In the last month, Felix and Wolfie have both had colds (thankfully, not Covid), and I’ve been giving them an herbal remedy that I rely on through typical cold and flu season, Umcka.
Do you use herbal or homeopathic remedies to treat illness in your house? Or maybe you wonder what the difference is between herbal medicines and homeopathic ones.
What follows is my best attempt at an admittedly oversimplified explanation of each–plus which one I believe works.
I’ll start with the easy one: Herbal medicine is basically exactly what it sounds like–i.e., using plants to treat illness.
Of course, many drugs are derived from plants: aspirin comes from Willow bark, for instance. Herbs can be powerful in ways both good and bad (hello, poison ivy!), so I very much believe their ability to impact health.
Homeopathic remedies are derived from herbs as well, but they differ greatly from herbal remedies. A homeopathic remedy is made by taking an herbal ingredient and diluting it hundreds or even thousands of times—to the point that there are literally ZERO remaining molecules of the original ingredient in the final product
Homeopathy’s basic claim is that the more times you dilute a medicinal ingredient, the more powerful it becomes. Although this theory doesn’t seem logical, I would be happy to spend money on homeopathic medicines if I could find studies showing they are safe and effective. After all, it’s basically impossible to overdose–homeopathic remedies are essentially water (or sugar pills) with what homeopathic doctors consider to be the “energy” of the medicinal herb rather than the herb itself.
Unfortunately, my research hasn’t uncovered any studies that suggest true homeopathic remedies work better than placebo. (I say “true homeopathic remedies” because the term “homeopathic” is often used as a marketing term for medicines that aren’t really homeopathic.) Unsurprisingly, it seems that when you dilute an ingredient thousands of times, it no longer is strong enough to have any effect–good or bad.
Arnica is probably the most widely studied homeopathic remedy out there. There is good evidence that the arnica plant itself has anti-inflammatory properties, but homeopathic arnica preparations have not been shown to be perform better than placebo. After intense facial treatments (you know I love my laser facials!), my facialist applies a homeopathic arnica cream to my skin, and I really feel like it reduces pain and swelling. Perhaps any cool gel would reduce inflammation, or perhaps there is enough arnica herb in the formula my facialist uses to really make a difference! Either way, I request it every time I see her.
In addition to arnica cream, there are several other “homeopathic” herbal remedies that I use—like Umcka. The herb used in this case is Pelargonium sidoides, which has been shown to reduce the length of upper respiratory infections if given early in the course of an illness. The “1X” next to the name means it’s been diluted one time—in other words there is 1 part herb to 10 parts water. Paradoxically, this would make this too “weak” to really be homeopathic; it’s simply an herbal remedy. I assume that it says “homeopathic” on the for marketing purposes only.
You can read about other herbal remedies we swear by here.
Based on my research, as well as on my own experimentation with various herbal remedies and homeopathy, this is my conclusion: Herbal medicine can be super effective, but truly homeopathic remedies are likely too diluted to offer any benefits.
When I wrote my weekly email to this end, a lot of you replied saying you haven’t ever found homeopathic remedies to be effective. But not everyone agreed, and I got dozens of replies touting the benefits of homeopathy. I think some of your responses are worth sharing,:
“I’m a Homeopath. What you learned about Homeopathy is not true. We do not believe dilutions render the medicine more powerful and you can absolutely overdose on Homeopathic remedies or more accurately, potentized medicine, as it is not truly Homeopathic unless it is similar to the suffering of the patient. How little do you have to spend researching to completely miss the thousands of placebo controlled, double blind studies on this federally recognized medicine.”
My response: I would LOVE to see these studies! Please share them! In all my digging I have come up with nothing that shows that any homeopathic remedies are truly effective. I would also love for you to explain the dilution process, if you’d be willing. (I have not yet heard back from this reader.)
“I’ve been reading your e-mails, and they all seem to be debunking anything that does not coincide with the given product you’re trying to sell. I find that unconscionable.”
My response: I’m so bummed to hear that you have this impression, because this is backwards from our product on-boarding process. We first research products and decide what will qualify as Good Stuff. Then, we sometimes choose to sell a selection of this Good Stuff in our store. We could sell all manner of homeopathic remedies without much effort as they are widely available from wholesalers we already work with. The reason the Herbal Apothecary section of our site is so small is because we only offer products with research showing they work and/or stuff that I’ve personally found to be effective.
“I honestly don’t really “believe” in homeopathy the way I do science. But I can’t deny it has worked for me in certain instances. Your view certainly makes sense in the lens of Western medicine, but we know that many forms of Eastern medicine are very effective, even when we can’t say exactly why. My impression is that it goes far beyond the dilutions, and is deeply individual, so that a study to see if X remedy works for N people would never work better than a placebo, and the placebo may even work better, because a homeopath studies the individual before treating. The one definitive statement I would be willing to make is, with any form of medicine, seeking out the expertise of a practitioner is always wise, whether it be for allopathy, herbalism, homeopathy, Ayurveda, etc. I, personally, have never seen any kind of result from trying to use homeopathy off the shelves.”
My response: I love everything you say here; thank you for this perspective. I would be open to seeing a reputable homeopath and having my mind changed; if anyone reading this knows a good one in New York City, send me her or his name!
“Unfortunately, homeopathic remedies are not only a placebo at best, they can also be deadly if they are diluted incorrectly.”
My response: Thanks for pointing out that my assertion that you can’t overdose on homeopathic remedies is only true if they are diluted correctly.
I’m happy to keep this conversation going if you’d like to comment below.
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