In a recent article I introduced the topic of the role of dreams in homeopathic diagnosis. In this article I explain how sleep and dreams serve as useful indicators of the progress of healing.
From Diagnosis to Treatment
The correct diagnosis marks only the beginning of the homeopathic healing journey. The process of treatment includes regular followup appointments (usually once every several weeks), during which the patient’s present state of health is carefully compared with the past state.
The action of a homeopathic remedy is very individual, and the initial phase of improvement is often experienced by patients as turbulent. Physical symptoms often get worse before they get better, there may be swings in mood and energy levels, and interpersonal relations may be strained as the patient begins to shift on a deep level.
This state of affairs is an unavoidable consequence of the nature of homeopathic healing which, unlike most other treatments, restores balance of the whole organism but may not provide symptomatic relief early on. Thus the best indicators of improvement are often not the symptoms comprising the patient’s suffering. Therefore in order to assess patients’ spiritual health, homeopaths rely heavily on general clinical indicators such as mood, energy, sleep quality, and pattern and content of dreams.
Even in cases of turmoil (known as a homeopathic aggravation) or apparent lack of progress, positive changes in these general indicators reliably herald eventual lasting improvement. On the other hand, a prolonged aggravation of specific symptoms without a concurrent positive shift in the general state may indicate a setback unrelated to the treatment, or in unusual cases a negative response to a wrongly prescribed remedy.
Sleep and dreams are sensitive early indicators of spiritual health
Improvement in the quality of sleep is among the most reliable indicators of a positive spiritual shift early on in the treatment process. Although few patients present with sleep problems as their main complaint, many people sleep poorly enough that they report an improvement in this sphere when prompted by the homeopath. Some will find that they fall asleep more easily and sleep more soundly, whereas others will temporarily experience more restless or dream-disturbed sleep yet will have better mood and energy the following day.
With regard to dreaming, two patterns of improvement are seen. The first and, in my experience, more common one is where patients experience a surge in their dreaming, noting upon waking that they have dreamt more at night, remembering more of their dreams, or being awoken by a dream during the night. The increase in dreaming is the surfacing of unconscious material and its integration into the person’s conscious life experience. This in turn frequently promotes a feeling of well being that compensates for the disruption of sleep.
The second pattern is seen in patients who used to dream a lot and presently begin to experience more peaceful sleep. In these patients it seems that there is a good connection to the subconscious, but issues are rehashed and re-experienced without resolution. As these issues are resolved, the need to process them during sleep decreases, and dreaming is reduced accordingly. This situation must be contrasted with the situation where a patient experiences less dreaming yet also poorer sleep: in such cases the reduction in dreaming suggests a disconnection from the subconscious.
Shifts in sleep and dreaming while under homeopathic treatment occur incidentally to shifts in the main complaint: they are non-specific indicators of the state of spiritual health of the organism, regardless of the nature of the patient’s main complaint. It is normal for the chief complaint, when it is physical or mental rather than purely spiritual, to lag behind the spiritual state: the physical or mental complaint can shift only once the spiritual foundation for healing has been prepared. For this reason changes in sleep and dreaming are among the earliest and most sensitive clinical indicators, and as such are extremely helpful whenever changes in specific symptoms are vague, contradictory, or otherwise difficult to interpret.
Finally, at times the changing content of dreams itself is a useful indicator of the trajectory of progress. In such cases it may be useful to discuss this with the patient, in order to bring to greater awareness the significance of a specific dream. Overall, however, homeopathy is much less concerned with deep dream analysis than are many schools of psychotherapy.
Common causes of failure of homeopathic treatment
For homeopaths, it is important to communicate the nature of homeopathic medicine to their patients. Otherwise patients form unrealistic expectations about their own progress, based on the reasonable expectation that their symptoms should be relieved not only permanently but quickly. Unfortunately, some homeopaths are not be sufficiently cognizant that they are dealing with purely spiritual medicine, or may be swayed away from this conviction in their desire to relieve their patients’ suffering. But the above described approach produces by far the best long-term clinical results, and failure to look for the subtle shifts in spiritual health that precede more obvious shifts in physical or mental symptoms is a frequent cause of failure of homeopathic treatment even when the first hurdle — choosing the correct remedy — has been overcome. Most commonly this is seen as the habit of chasing symptoms by changing remedies in quick succession, instead of persisting with one carefully chosen remedy for the several months to several years that it takes to fully resolve a spiritual imbalance.
Homeopathic patients, on their part, will sometimes become disillusioned after relief is not quick to come, thereby missing out on the profound healing benefits which must follow the correct homeopathic prescription. For them it is important to understand the natural laws of healing as they become manifest through sleep, dreams, and otherwise. Otherwise the only resort for such patients, other than to keep suffering, is to suppress their symptoms through conventional medications or other forms of symptomatic treatment, without regard for the long-term consequences. Homeopathic treatment is very powerful, but is not well-suited for those looking for a quick fix, as homeopathic patients need to be willing to forego immediate relief in favor of a long-term investment in health and well-being.
Homeopathic treatment begins with a thorough investigation into all aspects of the patient’s life. During the initial interview the homeopath routinely enquires about dreams (especially childhood dreams, memorable past dreams, recurrent dreams, and nightmares), because dreams have proven to be helpful clinical indicators in many patients’ cases.
But dreams must be amongst the most contentious, mysterious, and thoroughly unobjective of phenomena! Why, then, are they nevertheless considered valuable in homeopathic diagnosis and treatment? Their value lies in their ability to reveal the true state of the patient and to point the way to a confident selection of homeopathic remedy. In a followup article I will further explain how changes in sleep and dreaming patterns are sensitive indicators of the progress of healing once treatment has begun.
Dreams: Precious psychic gems or rubble of the mind?
One of the enduring mysteries of life is the nature of dreams. Scientists have a relatively poor understanding of the unique physiological states that occur during sleep and dreaming, let alone of the reasons for the bewildering array of dream content that we experience. In any event science does not yet possess a convincing theory that explains why we must, in the first place, sleep and experience dreaming states to function normally and stay alive (prolonged sleep deprivation of experimental animals leads to dire consequences).
The actual content of dreams is normally considered irrelevant or not amenable to the scientific mode of investigation. For example, one theory holds that dreams are simply the mind’s attempt at making sense of the electrical noise produced by brain metabolism: whereas in the waking state these signals find an outlet in miniature muscular contractions throughout the body, during the paralysis of sleep these signals are transformed into thoughts which bring about the dreaming experience.
But science apart and life apart: people of all cultures routinely interpret their dreams, finding patterns of meaning even when reasonably there are none to be found. Psychologists and occult practitioners of all kind investigate the dream world, hoping to offer insight and assistance to their clients through correct interpretation of their dreams.
Many spiritual traditions concur in their view that during sleep our soul leaves the body and locates itself in some other realm in which actions are not bound by physical laws. In the modern world dreams are regarded more conservatively, but not necessarily more accurately, as windows into the individual’s subconscious — a realm beyond the purview of science, governed (if at all) by the mysterious laws of spirit.
How do homeopaths make use of dreams?
The homeopathic approach to dreams is straightforward: on the one hand homeopaths fully accept the legitimacy of dream material (along with all of the subjective phenomena reported by patients), while on the other hand they strive to avoid dream interpretation.
Being that it is prone to error and speculation, dream interpretation is not considered a reliable foundation for homeopathic diagnosis, although it has its place within the healing dialogue between patient and homeopath. Instead, homeopaths employ dreams in these two ways: (i) as symptoms just like any other homeopathic symptom, and (ii) as pointers to the true state of the patient.
