Sorry, Hippies, Homeopathy Is Totally Useless

When my patients ask me about homeopathic remedies, I’m not afraid to speak my mind.

03.17.15 9:25 AM ET

Homeopathy is a worthless means of sustaining your health. In terms of preventing or treating disease, it’s up there with bloodletting or erecting a shrine to Asclepius in your pantry. It is literally good for nothing from a medical perspective.

That was the conclusion of a report from Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), albeit not precisely in those words. After reviewing numerous studies, as well as information submitted by supporters of homeopathy, the NHMRC (similar to the National Institutes of Health in the United States) found there is nothing valid to substantiate that homeopathic treatments do anything at all for those who take them. In the words of their summary statement (PDF), “there are no health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective.”

It doesn’t get much more definitive than that.

Founded by a German physician in the late 18th century, homeopathy is premised on something its practitioners call the “Law of Similars.” In a nutshell, it’s the belief that substances that cause symptoms in healthy individuals can, when given in eensy, weensy doses, alleviate those same symptoms in sick people. This supposedly creates a reaction within the body that allows it to cure itself. Homeopathic preparations are solutions derived from natural substances, diluted several times by a ratio of 1 to 100. At each dilution, the solution is “succussed,” which means shaking the bejeezus out of it. This vigorous shaking purportedly imparts memory to the water in which the substance is shaken.

Of course, this is all complete claptrap, as any attentive high school chemistry student could tell you. Diluting a substance by a factor of 100 over and over and over again means that in the end you’re left with a vial of water in which nary a molecule of the original substance remains. Claiming that the hydrogen bonds in water somehow retain memory of homeopathic substances, and that the weaker the concentration the stronger the medication, is just a fascinatingly medical-sounding way of saying “magic.” From a scientific perspective, homeopathy is pure, unalloyed shitcrockery.

So of course it comes as no surprise when a scientific body examines the evidence of benefit from homeopathy and finds it lacking. Magic is never effective medicine, whether or not it dresses itself up in pseudo-scientific garb. At least people who light candles and mumble around pentagrams drawn on the floor are being honest about what it is they’re peddling.

Yet despite this, the sale of homeopathic potions is a multibillion-dollar industry in the United States. It’s not hard to see the appeal of these products, which proudly declare their natural origins and lack of side effects. “Natural” is such a comforting word, whether or not it has any connection to good medical care. And since one of the lovely things about water is that a healthy person has to drink a pretty hefty volume before any ill effects are experienced, that side effect guarantee is true. Because (as people often forget) taking a placebo has the actual measurable effect of making some people feel better, quaffing a vial of homeopathic flimflammery can produce a boost in perceived health despite being physiologically null.

However, even though the benefits homeopaths tout for their wares fly in the face of common sense, reports like the one out of Australia serve an important purpose. As a practitioner of evidence-based medicine, I’m willing to consider anything that has evidence to support its usefulness. If well-designed studies showed a measurable benefit from tippling vigorously agitated draughts of spellbound water, I’d learn how to shake them up myself. (It is comforting that the medical science lines up with the basics of chemistry in this case.) It’s good that even medical interventions as ludicrous on their face as homeopathy get assessed for scientific validity.

Every so often I’ll get asked about various “complementary or alternative” treatments recommended to parents who seek out care from such providers. Sometimes the recommendations aren’t all that nutty. When a naturopath (cousins to homeopaths in the pseudo-medical domain) recommends a probiotic to treat “systemic yeast overgrowth” for a host of vague symptoms in an otherwise healthy patient, I greet the reasoning with a raised eyebrow but don’t really object to the plan. While I think the good of probiotics can often be overstated, I’ve read enough peer-reviewed studies about possible benefits to consider them worth trying for those so inclined.

But it’s hard to be anything other than frank about magical water. It’s no better at treating or preventing diseases than the stuff you can get much cheaper right out of your tap. This new report is a tidy way of telling patients what the science demonstrates—homeopathy is nonsense, no matter how hard you shake it.