Published in the luxembourgish magazine Revue (Nr 11/2019)
There is a (scientific) discussion that is becoming more and more public. The debate about the definition of the words “homeopathy” and “plant based medicine” has many people confused. But what exactly is the difference?
The terms “homeopathy” and “plant based medicine” are often used as synonyms. However, they could not be more different. Homeopathy as well as plant based medicine are considered a lot gentler than western medicine. In a time where western medicine is often considered quite chemically invasive and the publics trust in science is wavering, it is understandable that these methods have regained some importance.
What is homeopathy?
Homeopathy was developped at thze end of the 18th century by Samuel Hahneman and is based on 2 principles. The first states that “like cures like” („Similia similibus curentur“) and the second states that the effect of a homeopathic preparation is amplified by dilution. The homeopathic philosophie states that a substance, that is used to heal a certain ailment, should produce these same symptoms in a healthy individual. For example: if you drink too much coffee, the caffeine will disturb your sleep. A homeopathic dilution of caffeine should then cure your sleeplessness. However homeopathic preparations are so diluted, that they usually don’t even contain one molecule of the original substance. A biological effect is therefor impossible. The idea states that the solvent (water or alcohol), that is used for the homeopathic dilution, in some way “remembers” the contact with the initial compound and affects the body. If this were true, than any glass of water would heal us from many diseases.
Opinion versus science?
One can understand that in an era where “modern medicine” used many unscientific as well as cruel methods, homeopathy may have been a very attractive alternative. However science has outed homeopathy not only as ineffective but also as a scam. Still many people swear that it works. So how does homeopathy affect our bodies?
There are a few possible explanations for this. Firstly, it is possible that the symptoms are eased by the self-healing capacities of your body. After a while, the body will fight that cold or the headaches will disappear. Another possible explanation for the effectiveness of homeopathy can be that you have already passed the worst part of your illness and are recovering on your own. One can’t ignore the psychological effect either: the interest and help of another human being (in this case the homeopath) may already make you feel better. If you feel taken seriously, then often you already feel better.
There is an effect that has been scientifically proven: homeopathy sometimes works through the “Placebo” effect. If you believe that it will heal you, it might even do just that (not to be confused with the “power of positive thinking”). Sadly it has also happened that companies producing homeopathic remedies actually mix in an active ingredient (in a biologically relevant concentration). This is maybe done to keep people believing in the very lucrative homeopathic industry (find an example here)
The hidden danger
As many health institutions still consider homeopathy as a medically valid treatment and will cover the costs of such a treatment, a false sense of security is spread. “If it doesn’t help, it won’t harm” is also an attitude that many people feel toward homeopathy. Unfortunately, this attitude can have dangerous consequences – if a patient is treated with a homeopathic remedy instead of an biologically active compound, then this patient may pay a high price. Diseases such as cancer or infections can spread or get worse. Homeopathy has been outed as a pseudo-science many times and should therefor never be part of a medical treatment.
What is plant based medicine?
Plant based medicine (also known as phytotherapy or herbal medicine) is based on the knowledge about how to use plants and herbs to cure or ease certain diseases. It is one of the oldest known medical approaches. A plant (or part of it) contains a multitude of active compounds that can affect our body in certain ways. This may lead to the easing of symptoms or even to the cure of an affliction. As opposed to “modern medicine” , which often uses just one active molecule, phytotherapy doesn’t usually work with just one compound but a complex mixture.
Many of our pharmaceuticals are isolated from plants (or fungi) and one cannot argue their efficiency. The first antibiotics were isolated from a fungus for instance. It has also been shown that the regular use/ingestion of ginger can ease menstrual pain as strongly as the common painkiller ibuprofen. Plant based medicine works, but also in this case the thoughts “if it doesn’t help, it can’t harm” is also dangerous. Certain natural compounds such as opiates like heroin or morphine, or even certain poisons like snake venom or botox are extremely potent. Every medication of ” western medicine” usually contains one active compound that affects the body in a certain way – including all positive effects as well as potentially negative side effects. Herbal medicine usually contains a multitude of compounds that each act on the body in a different. Plant based medicine is therefor not always as gentle as one would think.
Interesting case study: St John’s Wort
In herbal medicine, St John’s Wort is considered as mood-lifting, anxiolytic as well as mildly sedating. Even in traditional chinese medicine this plant is known to be soothing, anxiolytic and stimulating to the liver.
The biochemical basis of it’s action is now known: St John’s Wort contains compounds that act as a neurotransmitter reuptake inhibitor – similarly to many common antidepressants. The level of neurotransmitters such as serotonin or noradrenalin is increased which explains the mood-lifting and antidepressant properties of this plant.
St John’s Wort also acts upon an enzyme in the liver, namely Cytochrom P450, which is responsible for the breakdown of many endogenous as well as exogenous products. Medication is broken down quicker which can reduce their effect. A accelerated breakdown of endogenous as well as exogenous compounds can also be dangerous. If for example a transplant patient takes St John’s Wort in combination with some anti-rejection medication, the latter may be metabolized quicker and the transplant might be rejected by the body. Another example is the use of the contraceptive pill – the hormones may be degraded to quickly for them to develop their contraceptive properties and an unwanted pregnancy may occur.
However, St John’s Wort is also used in homeopathy. A common homeopathic dilution used for this is C12 – this is equivalent to a single drop in the 100.000 fold volume of the Atlantic Ocean. Statistically these dilutions don’t even contain 1 original molecule of the active compound anymore. That this dilution is in any way biologically active can be excluded. It is hard to assess the psychological effects however.
There is one golden rule everyone should follow in case of doubt: when it comes to your health, always be critical with the information you are given. Better to be inquisitive – a competent doctor will take the time to explain everything in detail.
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