(i) Dreams are ordinary homeopathic symptoms
Dreams can be incorporated into the diagnosis simply as ordinary homeopathic symptoms alongside other symptoms, because among the physical and psychological symptoms listed under the materia medica (clinical description) of each remedy are listed dream rubrics such as:
- Dreams - children
- Dreams - dogs
- Dreams - dancing
- Dreams - war
as well as dream qualities such as:
- Dreams - obscene
- Dreams - pleasant
- Dreams - vivid
Associated with each such category are remedies listed in the homeopathic repertory (index of symptoms). In a patient with a clear history of dreams the homeopath thus can narrow down the field of possibilities and concentrate his mind on a smaller set of potential remedies.
The use of dreams as reported phenomena just like any other mental and subjective symptoms is universally accepted among classical homeopaths.
(ii) Dreams point to the true state of the patient
The second use of dreams involves drawing out mental attributes from the raw dream reports. This is done under two assumptions: first, that dreams are meaningfully related to the person’s state and, second, that they are at least as good a representation of this state as are the non-dream reports.
Because people are frequently unaware of aspects of their psyche, fears or delusions (perceptions in mentally healthy people that are not reflective of reality) are often revealed only through dreams. For example, a patient who has frightful encounters with snakes in her dreams might merit the designation and corresponding rubric “Fear of snakes,” while a patient who is regularly dreams of being involved in warfare might merit the rubric “Delusion - he is a soldier.”
Dream translation has to be done both skillfully and conservatively lest it devolve into speculation. Not surprisingly, homeopaths differ in their opinion about the legitimacy of using dreams in this indirect manner. Those, like myself, who consider it legitimate to venture into the dream world find in dreams a most-reliable gateway to the psyche: when correctly handled, dreams offer a precise view of the hidden dynamics that motivate the patient’s life, frequently leading to a correspondingly precise diagnosis and prescription.
The key to not abusing this approach lies in integrating the inferences from the patient’s dream world with the rest of the patient’s description by verifying that the dream element is corroborated elsewhere in the clinical report.
Further uses of dreams
Dreams can further be exploited as starting points for drawing out psychological material that the patient is aware of yet does not wish or is unable to divulge directly.
From their dream reports patients can be led rather craftily to reveal aspects of their persona that they are either reluctant to discuss or which they incorrectly consider irrelevant for the homeopathic interview. When used by the homeopath with the pure intention of helping the patient, this approach creates no harm and enables a precise diagnosis even in an uncooperative patient.
Finally, dreams can reveal the psychic makeup of children who are old enough to retell their dreams but not yet intellectually capable of answering more abstract enquiries into their mental state.
Dreams are valuable because they bypass compensations
In the final analysis, the key reason for the diagnostic importance of dreams is that much of the conscious reporting of the patient is based on his or her compensated state. Compensation involves the funneling of thoughts and behavioural impulses that are inappropriate to the situation toward more productive or socially acceptable outcomes.
Such restraint and rechanelling of behaviour is a cardinal ingredient of any civilized society, but it makes the homeopath’s task of correct diagnosis more difficult. For example, a person with violent impulses might take up Tai Chi, cultivating the peaceful, meditative aspect of the art and speaking at length about values such as inner calm and forgiveness. If asked directly about violent tendencies (i.e., if the homeopath were to suspect this from the patient’s ‘feel’ or appearance) such a patient would answer in denial. Yet a reported violent dream might reveal what lies hidden underneath the peaceful outward manner.
In a followup article I explain how changes in sleep and dreaming patterns are sensitive indicators of the progress of healing under homeopathic treatment.
In this article I will describe a basic aspect of homeopathy’s spiritual understanding of health and disease: the view that disease arises from a fixed adaptation to a past situation that no longer exists in the present.
Homeopaths view health and disease as states of being that are either appropriate for the situation (healthy) or inappropriate for the situation (unhealthy). The state of being that we adopt from moment to moment can be regarded a ‘posture’ that is either suitable or unsuitable for the present moment of existence. An unsuitable posture kept for too long manifests as chronic disease, whereas a short-lasting one causes acute symptoms or weakens the organism until it is susceptible to infectious influences.
Disease arises from memory of a past state that no longer exists
Conventional medicine is based on a materialistic view of life. Health is compared to a well-functioning machine, while disease is viewed as a malfunction in some part of the machine.
Homeopathy is based on a spiritual view of life. Health is the ability to respond freely and creatively to all situations encountered throughout life, whereas disease is any restriction on this ability.
Samual Hahnemann, the originator of homeopathy, discovered through lifelong clinical observation that disease could often be traced to a ‘mistunement’ created during a past stressful episode in the life of the organism or its ancestors. He concluded that the memory of this past state was the real cause the suffering that we experienced through physical and psychological symptoms.
Health is the flexibility to successfully adapt to all life situations
Rajan Sankaran (author of The Spirit of Homoeopathy) describes disease as an “unsuitable posture… adopted by the organism in order to survive in a perceived situation.”
What is a “perceived situation”? To answer this, let’s first look at an example he gives of a real situation:
If you are lifting a heavy bag and you have to walk with that heavy weight, in order that your back does not break, you have to bend in the direction opposite to the bag. So, your body adopts a posture to survive in this situation. This posture is healthy, it is going to do you good, in this situation it is needed, and as long as the bag is heavy, the posture has to be maintained.
Hence, we see that posture is an adjustment. As long as this adjustment is in proportion to the existing situation, as long as it is suitable to this situation, and as long as the situation or exciting factor remains, this adjustment cannot and should not be corrected.
Life can be viewed as a series of adaptations: one situation flows into another, and each time a different posture is adopted to suit the new situation. Health is the flexibility to correctly adapt to any situation that arises throughout our life journey.
An unhealthy posture arises from adaptation to a perceived situation that is not really present. This adaptation can be either inappropriate for the situation or appropriate for the situation but of disproportionate intensity. Sankaran illustrates these possibilities as follows:
When a man is being chased by a lion, the posture of running fast, being afraid, etc. is appropriate since his survival depends upon it. However, if a man is in the same state without a lion chasing him, or he adopts the same posture even if a little dog chases him, or he is in such a pain that he cannot think (a reaction far in excess of what is needed in the situation) then this state is to be removed by treatment.
The unsuitable posture is hidden behind physical and psychological symptoms
So long as an unhealthy posture is held over from the past, the person is precluded from adopting an appropriate posture for the present situation. This is considered a state of disease in homeopathy, whether or not there are clear physical or psychological symptoms that warrant medical treatment. This means, on the one hand, that homeopathy is a powerful healing tool in cases where the patient feels distress yet there are no discernible medical abnormalities.
On the other hand, during the clinical encounter between patient and homeopath the disease state does not automatically reveal itself as an unhealthy posture. In most clinical situations the patient will present with vague discomfort or with one or more physical and psychological complaints. During the homeopathic intake the homeopath must therefore ask many questions in order to lead the patient to reveal the unsuitable posture that he or she continuously adopts in all life situations.
This posture, which most of us do not have a direct awareness of, is the underlying reason for the existence of the clinical complaint that induces people to seek homeopathic treatment in the first place.
How do unsuitable postures arise?
An unsuitable posture originates from an adaptation to a past situation that is maintained even though it is no longer applicable to the situation. This happens when the past situation has exceeded the organism’s resilience. Such situations generally fall into one of the following categories:
- a past traumatic event,
- childhood or cultural habits that have powerfully impressed themselves on the organism, or
- inherited spiritual impressions — known in homeopathy as “miasms” — that long ago left their mark on one’s parents or earlier ancestors.
Resilience can be understood by analogy with a steel spring: just as a steel spring can be bent and absorb many small shocks and still recover its original form, a person can absorb many stresses yet maintain his underlying state of health throughout the stressful period. But beyond a certain threshold, excessive stress deforms the spring and causes it to lose its elasticity. A person exposed to excessive stress will likewise carry the spiritual impression or ‘deformation’ due to the past stress and will no longer be fully ‘elastic’ and responsive to the present situation.
