Sunday, April 22, 2007

Quack, quack

No, this is not about ducks. In fact, in the interests of full disclosure I will tell you up front that if you are a devotee of homeopathic medicine, I am about to piss you off.

I am annoyed at my gym. In general it's pretty good; clean, well maintained, new equipment; so I'm giving them a pass by not including their name. In the interests of Earth Day they published their own version of (in this case) 40 "small things each of us can do" to help the earth. I was browsing through it to see if they included the one I've been doing for 35 years (cloth dinner napkins instead of paper - they missed it; they did get the cloth towels for spills), and when I got to #32 I'm afraid I blew my stack. Number 32 said,
"Use homeopathic remedies rather than synthetic drugs - it's healthier for you and the planet."
Well, I can't deny that homeopathic remedies are healthier for the planet. Being composed entirely of water, you could pour them into storm drains with no visible impact on the environment. But - healthier for you?? I don't understand how an organization that regularly sends me emails about exercise, good nutrition, etc., can possibly suggest to me that I should stop taking the "synthetic drugs" which are currently managing my thyroiditis, my rheumatoid arthritis, and my osteoarthritis, and replace them with expensive homeopathic remedies compounded according to the "law of infinitesimals" (I am not making this up), which suggests that the less of something there is, the more powerful an effect it has.

Homeopathic medications are composed along the principles used by the man I once read about who liked his martinis extremely dry - he locked the gin in a closet at the back of the house, and walked past it once a month, carrying a bottle of vermouth. The dilutions commonly used in homeopathic remedies are so extreme that it is physically, chemically, impossible for any molecule of the advertised substance to be in the bottle they sell you. But because they shake it up really hard before diluting it again (and again, and again...), they argue that
the vigorous shaking or pulverizing with each step of dilution leaves behind a "spirit-like" essence—"no longer perceptible to the senses"—which cures by reviving the body's "vital force." Modern proponents assert that even when the last molecule is gone, a "memory" of the substance is retained.
Sure it is. This is pure medievalism: as above, so below. I shudder to think of the effect should some innocent take this advice seriously and quit taking something they really need, like blood pressure meds, or nitro for heart trouble. Or prednisone for any of the really nasty conditions that appalling drug gets prescribed for. The idea that homeopathic remedies are "less harmful" comes from the fact that they were developed in the 19th and early 20th century and, because they have no effect at all, were less harmful than many of the 19th century's orthodox medical practices, thereby allowing patients to recover naturally, in some cases, from conditions where the medical doctor's standard treatment would have killed them.

You don't need to take my word for all this. I've found a wonderful site called Quackwatch, which I recommend in general; and in specific, I recommend their feature article on homeopathy. The author, Stephen Barrett, is a retired M.D., a man of impressive scientific credentials, and a fellow of CSICOP. All the details above (except the story about the martini drinker) are excerpted from Dr. Barrett's excellent feature article; please go and read all of it. And don't, if you ever did, pay the prices charged for what is effectively a small bottle of water.

Oh, and the "evidence of wonderful results"? Just remember, double blind studies have shown that the placebo effect, from a sugar pill, can produce a recovery rate in the 30-40% range. Homeopathic remedies are placebos, nothing more.

I have filed a (signed) comment card with my gym suggesting that it was irresponsible of them to include this suggestion in their list.


  1. Anonymous8:23 AM

    What ho, are you ever going to PO some folks. I will refrain from alerting my loving relatives, one branch of whom only got the kids immunized when Grandma requested it as a gift in place of whatever was going to happen for Christmas or Mother's Day.

    On the other point, these same relatives once gave me a remedy when I'd cut a finger so badly I couldn't get it to stop bleeding.(Okay I should have gone to the emergency room, but that's not of importance here.) The finger stopped bleeding, or my body simply ran out of blood. When I did go to the doctor, she scrubbed the cut with a vengence and was a little surprised it wouldn't bleed at all. Maybe my body had run out of the red stuff. Everyone back at the party attributed it to the remedy. Was It? I don't even know what the remedy was, which gives you a great deal to infer about the entire episode.

    Then there was the time I broke a bone in my hand while visiting. (Hmmm, this isn't sounding healthy, is it?)Anyway, three days later, several remedy doses later, the emergency room doctor determinded, while admiring the x-ray, that it was, indeed, a broken bone. The remedy, whatever it was, didn't do any apparent damage. Water in pill form is good for you?

    Personally, I hadn't known about the dilution process. Fascinating. Well, following the same logic given by the link in Hedra's blog, anyone reading this post is encountering an etheral memory of my existance.

  2. Yes, my standard response to these suggestions is, I never argue with what works for other people but I'm not gonna do it. If you actually take a remedy that you don't really believe in, do you get an anti-placebo effect? Does it make you worse?

    I was quite astounded, shortly after posting this, when a friend of mine with actual medical training (although not an M.D.) recommended a homeopathic remedy to me for a problem I've been having. I suggested I already drink plenty of water.

    I do not believe your body simply ran out of blood. I wonder what that remedy was. I'm not in the least surprised that the other one did no good for a broken bone.

  3. Now you've gone and done it. All those wonderful homeo recipies (under the brand name PLAA-SEE-BOW) will now stop working.

    But maybe you are onto something regarding the environmental impact. If we can just convince professional athletes that they work, then they will, by example, convince high schoolers, and then they'll just end up drinking extra water instead of pumping themselves full of steroids.