the other? Well, no evidence I'm afraid, other than "experiments" conducted by homeopaths themselves and they aren't exactly renowned for their scientific credentials.

Oh and one other difference between homeopathy and vaccination? One actually contains an active ingredient and the other doesn't. Homeopathic "remedies" are produced by repeatedly diluting a sample of the supposedly active ingredient. A homeopath may take a 1% solution of the active ingredient, perhaps a plant extract in water and dilute it further several times. After being diluted to 1% each time you can quickly work out that after 10 dilutions only 1 atom in every hundred billion billion will be of the so-called active ingredient. And the most common forms of homeopathic remedy are actually diluted in this way thirty times. There is simply nothing left from the original ingredient. There's nothing there apart from water which might then be soaked into a sugar pill.

So how do homeopaths claim it works? Well, if you have scientific background, sit down before reading further.

Apparently the water in which this ingredient once resided "remembers" that it once met the substance in question. Homeopaths talk seriously about "the molecular memory of water".

Want another absurdity? Homeopaths believe that the more diluted the liquid becomes the more effective it is. And another? The principle of homeopathic "succussion" states that the remedy becomes even more effective still if you thump it against your hand or your leg. I promise you I am NOT making this up.

Homeopathy is nonsense. It flies in the face of all that we have learnt over the last couple of thousand of years in the fields of chemistry, physics and biology.

So what about all of you who have taken a homeopathic remedy and felt better afterwards? Were you imagining it? Was your mind playing tricks on you?

I don't think you were imagining it and I don't think you've gone mad. It just wasn't the homeopathic silliness that helped you.

So what was it? Well, there are various possibilities. Firstly you may have just got better. It happens. People just get better. Their bodies fight an ailment and win. Our bodies are usually pretty good at it. They have had millions of years to develop an immune system after all. If you’re halfway through a rotten cold, no matter what you do you’ll be better in a few days.

Secondly, there's the intervention effect. Sometimes just deciding to take action about your health brings about an effect indirectly. You start eating properly, taking exercise and looking after yourself better and this might involve you starting to take homeopathic remedies. Why assume it's the remedy that did it? Maybe all that extra fruit you ate that kept the colds away? At least fruit contains Vitamin C, something that actually does something.

The last possibility is the one that people often dismiss but is actually one of the most remarkable things that can happen in medicine. The placebo effect. Just the action of taking medication can make you feel a bit better. Of course it’s never going to grow back an amputated leg or cure cancer but it can make pain a little bit more bearable or the symptoms of a disorder FEEL a little bit better.

But that doesn’t mean that homeopathy actually works. It doesn’t.

I think it’s time that we also made it harder for peddlers of health nonsense to peddle their deceptions and ignorance.

This week’s star
  • Dipuo from the BTC Customer Care centre in Gaborone for delivering “world class service”

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