Homeopathic treatment frees us from unsuitable postures
We all continually adopt postures in order to survive in different life situations or in an attempt to create a reality that we imagine to be desirable. But if we remain fixed in a posture that is no longer appropriate for the situation (for any of the reasons cited earlier) to the point that we are unable to respond appropriately to situations that arise in the present, we may then become aware of an uncomfortable sensation at the level of our spirit. If we do not free ourselves of the fixed posture eventually we experience more obvious psychological discomfort, physical symptoms, or both.
In Sankaran’s words:
Disease is thus seen as an affection of the whole person, as a posture adopted as a survival mechanism to suit a particular situation which does not exist at the moment. This posture makes us react to the present in an unsuitable way due to our false perception of it. Such an unsuitable and disproportionate reaction to the situation naturally causes a constant stress on the organism, and the stress aggravates the pathology or brings the tendency to a particular pathology into activity.
Health is the ability to feel OK in all situations. A posture is an adaptation for feeling OK under a specific situation. Unless one is able to switch postures freely from moment to moment, a person will only feel OK when the fixed posture happens to coincide with (be suitable for) the situation.
In terms of the model I’ve just presented, homeopathic treatment releases the hold of the unsuitable posture that prevents free-flowing adaptation to the present moment. By raising awareness of the inappropriateness of the fixed posture to the point that a person can choose to abandon it in favour of another posture, homeopathic remedies assist in the release of inappropriate life habits that manifest physically or psychologically. Once this happens, full resilience is restored and the person is able to handle life as it comes — adopting appropriate postures as needed and shifting away from them as soon as the situation is over — without undue stress.
In the recent article on skepticism about homeopathy we saw how we cannot ignore skeptical media reports because of their powerful influence on the acceptance of homeopathy in society. Well, if we cannot ignore them then let’s debate them!
In today’s article I present a video of a recent debate between physician and homeopath Peter Fisher, clinical director of the Royal London Homoeopathic Hospital (the same one who appears in Dawkins’ The Enemies of Reason) and Ben Goldacre, a physician and skeptical columnist for England’s Guardian newspaper.
The importance of debates such as this is that they influence not only the public but also regulatory bodies that rely on self-appointed experts on both sides of the debate in crafting their policies. In some cases their regulatory decisions exert a significant influence on the state of homeopathy locally and internationally.
Availability of publicly funded homeopathic treatment in the UK
Should homeopathy be available under publicly funded medical programs such as Britain’s NHS (National Health Service)?
Recently there has been a movement afoot to eliminate all UK government spending on homeopathy, after many decades of limited but significant support.
Thanks to the Royal family’s use of homeopathy over the past few generations, there happen to be four government-funded homeopathic hospitals in the UK, where patients can access a combination of conventional and homeopathic treatment along with other alternative services. These hospitals are now under risk of closure due to discontinuation of their government funding. (Incidentally, if you ever experienced the benefits of homeopathy you may sign the “Homeopathy Worked for Me” online petition which has been organized in response to this troublesome state of affairs — both UK and international residents may sign.)
By learning about this particular debate we can better understand the dynamics between supporters and opponents of homeopathy, and the social consequences of their interaction, wherever in the world these debates might take place.
The video’s total length is 1h33m, of which the following sections are relevant to us:
- 6m-26m: Peter Fisher (pro-homeopathy) retells some cases of ‘bad science’ that argue that homeopathy has no effect followed by ‘good science’ that shows that homeopathy has an effect.
- 30m-50m: Ben Goldacre (anti-homeopathy) presents the basic principles of skepticism, engages in “armchair skepticism” by declining directly to challenge any of Fisher’s positive evidence.
- 1h1m-1h30m: Audience debate, in which several interesting comments in favor of homeopathy are made (the audience in this case is made up mostly of supporters of homeopathy).
Relevance to other countries
Legislative trends in certain countries often have worldwide implications. If homeopathy were to take a step backward in the UK then it might have less of a chance of being supported elsewhere in the near future, regardless of positive clinical outcomes and patient satisfaction.
Even detractors of homeopathy will admit that the homeopathic hospitals offer a valuable service to the community by striving to maximize patient choice through a broad selection of conventional and complementary treatments: external referrals from ordinary physicians are their main source of patients, and surveys show high patient satisfaction and positive clinical outcomes.
But despite this they consider any expenditure on homeopathy unjustified given, as they claim, its scientific implausibility and lack of demonstrated efficacy in randomized, placebo-controlled trials. In other words, they see any expenditure on unproven therapies as unjustified in principle.
So we see that the fact that there is demand for homeopathy and that homeopathic treatment likely saves health-care resources (by diverting patients away from more costly conventional care) is not enough for ensuring its ongoing, unhindered development. The debate on the status of homeopathy is thus a debate on the extent to which mainstream scientific opinion should determine which treatment choices we pursue.
It is difficult for skeptics to forbid everyone from pursuing homeopathic and other alternative treatments. But it is possible for them to make it more difficult and costly than it could otherwise be, and thereby to prevent from many people from experiencing the benefits of alternative medicine.
You may explore the current UK situation in greater detail by following the links below. For a more general view of a typical debate on the scientific status of homeopathy see the lengthy discussion between myself and several defenders of Ben Goldacre’s position as mentioned below.
- Open letter calling for a boycott on homeopathy (see also the comments that follow it), written by a group of UK physicians and academics headed by Edzard Ernst (a physician who investigates alternative medicine), demanding that NHS support for homeopathy be stopped.
- Peter Fisher’s reply to the above letter.
- A recent editorial titled Benefits and Risks of Homoeopathy published in The Lancet (a British medical journal of worldwide influence) by Ben Goldacre, followed by a discussion between myself and Ben and several of his supporters on his site Bad Science. This discussion offers a lively illustration of how such debates are typically not resolved, because each side views the raw evidence through the lens of pre-existing assumptions.
- A more recent article about funding cuts for homeopathic services that are already taking place in the UK.
Again, please sign the online petition in support of government-funded homeopathy if you have experienced its benefits and wish to voice your support of it in the UK and beyond.
Have your say below: Should homeopathic treatment generally be funded by the taxpayer or financed privately?
Homeopathy is highly effective in the treatment of allergies and fully capable of stimulating the organism to heal to the point of complete relief from all allergy symptoms.
Many of us have suffered from allergies at one time in our life, and usually the best treatment offered was symptomatic relief through avoidance of the allergen or through medication. Homeopathy, on the other hand, addresses the cause of the sensitivity to allergens at the deepest possible level; avoiding the allergen (the substance responsible for the allergic response) or resorting to suppression of symptoms through ongoing symptomatic treatment becomes unnecessary once this sensitivity has been eliminated.
In this article I begin with (1) a short overview of allergies, followed by (2) discussion of the conventional approach, (3) the homeopathic diagnostic approach and (4) the rationale behind the homeopathic approach to the treatment of allergies.
1. The many types of allergy
There are many common substances to which people may develop an allergic response, including:
- Foods such as wheat (gluten), milk and dairy, seafood (shellfish), alcohol, soy, eggs, peanuts, and certain vegetables (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants).
- Common environmental factors such as dust, pollen, mold, animal fur (from dogs, cats, or other pets), dust mites, and sunlight.
- Various natural or synthetic substances such as latex, nickel, pesticides, medications (penicillin, sulfa drugs, and many more), venom from relatively harmless animal stings (bees, wasps).
Symptoms of allergy manifest at the interface between the external world and internal environment: on the skin and in mucus membranes of the respiratory tract, the digestive tract, and the eyes. The inflammation that results causes the various allergy symptoms that many of us are familiar with from personal experience or through someone we know.
It should be noted that some of the above substances may cause trouble to many otherwise healthy people. If this is the case and the substance is synthetic or strongly modified from its natural form (medications, commerical wheat, genetically modified soy, etc.) then it may indeed be the substance rather than personal sensitivity that should be viewed as the true cause, and avoidance may well be the most appropriate solution in such cases.
