Homeopathy Definition: A Guide to This Ancient Alternative Medical Practice

Updated: Nov. 04, 2019

The term "homeopathy" gets tossed around quite a bit in integrative medicine circles, but what does it really mean and can it really help cure what ails you?

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Like cures like

There are some important things doctors want you to know about alternative medicine—including homeopathy. To define it, let’s take a look at the origins of the word. “Homeopathy” brings together two Greek words: homeo, meaning similar, and pathos, meaning suffering or disease. Homeopathy, devised by German physician Christian Friedrich Samuel Hahnemann in the 19th century, is based on the fact that any substance that can produce symptoms in a healthy person can cure similar ones in a sick person by increasing them—to stimulate the body’s natural healing response, explains Carolyn DeanND, MD, a naturopathic physician in Maui, Hawaii and author of many books including The Miracle of Magnesium. “Its roots go back to Aristotle and Hippocrates and the ‘Law of Similars’ or ‘like cures like,’ which allows homeopaths to correct symptoms of ill-health with substances that produce similar symptoms when tested on a healthy person,” she explains. For example, coffee can produce racing thoughts, heart palpitations, increased urine production, shaky hands, excitability, and restlessness, and if a person drinks it in the evening, you can add sleep difficulty to the list. However: “Applying the Law of Similars would relieve similar symptoms in a sick person, such as a person with hyperactivity, agitated thoughts, and sweaty, trembling hands,” Dr. Dean says. A homeopathic preparation of coffee (coffea cruda) would, in theory, relieve and correct their symptoms. Another example of like curing like is poison ivy. This plant can cause redness, intense itching, burning, blistering, and sometimes stiff muscles. “A homeopathic preparation from this substance has been used for everything from herpes and burns to eczema and arthritis,” she says. (These natural poison ivy treatments may also be worth a try.)

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Less is more

Another part of the homeopathy definition is that less is more. “You should give the least amount of medicine necessary to produce a healing response,” Dr. Dean says. “Dr. Hahnemann developed this principle by successive dilution… to find the point at which they would be therapeutic, but not toxic,” she says. “Similar to how you would get a flu shot that contains a small amount of the flu virus to stimulate your immune system, homeopathy believes by taking a very, VERY low dose of a particular substance will help stimulate healing in the individual,” adds Nadia Kumentas, ND, a naturopathic doctor from Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and founder of affecthealth.com. On a label, dilution looks something like this: The product name is followed by a number and then an X or a C. The number is how many times the homeopathic medicine was diluted and the X and C indicate the ratio of the dilution, according to the Consumer Healthcare Products Association.

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One and done

Most homeopathic practitioners prescribe one remedy at a time, according to the American Institute of Homeopathy. Part of the homeopathy definition calls for an individualized approach to therapeutic choices. Many homeopathic remedies are given as sugar pellets that are placed under the tongue to dissolve, but other forms include ointments, gels, drops, creams, and tablets.

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Who is using homeopathy?

While it is among the less popular forms of alternative medicine, homeopathy does have its fans. Just over 2 percent of U.S. adults report using homeopathy within the past 12 months (about 5 million people), according to data from the 2012 National Health Interview Survey. (Catcher In The Rye author JD Salinger was reportedly a homeopathy.) Homeopathy users were more likely to use multiple complementary therapies and to perceive the homeopathy remedies as helpful than did supplement users, the study in the American Journal of Public Health found.

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Who regulates homeopathy?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates homeopathic remedies under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA), but (and this is a big but), they do not evaluate the remedies for safety or effectiveness. The Federal Trade Commission stepped in and announced that they will hold homeopathic remedies—including some that you can grow—to the same standards as other products making similar claims, meaning they homeopathic manufacturers need to put their money where their mouth is and test their products to prove they work. The FDA has on occasion held such manufacturers accountable. In September 2016, they warned that that homeopathic teething tablets and gels may pose a risk to infants and children.

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Is less really less?

Critics of homeopathy argue that these remedies are so diluted that there is virtually no active ingredient in the final preparation. As a result, the therapy can’t possibly do anything good or bad. Any positive reports may be nothing more than the placebo effect, meaning if you think it will work, it will, they contend. (The placebo effect can have some merits especially as it relates to exercise.)

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Take-Home Messages

Considering homeopathy? Don’t use it to replace proven conventional care or to postpone seeing a health care provider about a medical problem, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health warns. The group also suggests bringing the product to show your doctor so he or she can determine whether it poses any risks. Importantly, never use homeopathic products as a substitute for conventional immunizations. (“Nosodes” or “homeopathic immunizations” have been promoted as substitutes for conventional immunizations.) This is not one of the vaccine myths you can ignore.