Homeopathy is a holistic medicine which uses specially prepared, highly diluted substances (given mainly in tablet form) with the aim of triggering the body’s own healing mechanisms.
A homeopath will prescribe medicines according to the patient’s specific set of symptoms, and how they experience them, taking into account their overall level of health.
Homeopathy is based on the principle of “like treats like” – that is, a substance which can cause symptoms when taken in large doses, can be used in small amounts to treat similar symptoms. For example, drinking too much coffee can cause sleeplessness and agitation, so according to this principle, when made into a homeopathic medicine, it could be used to treat people suffering from sleeplessness and agitation.
This concept is sometimes used in conventional medicine, for example, the stimulant Ritalin is used to treat patients with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and small doses of allergens, such as pollen, are sometimes used to de-sensitise allergic patients. An important difference with homeopathy however, is that the medicinal doses (known as remedies) are so small that toxic side-effects are avoided.
The principle of treating “like with like” dates back to Hippocrates (460-377BC) but in its current form, homeopathy has been widely used worldwide for more than 200 years.
Homeopathy was discovered by a German doctor, Samuel Hahnemann, who was looking for a way to reduce the damaging side effects associated with the medical treatment of his day, which included the use of poisons. He began experimenting on himself and a group of healthy volunteers, giving smaller and smaller medicinal doses, discovering that as well as reducing toxicity, the medicines became more effective as the doses were lowered.
He also observed that symptoms caused by the toxic ‘medicines’ of the time, such as mercury which was used to treat syphilis, were similar to those of the diseases they were being used to treat. This observation led to the principle he described as ‘like cures like’.
Hahnemann went on to document his work, and his texts formed the foundations of homeopathic medicine as it is practised today. A BBC Radio 4 documentary aired in December 2010 described Hahnemann as a medical pioneer who worked tirelessly to improve medical practice, insisting that medicines were tested before use.