Indeed, there are many substances encountered in modern life to which we are not physiologically adapted. These are a frequent cause of intolerance symptoms such as mental fogginess, tiredness, poor digestion, skin rashes, and diarrhea. Intolerance should be distinguished from allergy by its lesser specificity and intensity of symptoms, and the term may also refer to certain hereditary conditions in which the body is unable to handle specific food components or environmental conditions for reasons that have nothing to do with the immune system. From the therapeutic point of view intolerance (except of the hereditary type) is approached similarly to allergy, although frequently with more emphasis on avoidance.
In addition, some forms of asthma are allergic in nature, seasonal allergies are frequently referred to as hay fever, and a skin allergy usually manifests itself as hives.
Whatever the exact terminology applied, the goal of homeopathic allergy treatment is the strengthening of the organism at its spiritual core, leading to increased resilience of the organism. A resilient person is able to withstand a wide variety of environments by responding appropriately to each situation without suffering chronic ill effects.
2. The conventional approach to allergy
The conventional approach to allergy incorporates the strategy of environmental control, whereby the patient avoids exposure to the allergen as much as possible. In contrast, from the homeopathic perspective the identity of the allergen is not nearly as important as each individual’s specific pattern of response to it, both at the physical and at the psychological level.
The former approach is effective in principle but has two limitations. First, avoiding the allergen completely may be difficult in highly sensitive individuals for whom even trace amounts of allergen produce a full-blown, or even life-threatening, allergic response.
Second, the avoidance approach doesn’t address the true cause of the allergy, which is not the allergen but the person’s sensitivity to it. Avoidance can eliminate symptoms but it doesn’t amount to true healing, at least not by the stringent homeopathic standards: health is freedom in facing external challenges with few limitations, whereas avoidance restricts the individual’s freedom.
There are two classes of medication generally in use for the symptomatic control of allergies: antihistamines and corticosteroids. Of these, corticosteroids are the more disruptive because they paralyze the immune system at its root, whereas antihistamines interrupt the allergic response without fundamentally altering immune function.
A second-line approach to more severe allergies is immunotherapy (‘allergy shots’), which involves regular injections of small amounts of the relevant allergen(s) over a long period (several months to several years); this leads to a gradual desensitization of the body to them. This approach happens to be based on a simplified version of the homeopathic principle called isopathy, and because of this it does not disrupt homeopathic treatment (beyond making it difficult to determine which of the two treatments should be credited with the improvement). This approach is suitable for many, but falls short of the more global therapeutic improvement attainable through the homeopathic approach.
3. The homeopathic diagnostic approach
The homeopathic treatment of allergies begins with the physical symptoms but doesn’t end there. Important clues to the homeopathic pattern and prescription can be found in:
- life circumstances around the time of onset of the allergy symptoms;
- situations which cause an exacerbation of the allergy symptoms;
- situations which lead to a relief from allergy symptoms;
- feelings aroused by the allergy symptoms, or the person’s unique experience of the condition;
- how the allergy symptoms disrupt normal living, or what the person is thereby prevented from doing.
Again, it is important to understand that the specific allergy symptoms are not in themselves a disease but merely represent the underlying spiritual imbalance that is the root of all disease. Whether a person will develop allergies, skin problems, joint problems, or organ problems is largely dependent on hereditary factors as well as on the degree of suppression of symptoms from past medical treatment.
In the case of severe allergies and asthma it is important never to reduce or discontinue the use of medications until the allergic tendency has clearly and permanently been eliminated, and even then always in consultation with the treating physician. Likewise it is important to maintain access to emergency facilities in case of a dangerous exacerbation throughout treatment, and to continue carrying antihistamines, inhalers, an EpiPen adrenaline injector, etc. whenever away from home for use in case of a severe reaction.
4. The rationale behind the homeopathic approach to allergies
What is the advantage of comprehensive allergy treatment with homeopathy over other natural approaches?
On the one hand clean diets such as the raw food diet I discussed recently have many beneficial effects. For example, many people do better without wheat: they typically feel more clear-headed than otherwise, among other subtle benefits. So even people who do not complain of any symptoms indicative of allergy or intolerance might do well to avoid certain foods, and likewise to breath fresher air, drink cleaner water, and so on.
But eliminating the allergen should only be seen as the first step of a comprehensive treatment strategy that addresses also the person’s allergic sensitivity. This can be achieved through treatment which strengthens the overall functioning of the organism and repairs the immune system.
If dietary measures are used, they should go beyond avoidance of specific foods, aiming to heal the gut and address the excessive intestinal permeability (also known as leaky gut syndrome) that frequently underlies food-based allergies.
True healing, however, is largely independent of dietary considerations: the healthy person should not only feel extra-healthy on a perfect diet, but also remain symptom-free when consuming a somewhat imperfect diet. To begin, it helps that healthy individuals are naturally attracted to healthy foods. But living in our society involves the occasional birthday or cocktail party or movie outing, and we should not be punished for sporadic indulgence. Yet many people who base their health maintenance on dietary measures alone remain sensitive to deviations from a strict diet, and some even become more rather than less sensitive — and therefore more restricted — over time.
When a person can feel well only on a customized, restrictive diet this indicates an imbalance at a deeper level. This imbalance is addressable partly through lifestyle measures such as exercise and meditation; but, again, one’s health shouldn’t be highly dependent on a strict regimen of daily exercise and meditation.
The way I see it, the ultimate goal in the healing of allergic symptoms involves eliminating sensitivity while increasing freedom. This is achievable through constitutional treatment primarily through comprehensive systems such as Chinese medicine and homeopathy.
Constitutional treatment is the long-term strengthening of the spiritual core of the organism. (See my article on length of homeopathic treatment for information on how long this might take.) Clinically it is known that such treatment tends to increase the natural resilience of the organism to environmental stressors.
We are all familiar with the image of a spiritually strong person as a Zen master who remains unperturbed when faced with interpersonal conflict or life circumstances that would overwhelm a normal being. With respect to allergies, the spiritually healthy person will prefer a allergen-free environment, but will remain healthy even when exposed to unhealthy environmental influences.
Homeopathy is the bad boy of healing systems. Over 200 years after its inception it continues to generate controversy, and being skeptical about homeopathy is far more popular than simply accepting it as is.
It is not surprising, therefore, that possibly the most popular article on this blog has been Is Homeopathic Medicine the “Enemy of Reason”?, where I offered an example of the media’s sensationalization of the alleged scientific implausibility and irrationality of homeopathy.
Why be skeptical about homeopathy in a homeopathic blog?
There are four main reasons for being interested in the skeptical perspective on homeopathy:
- Perhaps the skeptics will turn out to be correct: homeopathy is all a big lie, and I shouldn’t be wasting my life and your time.
- More soberly, engaging with the skeptical arguments against homeopathy helps one in developing a balanced, well-reasoned perspective on the subject: while skeptics are not likely to sway me and those of you who have experienced homeopathy’s benefits away from it, I think it is important for each of us to avoid accepting homeopathy uncritically, either.
- Not least because I am convinced that homeopathy is real, I believe that entering this debate encourages a deeper assessment of the adequacy of the current scientific paradigm or world-view in explaining (i.e., incorporating rather than rejecting as unreal) the many known yet unexplained phenomena of which we have knowledge. This will, in turn, lead to a more inclusive future paradigm that has yet to be articulated fully.
- Homeopathy is under a constant battle for public opinion. In this battle homeopaths are outnumbered by the mainstream scientific and medical communities and their media outlets, which allocate significant resources toward defending the official world-view to which they pledge allegiance. Gains and losses in this battle roughly translate into gains and losses in the success of homeopathy in reaching a wide population and thereby fulfilling its potential for bettering humanity.
Of these the last one is of most concern to the homeopathic community: Because of the influence of media on public opinion and on regulatory bodies, homeopaths must engage with their skeptical critics rather than hope to survive in isolation from such worldly troubles.
