Less is more in homeopathic medicine: less active ingredients, more money for the maker
In recent years, a thoroughly discredited branch of medical quackery has made an impressive comeback -- homeopathic "medicine." Everywhere you look, from the annoying TV commercials to the shelves of the nearest pharmacy, you can find homeopathic remedies for everything from relief of headache pain to hemorrhoidal swelling to flu symptoms, and they all have one thing in common -- they don't work.
Homeopathy goes back more than two centuries to its creation by one Samuel Hahnemann, who accidentally discovered the magical law of similars, i.e., "like cures like." For example, if arsenic trioxide (in sublethal doses) causes diarrhea, then it could be used to cure diarrhea! This ridiculous idea requires the second of Hahnemann's magical laws, "the law of infinitesimals." Less is "better," and much less is even better yet. Most homeopathic remedies are diluted to the point of nonexistence. For example, if the "active" ingredient is listed as 30X, this means that it was first diluted in water to one part in ten. Then this solution is further diluted to one part in ten, and this is repeated for a total of 30 times. After this is completed, there is approximately one molecule of the original ingredient in 7,900 gallons of solution. The "active" ingredient in flu remedies, oscillococcinum (derived from duck liver), is listed at a concentration of 200C, one molecule per 1 followed by 400 zeros molecules of water.
In order for homeopathic remedies to work, magic and not physical law would have to run our universe. Water would have to have a "memory" of what was ever dissolved in it, contrary to every experiment. One would then treat a headache or stomach bleeding by taking a few drops of water from the Atlantic Ocean because at least one person on the Titanic must have had a bottle of alcohol or aspirin when it sunk, making the Atlantic one vast pharmacopeia for enterprising homeopaths!
Why then are homeopathic remedies so popular? Money. They are exceedingly cheap to produce -- one duck liver goes an awfully long way. Television advertises them, pharmacies sell them, chiropractors (who are prohibited by law from selling real medicine) push their virtues, and some people even get better. The latter happens for two reasons: since most simple aliments improve on their own, people often attribute the "cure" to whatever they've been taking at the time, even when there is no real cause and effect relationship. Secondly, there is the placebo effect. If you really believe that a clove of garlic hanging in a dirty sock around your neck will cure insomnia, it very well could.
Since retail prices of homeopathic remedies are not cheap and since they don't work, why doesn't the FDA step in and prohibit their sell? They cannot. In 1938, homeopathic remedies were granted a special exemption from FDA oversight that continues to this day. So if you want to waste your money (personally, I'd rather you give it to some legitimate charity and not to wealthy pharmaceutical companies), go ahead and look for the homeopathic label. After all, physically it can't hurt you.
Dr. RONALD G. TABAK
The writer is a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Youngstown State University.