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Dean Pomerleau

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Spoiler Alert: If you believe homeopathy is helping you or someone you love, by all means don't read any further. Seriously, don't.



Note: I'm posting this to "Chit Chat" rather than the "Health and Longevity" forum because I don't want to give any hint that I or anyone else might be giving homeopathy any credibility as a scientific practice for health or longevity.



My wife has a friend who is supposedly very "up" on the latest in health and wellness practices, shops exclusively at Whole Foods, etc. She's also very big into homeopathy... My wife says her friend raves about how well it works for herself and for her mom, who has Alzheimer's or some other form of dementia. While talking to my wife about how great homeopathy is the friend even popped a 30C Belladonna tablet and dissolved it under her tongue to demonstrate.


When my wife told me about it, I recalled (from memory) that homeopathy is complete bunk. She challenged me, saying her knowledgeable friend swears by it. So I put together the following information to debunk homeopathy for her and her friend. I challenged my wife to send it to her friend. She declined - i.e. she chickened out. But at least my wife now knows there is a difference between claiming to know what's healthy based on what you might hear from the "wellness" community, or from the salesperson at a so-called "health food" store, and understanding what the science says about a health topic. I figured some of the rational people here on the CR forums might get a kick out of learning more about just how crazy homeopathy is in terms of scientific plausibility. 


But having said that, I concurred with my wife's decision not to send this to her friend. Paradoxically, homeopathy could in fact be working for her and her mom - but solely as a result of the placebo effect, since the 30C belladonna pills that cure everything have precisely zero molecules from the belladonna plant in them as discussed below.


In short homeopathic cures are arguably the largest and most successful organized application of the placebo effect for medical treatment that the world has ever known. Hence the disclaimer at the top of this post. If you believe in homeopathy, you are lucky, since it that belief means it just might work for you. For more discussion of placebos and how tangibly beneficial they can be for people who truly believe that what they are taking or doing will help them, see this thread


So without further ado, here is the low-down on homeopathy.


You can read about details of the theory behind how homeopathy is supposed to work on the homeopathy wikipedia page (which is thankfully very critical). It basically involves treatment with massively diluted mixtures of a substance that in concentrated doses will actually cause the symptom you're trying to cure (I know, it just sounds crazy because it is crazy). So for example, belladonna is a poisonous nightshade, which, if accidentally ingested in significant quantity, can cause the following symptoms: 


dilated pupils, sensitivity to light, blurred vision, tachycardia [irregular heartbeat], loss of balance, staggering, headache, rash, flushing, severely dry mouth and throat, slurred speech, urinary retention, constipation, confusion, hallucinations, delirium, and convulsions.


With such a wide range of symptoms, it's no wonder that people who believe in homeopathy believe that homeopathic doses of belladonna can cure just about anything - since it can cause just about any symptoms in large doses, it should cure just about anything in tiny doses! Such is the complete irrationality and twisted nature of this way of thinking...


But the really crazy thing is not the idea that small doses of something toxic can be beneficial. There is even some evidence for this kind of effect actually happening in real life. It generally goes by the name hormesis. While some people think it's benefits are overblown (especially hormesis for longevity), activities like exercise, calorie restriction, heat or cold stress, immunotherapy for cancer, even the phytonutrients in vegetables, are thought by many to have beneficial effects due to the way they stress the body and/or alert it to damage, causing it to upregulate its natural defenses. 


No, the really crazy thing about homeopathy I alluded to above - namely the massive dilution of the 'active' ingredient that they employ. How massive you ask? So massive that it would be funny if it weren't also (in some respects) tragic...


From the Homeopathy wikipedia page:


Dilution typically continues well past the point where no molecules of the original substance remain.[10] 
Homeopathy is not a plausible system of treatment, as its dogmas about how drugs, illness, the human body, liquids and solutions operate are contradicted by a wide range of discoveries across biology, psychology, physics and chemistry made in the two centuries since its invention.[7][13][14][15][16] Although some clinical trials produce positive results,[17][18] multiple systematic reviews have indicated that this is because of chance, flawed research methods, and reporting bias. Continued homeopathic practice, despite the evidence that it does not work, has been criticized as unethical because it discourages the use of effective treatments,[19] with the World Health Organisation warning against using homeopathy to try to treat severe diseases such as HIV and malaria.[20] The continued practice of homeopathy, despite a lack of evidence of efficacy,[6][7][21] has led to it being characterized within the scientific and medical communities as nonsense,[22] quackery,[4][23][24] and a sham.[25]
If you don't like Wikipedia, here is an article from www.sciencebasedmedicine.org on Homeopathy:
Homeopathy would win [as #1 scam of all time]. Any scam index that did not rank homeopathy at number one would have to put up a very convincing argument indeed that their formula was not somehow fundamentally flawed.

Here is another good article on Homeopathy from Quackwatch.com. It has a good explanation of 30C:
A 30X dilution means that the original substance has been diluted 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times. Assuming that a cubic centimeter of water contains 15 drops, this number is greater than the number of drops of water that would fill a container more than 50 times the size of the Earth. Imagine placing a drop of red dye into such a container so that it disperses evenly. Homeopathy's "law of infinitesimals" is the equivalent of saying that any drop of water subsequently removed from that container will possess an essence of redness. Robert L. Park, Ph.D., a prominent physicist who is executive director of The American Physical Society, has noted that since the least amount of a substance in a solution is one molecule, a 30C solution would have to have at least one molecule of the original substance dissolved in a minimum of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules of water. This would require a container more than 30,000,000,000 times the size of the Earth.


In other words - consider those 30C belladonna pills your friend is taking andfeeding to her sick mother. Imagine having a sphere of lactose and sucrose (the two "inactive" ingredients in belladonna pills - suggesting there actually is an "active" ingredient...) that is 50 times the size of the entire Earth (it may be a lot bigger than that, but let's be conservative). Hide one molecule of belladonna somewhere within that huge sphere. Then scoop out of that sphere 80 of the tiny pills your friend gets on Amazon for $8 and then dissolves under her tongue. What do you think the chances are that one of her 80 pills will actually be 'lucky' enough to contain the single molecule of belladonna stashed away somewhere in the sphere 50 times the size of the entire Earth? Saying the chances are "pretty slim" would be a near infinite understatement. With as close to 100% probability as any odds you'll ever encounter, there is zero belladonna in belladonna homeopathic remedies, and if there is the company is engaged in false advertizing. 

But as you said, homeopathy is big in Europe. They sell homeopathic remedies in pharmacies in both the US and Europe. The biggest company selling homeopathic remedies, Boiron, recently settled a class action lawsuits filed by people in California, claiming (rightly, at the company's own admission) that the entire bottle of their cold remedy contains exactly 0 molecules of any active ingredients, with a probability that is almost infinitely close to 100%. Check out this video (embedded below) on the lawsuit link website. It has a recording of someone asking the poison control hotline about the possibility of overdosing on a homeopathic cold remedy they'd just taken. Pretty amusing. 
Finally, below the video are a few really amusing (I thought) cartoons about homeopathy. For anyone whose got this far, be sure to check out the last one. I thought it was funniest.
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