Trial by media
Most of the public debate on homeopathy is stimulated by media reports that favor a skeptical view of homeopathy, most often based on complete ignorance of the subject matter. As a result of such negative media coverage, many people who know nothing of homeopathy (and very little of the foundations of modern science) hold a critical view of it.
The people who inform the media range from clueless journalists to professional skeptics who are rarely clueless but often disingenuous in their skepticism. The list of such skeptics includes academics such as Michael Shermer, Richard Wiseman and Richard Dawkins, magicians such as James Randi, and physicians such as Stephen Barrett and Ben Goldacre.
Some of these skeptics are high-level or world-class scientists in their domain (Richard Dawkins is a leading evolutionary biologist). Others are media figures who achieved fame prior to becoming professional skeptics (James Randi won fame during his early career as a professional magician appearing on television), and others yet have garnered attention thanks to their journalistic rather than their primary professional pursuit (Ben Goldacre is a physician who writes a weekly skeptical column for England’s Guardian newspaper).
While in some cases skeptics are professionally suited to their task (e.g., James Randi regularly applies his magician skills to the debunking of fraudulent claims by reproducing the phenomenon under investigation) all skeptics are limited in their ability to evaluate phenomena in which they are not themselves expert.
To bypass this limitation, for example in the case of a non-homeopath skeptic investigating homeopathy, skeptics apply standard criteria of evidence to questionable phenomena, whereby they determine whether a phenomenon is real by whether or not it passes a test that they devise based on their understanding of what constitutes evidence for or against the phenomenon in question. Consequently they engage in “armchair skepticism” rather than sincerely encountering the field or belief they are criticizing.
At best, armchair skepticism is a shortcut to the truth: it allows the skeptic to sift through most bogus claims and distill most true claims without needing to spend an inordinate amount of time on each. But frequently armchair skepticism is inadequate, because its superficial approach cannot penetrate into phenomena that cannot easily be distilled into black and white.
And as should well know by now, I regard homeopathy as a phenomenon, field of medicine, and set of beliefs that is anything but black-and-white!
Skeptics exert a powerful influence on regulatory bodies
Debates on homeopathy usually take place in remove from clinical reality, often between scientists and physicians who have little or no inside knowledge of the practice of homeopathy (whether they are in favor or against it).
Yet it is such debates that influence government policies worldwide as well the general public which these governments serve, and therefore determine to what extent homeopathy is simply allowed to be, encouraged to flourish, or actively suppressed.
At present, the homeopathic profession is functioning and often thriving in many places worldwide, outside of official legislative frameworks such as governmental regulation. Indeed, its rate of growth is among the highest of all forms of natural medicine.
But homeopathy could be in a much better state if it were to be the recipient of outside financial resources rather than self-supported. Furthermore, certain legislative moves could hamper its present level of activity, even crippling the profession as it was crippled following the 1910 publication of the Flexner Report which led to the standardization of medical education in the US, to the benefit of modern medicine and detriment of naturopathy and homeopathy (both of which had been highly evolved, growing professions until then).
What are the main issues in the homeopathy debate?
In upcoming articles on this topic I will be answering the following questions which represent the main issues in the ongoing ‘homeopathy debate’:
- What are the main skeptical arguments against homeopathy?
- What are the proper responses to these arguments?
- What scientific research is there in support of homeopathy?
- What other data are admissible as evidence for homeopathy?
- What conclusions should be drawn (by homeopaths, patients, scientists, and regulatory bodies) from these research findings?
- Can homeopathy be explained within the context of the current scientific paradigm?
- If not, what world-view could incorporate modern science and medicine, homeopathy, and other unexplained phenomena without mutual conflict?
I believe that this debate has been ongoing for the entire duration of the existence of homeopathy because it brings up fundamental questions about the nature of reality that have remained unanswered by modern science. Besides the remarkable clinical results of homeopathic treatment, it is for this reason that I find homeopathy fascinating: it is a portal to a deeper reality that we are only now beginning to understand.
There is an fascinating dietary experiment currently taking place in public view: Steve Pavlina, author of the leading personal development website bearing his name, has committed to eating a high-fruit raw-food diet for the entire month of January, and is recording his experiment in minute detail through daily posts and photographs.
Steve has committed to 30 days of eating a diet based on virtually nothing beyond uncooked fruits and vegetables, excluding dried fruits, spices, oils, and sauces. (The other type of raw-food diet revolves around nuts and seeds.) His intention is not to lose weight, but to eat a calorically adequate diet fulfilling these Spartan criteria. Having witnessed many such experiments during my studies of naturopathic medicine, when I was privy to classmates’ reports on their latest dietary experiment or cleanse, I find Steve’s diet impressive for its combination of strictness and length.
What can we learn from this experiment (without trying it at home)?
Steve’s best-known lifestyle experiment is his past foray into polyphasic sleep. If sleeping in short bursts round-the-clock rather than at night is not your cup of tea, then I’d suggest that raw-food dieting might not be, either. So I am sharing with you his latest experiment not in order for you to try his diet at home, but because of two things that we can learn from it:
1. The best way to know the effect of a dietary change is to experience it
Adopting Steve’s 30-day trial method of new habit formation allows for the freedom to abandon a lifestyle change without a sense of failure or guilt, and therefore the courage to take on bold lifestyle experiments.
2. It is possible to eat complete meals consisting entirely of fruits and vegetables
In my work with patients I primarily address spiritual rather than material imbalances through the use of homeopathy. Nevertheless, I often provide basic dietary suggestions to patients if I feel that their especially poor diet might impede progress at the spiritual level, or when they enquire about the matter. One of the most frequent recommendations I give, not surprisingly, is to eat more fruits and vegetables. Among the most common reservations I hear from patients is that they remain hungry after eating this way.
While it is true that fruits and vegetables do not pack the same caloric punch as a steak, what has most impressed me thus far is Steve’s ability to eat fruit-based meals consisting of 500, 600, or even 700 calories, with no short-term ill effects or hunger. Admittedly, Steve has been a committed vegan for several years and is accustomed to a diet free of calorie-dense animal products. But perhaps the only sacrifice required for the rest of us to start receiving the many benefits of increased fruit and vegetable intake is to accept the need to chew through large quantities of food.
In other words, even if this diet is inappropriate for most of us (and we have yet to see whether Steve will continue eating this way past his 30-day trial period), this experiment demonstrates that it is possible substantially to increase one’s fruit and vegetable intake simply by incorporating raw-food meals into any ordinary diet.
What about the sugar?
A frequent concern raised about eating large amounts of fruit is the high sugar content. This reasonable concern is not shared by Steve, who is reporting prolonged satiety after his meals. I’d therefore recommend to experiment — why not have an all-fruit breakfast for the next few days, followed by a mid-morning snack as soon as hunger returns? — to determine whether eating this way causes, in your individual situation, a premature dip in energy or hunger within less than two hours following the meal.
High sugar intake, even when from healthy fruit sources, puts a stress on the endocrine (hormonal) system, which is charged with the task of maintaining constant blood-sugar levels under variable dietary intake; but the health benefits of such foods strengthen this very system, making the it more resilient and responsive to stresses of all kind. Therefore my hunch is that while high-fruit meals potentially could cause problems with sugar balance, the health benefits they provide, especially when combined with regular exercise and adequate sleep, might outweigh any such problems. A healthy body should be able to handle high sugar intake (so long as it is strictly from fruit sources) with no ill effects, just as an athlete handles unusual physical demands that could damage an untrained body.
If you decide to try this at home:
For those of you inspired to try out elements of the high-fruit raw-food diet, please remember that fruits should be eaten away from fats and proteins, either on their own or along with vegetables, and that any radical departures from your present diet should be discussed with a health professional who is familiar with your medical situation.
I will mention also that Steve is an ideologically committed vegan (no milk or egg products!) who persuasively argues that we should all eat an animal product-free diet. I would counsel against adopting such a diet uncritically, as it may be inappropriate for some individuals’ physiology or impractical under real-life conditions. My personal view is that, granting that most people eat a suboptimal diet, there is a range of optimal diets that are appropriate for different people depending on their constitutional, cultural, and behavioral traits. For example, according to the principles of Chinese medicine a raw diet is inappropriate for the winter season, during which warm rather than cold foods should primarily be consumed.
I would therefore encourage you to educate yourselves and experiment before making significant permanent dietary changes. Another of Steve’s articles on raw food addresses some of these issues, and there has been lively discussion at the site’s forums, especially here.
“How long will it take for me to get better?”
This is one of the most frequent questions asked by new or prospective homeopathic patients. It is a sensible question that originates in our deep desire to foretell our life course and to receive assurance about the future. How does homeopathy rise to the challenge of responding with a reliable forecast?
The challenge of homeopathic forecasting
Homeopathic forecasting is challenging for any homeopath, because homeopathic treatment addresses the total predisposition to illness — a complex entity composed of multiple known and unknown factors — rather than isolated symptoms. The challenge is especially great prior to the initial homeopathic intake, as it is only during this consultation that the predisposition is first discerned.
Homeopathic forecasting is demanding essentially because of the nature of the spiritual healing that is the goal of homeopathic treatment of chronic conditions. Such deep healing cannot be forced on the organism but must be allowed to take place at its own pace. It also demands the conscious and unconscious participation of the patient, since progress is affected by the degree of readiness to get better, and there are unpredictable stresses in the physical and social environments that can further hinder progress.
Factors that determine the projected length of treatment
There are several key characteristics of the patient which can yield an estimate of treatment length that is based on sound principles. Unlike weather forecasts which are often accurate in the short term but inaccurate in the long term, long-term homeopathic forecasts are quite reliable, as most chronic conditions (whether or not they are considered medically curable) do eventually yield to homeopathic treatment on a timeline that can roughly be estimated.
The following, then, are the essential factors (presented in question form) on which reliable forecasts of treatment length are made:
- What is your level of vitality?
- What is your nature and social background?
- What is the type and severity of your physical pathology?
- How long ago did the first signs of your concern emerge?
- Is your condition hereditary?
- What interfering factors are present in your life?
- What level of healing are you seeking?
The younger you are, the less psychologically set in your ways and the more physically responsive you will be, on average. But more important than your chronological age is your biological age. Are you a vivacious senior who leads an active life that is the envy of people half your age? If so, you will tend to be highly responsive to homeopathic treatment. Is your child slow and sluggish, exhibiting health problems that have been present since birth? Homeopathic treatment can still be transformative, but improvement will likely take a while.
Vital people display dynamic symptoms that vary depending on the stresses faced from moment to moment. Children tend to be dynamic: their mood can shift radically from moment to moment, and their physical symptoms will tend to appear and disappear quickly. Old people tend to have fixed pathologies, ones that are embedded in the physical organism and are hard to shift.
High vitality equals a strong, flexible and resilient life force, one that bends under stress yet rebounds quickly. Low vitality is reflected in an unresponsive, oversensitive life force that will tend to break rather than bend under stress. Getting a sense of the condition of the patient’s life force is the first and most important step in homeopathic forecasting.
Are you by nature attentive to the signals of your body, expressive with your emotions, adaptive, creative, and responsive to your environment? Or are you over-intellectual, emotionally repressed, and set in your ways?
Life is motion, and those patients who display much motion in their life are likely to respond quite quickly to an accurate prescription, whereas others have to wait patiently as their body and soul reorganize.
It is worthy of note that patients living in simple conditions, even in poverty, often respond more quickly to homeopathic treatment than patients in affluent societies. This is because the pathologies seen in less-developed societies tend to be more acute, life-or-death conditions than chronic ones, and because people living in such societies tend to be less emotionally and medically repressed than the average modern individual.
This fact, mind you, is not an advertisement against modernity! Homeopathy nowadays treats people who might have been long dead in another time and place. It is simply that the treatment of people in modern societies tends to be more complex and drawn out than that of non-westernized people.
There is no simple correlation between type of pathology and length of treatment, because homeopathy does not treat physical pathology directly. A seemingly minor skin condition might prove stubborn and take several years to clear up in one case, whereas in another case a large cancerous tumor might shrink significantly over several weeks.
Still, extensive tissue damage or damage to slow-to-regenerate tissue (e.g., nerves and cartilage) will correlate with a longer rehabilitation period — sometimes several years under dedicated treatment in cases where serious physical degeneration has occurred.
Because homeopathy is in principle capable of reversing pathology considered medically irreversible, accepting such long timelines in cases of severe pathology can inject hope into those of us who are hopeless about recovery:
- Homeopathy has been known to reverse the nerve pathology of multiple sclerosis, but it took several years of dedicated treatment every time.
- Homeopathy has led to substantial recovery of joint cartilage in severe rheumatoid arthritis, but each time required many months to several years of the patient’s endurance.
- Homeopathy regularly leads to recovery from inflammatory bowel conditions including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis, but tissue healing and resolution of inflammation progresses gradually and unevenly, challenging the patient’s resolve to get better whenever an exacerbation takes place.
A rule-of-thumb often used by homeopaths is that it takes a month of treatment for every year the illness has been present. This holds roughly true in simple cases of chronic illness resulting from clear stress factors. In cases of chronic illness due to a longstanding predisposition the length of treatment will frequently be longer.
For example, a patient who became depressed following the death of a parent five years ago would be expected to require five months of treatment before returning to the same psychological state as before the traumatic event. On the other hand, a patient who developed depression five years ago for no apparent reason might require many months or even several years to eliminate the predisposition (often present since childhood, or even inherited) which led to his depression.
The topic of heredity is specifically addressed in the next question.
Homeopathy takes heredity one step beyond the notion of genetic inheritance familiar from conventional medicine.
Homeopaths recognize in addition to genetic inheritance of pathological tendencies a class of heredity termed miasmatic influence (from the Greek miasma, taint). Miasmatic influence refers to the negative energetic imprint transferred from the parents to the child alongside other qualities, infusing the child with undesirable physical or behavioral tendencies:
- Stresses and traumas during pregnancy frequently affect the child through the mother, causing ailments in the newborn child which are inexplicable except when considered in their light.
- Homeopathy, together with many world cultures, further recognize the influence of the parents’ psychic state during the period preceding the child’s conception.
- People frequently bear an uncanny resemblance to older or deceased family members, even in cases when the two have never met.
When a patient presents with complaints with a strong miasmatic basis, these can still be addressed with homeopathy, but the timeline grows longer and becomes harder to predict.
Do you live with a loving spouse, a supportive family, in a paradise where the air sparkles and the weather is fair year-round? Or does homeopathic treatment catch you in the midst of a financial crisis, frequent quarrels with your kids, and a daily routine which includes a three-hour commute through a busy metropolitan area?
Do you eat a home-grown diet replete with fresh vegetables, drink water from your private mountain-spring, wake up at 5am for your daily 10K run in the woods, and never visit the doctor? Or is your breakfast a bagel with cream-and-coffee on the run (plus your medications), your lunch Chinese take-out at your work desk (plus your medications), and your dinner a pizza and TV (plus your medications)?
Those who lead a quiet rural life tend to respond more quickly to treatment than their urban counterparts. More generally, the more physically and spiritually pure is your present life, the more swiftly you will respond to any treatment that you pursue.
Homeopathy possesses an unlimited curative potential, but only when treatment is pursued for long enough so as to remove the predisposition to illness in its entirety. This typically requires several years. Yet great clinical progress and relief from suffering is often achieved in a fraction of this period.
How far a patient advances beyond the mere eradication of discomfort is a function of both the patient’s and the homeopath’s level of spiritual awareness. Most homeopaths expect and strive toward the full curative effects obtainable through homeopathy, but this journey is possible only with cooperation from the patient:
- Some patients are interested in symptom relief and not in achieving perfect health or healing their spirit. Such patients are concerned about their bothersome symptoms, and as soon as these are remedied (within a few days, weeks, or months) they quit treatment, even if their medical condition remains unresolved and their spirit unchanged.
- Other patients, for instance those with chronic inflammatory conditions requiring medications, are not happy with a noticeable but partial reduction in their suffering, and stick around for the many months typically required for achieving freedom from discomfort, independence from medications, and a clean medical bill.
- Those most ambitious patients who long to release life-long physical and psychological limitations benefit immensely from continuing treatment well beyond the time of resolution of medically identifiable complaints — typically for several years.
The rewards obtainable by this last type of patient include the following: increased resistance to infectious disease and resilience to environmental stressors; previously hidden or dormant abilities become available for use; dreams and aspirations that never made it past the planning stage begin to be actualized; and lifelong psychological issues due to heredity or early-childhood trauma dissolve away.
Such revolutionary changes do not happen merely as a result of homeopathic treatment: they involve long-term commitment to life-changing behaviors. But the beauty of homeopathy is that it acts to align the individual along just this path of right action.
One of the most important contributions of homeopathy to the theory of health and disease is the concept of suppression of symptoms.
Both in conventional and in some alternative forms of medicine reduction of symptoms and alleviation of suffering are viewed as the towering goals of treatment.
The clinical philosophy shared by naturopathic and homeopathic medicine holds, in contrast, that a symptom is an expression of inner disharmony rather than a problematic thing in itself, and that the disappearance of a symptom may or may not be an indication of cure when health is considered holistically.
In homeopathy it is very important to distinguish between a curative and a suppressive effect because the goal of treatment is healing of the entire person at the deepest possible level. To achieve this the homeopath first needs to know the patient’s medical history in order to determine whether any past treatments have been suppressive; second, the homeopath needs to evaluate the response of the patient to homeopathic treatment, in order to determine whether or not the patient is progressing in the desired direction toward greater health.
Some common treatments that unnecessarily lead to suppression of symptoms include:
- Anti-inflammatory medications (especially corticosteroids)
- Surgeries (tonsillectomies, nasal polypectomies, removal of benign skin lesions, and more)
- Anti-fever medications
- High doses of certain supplements
- Homeopathic remedies used symptomatically (these include remedies prescribed with the help of machines, muscle testing, and complex formulations (mixtures) made by Heel, Dr. Reckeweg, and UNDA).
- Improper long-term administration of single homeopathic remedies.
At best the symptoms thus ‘cured’ recur at some point in the future following such treatments (indicating a healthy vital force), and at worst they are seemingly cured but at a cost to overall long-term health — as I and other homeopaths routinely observe in the clinic. In addition, the use of these treatments during homeopathic treatment frequently slows down or completely stalls progress.
Such treatments may of course be necessary in cases of immediate danger to life or great suffering (as a last resort in intractable chronic situations): their availability is a blessing and not at all to be derided. But given alternatives such as homeopathy, suppressive forms of treatment should be avoided to the greatest possible degree.
A case example of suppression of symptoms caused by medical treatment
Dora, a patient in her thirties, came in for homeopathic treatment complaining of spells of extreme tiredness and occasional breathing difficulties. Her health history was unremarkable except for a diagnosis of eczema (a common skin inflammation, also known as atopic dermatitis) four years prior, which had appeared on both her forearms.
To treat her eczema Dora had received Betamethasone ointment. Betamethasone is a topical corticosteroid medication that acts as an anti-inflammatory to diminish or altogether eliminate eczematous patches. She applied the ointment on a daily basis until the patch faded away over a three-week period. To her relief, she needed to continue applying the ointment only occasionally (once or twice a week) to keep the inflammation under control, and after several months quit the ointment and has remained free of her complaint.
According to conventional medicine this had been a successful outcome. In fact, because eczema is often a chronic problem that tends to recur unless actively treated, this outcome had been preferable to the more typical scenario where the ongoing use of medication would have been necessary.
Now, four years later, Dora had eczema-free skin, but her well-being was compromised by spells of low energy and disconcerting breathing difficulties. Medically speaking, she used to have eczema and now had new symptoms requiring new diagnoses and treatments, and no relation between the two would normally be considered.
Holistically speaking, however, it was important to consider the potential connection between her present complaints and her past health and treatment history. Most holistic practitioners would aim in this situation to find the root cause behind both of Dora’s present complaints, aiming to improve her general condition using an integrated approach rather than prescribing two separate treatments (one for each of her complaints).
The homeopathic approach to Dora’s problem takes the holistic line of thinking one step further, arguing that by default (unless proven otherwise) a connection must exist between Dora’s present condition and her past ailments and the treatments that she received.
Suppression of symptoms, its consequences, and its treatment
The homeopathic principle of suppression of symptoms says that symptoms that are denied full expression at superficial level (commonly the skin or mucuous membranes in the respiratory or digestive tract) may later manifest at some deeper level (such as a vital organ). According to this principle, the suppression of Dora’s skin symptoms is a likely cause of her present symptoms, which manifest in her nervous and hormonal systems as well as in her lungs.
Homeopathic treatment was begun, and over the first several months Dora’s tiredness lessened and her breathing difficulties became infrequent. More significantly, however, on the seventh month of treatment her eczema (which had been gone for nearly five years by that point) reappeared on her forearms! This phenomenon, known as return of old symptoms, is recognized by homeopaths as a reliable sign of deep healing. The reappearance of Dora’s skin problem, concurrent with a improvement in her overall well-being, also corroborated the claim that the corticosteroid ointment had suppressed (rather than truly healed) her eczema.
To complete her treatment it was important for Dora to avoid returning to the use of Betamethasone ointment, lest this cause a stalling of her progress and a recurrence of the symptoms due to which she had come for homeopathic treatment in the first place. Armed with the knowledge that her skin problem would resolve if she persevered with homeopathic treatment, and that treating it with ointment would not benefit her overall health and could reverse her health gains, Dora bore the local skin discomfort (using the ointment only very rarely on especially uncomfortable patches) for several months before her skin finally healed.
Nowadays Dora is free of all medical complaints and reports feeling younger than she did several years ago, with greater reserves of energy and an overall better mood than she used to have through most of her life.
Homeopathy and the universal laws of healing
There are incontrovertible laws of healing that need to be understood and respected by any system of medicine in order for it to be capable of promoting true healing. Modern medicine unfortunately has a poor understanding of these laws—despite its brilliant and undeniable technical achievement—and its treatments often subvert them by suppressing symptoms even when the situation is not life-threatening and suffering is not unbearable.
Dora’s case example is not unique but is very typical of patients with chronic illness: conventional medical treatments that are considered successful — here an often-chronic skin condition was defeated with short-term medication use — cause more extensive illness and suffering down the road. This holds true not only with the treatment of eczema, but of many other conditions including asthma, allergies, recurrent respiratory infections, arthritis, thyroid and other hormonal problems, depression, ADHD, and more.
Homeopathic treatment requires patience and perseverance
Because homeopathy acts on the deepest level of the organism, it doesn’t always alleviate suffering as quickly as desired. It may take patience and perseverance to experience relief from bothersome symptoms. In addition, in chronic situations where the patient is already on conventional medications at the beginning of treatment, medications may have to be used concurrently for a long while before they can be discontinued. Both homeopath and patient must therefore be patient and not expect overnight relief of chronic conditions.
The rewards of diligently pursued homeopathic treatment are eventual freedom from medications, the permanent restoration of true health, and the opportunity of growing beyond lifelong physical, psychological, or spiritual limitations so that, in Hahnemann’s words, “our indwelling, rational spirit can avail itself of this living, healthy instrument for the higher purposes of our existence.”
Homeopathic treatment is thus not for the faint-hearted but is intended for those willing to sacrifice short-term comfort for the rewards of long-term health and fulfilment.
Homeopathy has been the target of criticism by skeptical scientists and physicians throughout its history. One has just been broadcast in The Enemies of Reason, a two-part British TV documentary about New-Age and alternative medical practices.
But this critical view of alternative medicine by a prominent scientist, shown in the video below, suffers from major flaws which I will comment on in this post.
The Enemies of Reason
The second episode of The Enemies of Reason, conceived and presented by Richard Dawkins (the prominent biologist who has gained a worldwide following as a defender of science and reason), is a blistering attack on alternative medicine.
Dawkins views the rise of alternative medicine as an abandonment of rationality in favor of the superstition that preceded the Enlightenment and the Scientific Age. Having in the first episode extolled the virtues of scientific over anti-scientific practices such as astrology, in the second episode Dawkins begins with faith healing and swiftly moves on to homeopathy as though it were their direct descendant:
Is homeopathic medicine the “Enemy of Reason”?
The following is my critical commentary on this episode and especially on Dawkins’ perspective on homeopathy. This is an expansion on a comment I wrote in a prominent skeptical blog, where I responded to an uncritically favorable review of the episode.
Dawkins’ arguments are naive
Dawkins views the worlds of conventional and alternative medicine in black-and-white: alternative medicine is unproven medicine, and as soon as a treatment is proven to work it becomes conventional medicine (or simply, medicine). Never mind that the clinical methods of homeopathy or Chinese medicine require years of concentrated study to master, or that these and other systems use specialized diagnostic systems and criteria of clinical improvement that do not even exist in conventional medicine.
Dawkins’ explanations for the efficacy of alternative treatments are standard fare, reducing all claims of efficacy to the placebo effect. To quote: “It’s all about attentive doctors listening to the patient.” In other words, homeopaths are successful because they are especially attentive to their patients and generous with their time. Never mind that doctors have the full right to engage with their patients as much as homeopaths do, and that homeopaths are attentive because they have to be: conventional physicians wouldn’t have use for a long appointment, because conventional diagnosis is based on a much narrower set of data than homeopathic diagnosis.
Yet another reason for the success of alternative practitioners, Dawkins claims without a shred of evidence, is that they are perceived as figures of authority in an era that has tired of traditional authority figures. Never mind that conventional medicine remains a colossal, authoritative institution, and that most people turn to alternative medicine due to dissatisfaction with conventional treatment rather than a distrust of conventional medicine.
Dawkins’ arguments are simplistic
Dawkins presents alternative medicine in a stereotyped fashion, as though it were a homogeneous entity like conventional medicine. But the reality is that there are countless practices in alternative medicine, ranging from ones based on conventional science (e.g., nutrition) to many that are not medical but are explicitly religious ceremonies adapted through market pressure for healing purposes, in detachment from their original ritualistic context.
Dawkins is at his best when picking on easy targets
When dealing with faith healers who present wacky theories about the universe Dawkins is flawless, instructive, and entertaining (in the best sense of the word): there is no doubt that a lot of what is grouped under alternative medicine is based on placebo, is often performed by practitioners who are poorly trained even in their own disciplines (let alone in scientific thought and medicine), and that some alternative practitioners are malicious in their intent.
Dawkins is at his weakest when picking on homeopathy
When faced not with random faith healers but with more serious, level-minded exponents such as Peter Fisher (homeopathic physician to Queen Elizabeth II and clinical director of the Royal London Homoeopathic Hospital), Dawkins fails seriously to engage with their perspective which is fully aware of science, its triumphs, and its failings. Dawkins is therefore at his weakest when dealing with homeopathy:
- In Dawkins’ brief allusion to Samuel Hahnemann, the latter is made to look like a faith healer instead of the polymathic scientist that he was. Hahnemann was not only a physician who railed against the superstitious practices of his day, but a leading-edge chemist and an early advocate of experimental method (such that it was in his day) in medicine. But even if Hahnemann were dead-wrong about homeopathy, to suggest that he was irrational or not a scientist is ridiculous. After all, Newton had a lifelong fascination with theology more wacky than homeopathy ever will be, yet no scientist is bothered by this.
- Dawkins blatantly omits the fact that homeopathic dilutions undergo a specific process of shaking (‘succussion’) that could produce some “memory-of-water” effect. While this description is speculative and metaphorical (as no one has yet explained scientifically how homeopathic information might be stored in water), describing the preparation process of homeopathic remedies as based on dilution alone is factually incorrect and leaves out a crucial step, as dilution alone (without succussion) produces homeopathically inactive remedies that are truly no better than placebo.
- Dawkins misrepresents the one scientific study that he quotes as a comprehensive “meta-analysis of meta-analyses.” (A meta-analysis is a review of clinical studies, so the claim here is that the study is a review of reviews of clinical studies). In fact, the study he refers to is a methodologically suspect comparison of an a tiny subset of clinical trials (not meta-analyses) of conventional medicine with an unidentified subset of trials (not meta-analyses) of homeopathy, coupled with conclusions that didn’t follow from the in-part positive evidence. Many serious criticisms of this study have been published, including this one by Peter Fisher, yet Dawkins has chosen to adopt the trial’s conclusions uncritically.
- At the same time, Dawkins fails to alert the viewer about truly comprehensive meta-analyses, some of which (e.g. this one) conclude that there is a modest evidential basis for the reality of the homeopathic effect sufficient to consider the phenomenon a possible anomaly vis-à-vis current scientific understanding.
- Peter Fisher is himself of a skeptical mindset, admits to doubt, and has performed research to address his concerns. He admits that he will not be swayed by evidence in the sense of abandoning his clinical practice, but doesn’t claim blind belief in the reality of homeopathy above placebo and against experimental evidence, and continues in his research efforts accordingly. Dawkins fails to engage with this position, which combines concern for patients over-and-above scientific ideals (which Fisher nevertheless upholds) with rational skepticism identical to his own.
Let’s be skeptical of the skeptics
Dawkins’ critique is ultimately one-sided because his underlying belief is that, no matter how imperfect, modern medicine is fundamentally on good ground and therefore its imperfections are something we just have to live with, whereas the same faults in alternative practices are damning. This is, for example, why he bemoans the profit motive and poor evidential basis of alternative medicine without addressing the same concerns vis-à-vis conventional medicine.
Most significantly, Dawkins’ association of alternative medicine with irrationality is unsupported by fact. Scores of people no less rational that Dawkins submit to alternative treatments out of real despair arising from incurable conditions, and they frequently persist in their rational-skeptical world-view even after being helped (i.e., remaining agnostic about the explanation for their improvement).
I therefore do not agree with Dawkins’ overall concern that alternative medicine represents an abandonment of rationality, rather than a legitimate adjunct to conventional medicine, which it is rational to pursue, at least once conventional methods have been exhausted.
Ultimately, I would expect Dawkins to be consistent in his argumentation and to evade the charge of hypocrisy by providing:
- evidence (rather than anecdote) that people who submit to alternative practices are less rational than those who don’t;
- evidence that reduced interest in science is harmful (and in what way) to modern society;
- evidence that the modern world was built on reason alone and not also on patently theological elements of Western tradition;
- above all, an explanation of what exactly he means when he uses the word “evidence” in multiple contexts throughout the program, as though one could produce a randomized, placebo-controlled trial on demand and automatically obtain “fact” at the other end. Ah, if only the world were this simple!
Update: I discovered this account by Rupert Sheldrake, a biologist whose revolutionary ideas may offer the key to understanding how homeopathy works, of an interview that took place between him and Dawkins during the filming of Enemies of Reason. Sheldrake reports that Dawkins quit filming as soon as he brought up the issue of available evidence (in this case in favor of telepathy) that he had himself produced, thus exposing the refusal of even the best scientists to be swayed by evidence that conflicts with their pre-existing beliefs.