Oct 28, 2015

Homeopathy Is a Bitter Sugar Pill

Yvette d’Entremont
October 27, 2015

A pharmacist in the homeopathic department of a pharmacy in Germany in 1967.
It won’t cure what ails you, but it can get you drunk.

“Relief of flu-like symptoms.” “Safe, non-habit forming.” “Flower essences to calm down your unruly pets.”

With claims like these, homeopathic wonder products must be good, right? These are some of the claims made by the purveyors of homeopathy, but what can homeopathy actually cure?

Low blood sugar and dehydration. Also, some homeopathic products make a fabulous margarita.

So what is homeopathy? The practice was proposed in 1796 by Dr. Samuel Hahnemann. He wasn’t unintelligent, but he suffered from living at a time before modern technology. He spoke 10 languages and objected to many ancient medical treatments, including the practice of bloodletting, but he also suggested that coffee was responsible for many diseases. (As I sit here with my pumpkin spice coffee, I seriously question the man’s grasp of reality.) It was that skeptical mindset of questioning 18th-century medical treatments that led Hahnemann to propose his new system, homeopathy, based on his “like cures like” theory. He alleged that if a substance could produce the symptom an ill person was experiencing, an extremely small dose of that same substance could cure the symptom. Furthermore, he reasoned, the more dilute you made a preparation of the substance, the stronger its ability would be to treat those symptoms.

Instead of following in the spirit of Hahnemann’s work and questioning ancient medical practices as we so often do in science, homeopaths today are continuing where the ancient medical practitioner left off. Modern homeopaths start by diluting a substance in water, then taking a hundredth of that solution and diluting it further, than taking a bit of that solution and diluting it in even more water until the original substance is exceedingly dilute. How dilute? In most cases, dilutions are performed until there is no measurable active ingredient still present in the medication.

You might think that a tincture of tap water would be medically inert. But homeopaths propose that their treatments work because water has a memory. Really. Some homeopathic remedies are sold in pill form. In such cases, transferring the diluted liquid (again, pure water) onto a sugar tablet and then letting it evaporate works because the sugar has a memory of the water that has a memory of the chemical.

Yes, a sugar cube with no chemicals other than sugar will heal you.

I’m a scientist. I’m really not into this whole magic medicine thing, so let’s start dismantling this, shall we?

Does homeopathy work? No. Water does not have a memory because water is just another chemical. The most it’ll help with is dehydration.

Homeopathy supposedly works because the sugar has a memory of the water that has a memory of the chemical.

Some people have felt relief from homeopathy, but feeling relief is not the same as proving that something is scientifically valid as medication. The placebo effect is a very real thing, and that’s all homeopathic medications are: expensive placebos.

Once in a while, a preparation isn’t so dilute that it’s pure water, and you get some active ingredients. But this can lead to deleterious effects because substances like arsenic and belladonna may be present in the medication. (Homeopathic products are lightly regulated in the United States.) Every major meta-analysis has shown that homeopathy is no more effective than a placebo.

My biggest concern with homeopathy is the labeling. I’m a scientist and science writer who wants consumers to understand what they’re buying, but what do any of these homeopathy labels mean? “200C.” “10x.” “3C.” “Humulus lupulus.” “Arsenicum alb.” “Natrum Muriaticum.” What language are they even written in? Why do natural health advocates demand that products with GMOs be labeled but ignore that homeopathic products are labeled in another language and without clear denotations of the quantities of active ingredients? If you want further proof that this is true, pick up any homeopathic medication and try to decipher how many grams there are of just one active ingredient. Odds are that you will not be able to conjure a clear answer by simply reading the label. Furthermore, in most cases, there probably isn’t much more than sugar in your pill.

With claims like these, homeopathic wonder products must be good, right? These are some of the claims made by the purveyors of homeopathy, but what can homeopathy actually cure?

There’s one exception to the rule that homeopathic products are basically sugar and water. Many of them list alcohol as an “inactive” ingredient. Because labeling laws on homeopathy are so different from regulations on real medicine with proven ingredients, the only actual drug in a bottle of homeopathic medicine—ethanol, the same active ingredient in vodka—doesn’t have to be listed as a drug. This is not an isolated case.

CVS sells a store-brand homeopathic constipation medication labeled “safe and non-habit forming.” It is conveniently 20 percent ethanol, meaning it is a 40-proof hard liquor and saving you the trouble of hitting the liquor store. Because who doesn’t enjoy doing shots when they’re trying to beat constipation?

Being the scientific type, I created a short video to explore the claims made on the bottle. The supplies cost me about as much as a bar tab: $36. In the video, after describing the product, I popped open and downed each of the bottles (for 6 ounces total of the product). Twenty minutes later, I was back on camera to take a breathalyzer, revealing my blood alcohol level was 0.11 percent. I got legally drunk from a CVS-brand homeopathic remedy … and then I was visibly drunk and saying more ridiculous things than usual on camera, because YouTube is built on people rambling like drunken idiots. Well, that and videos of cats.

Watch Video

I did not get carded. I also, ahem, did not experience any of the intended effects of the medication.

Additionally, after I contacted NBC about this discovery, a reporter investigating the story sent a visibly underage person to purchase the product. The 15-year-old, slightly embarrassed to be buying constipation medication, was able to purchase a shot of hard liquor on camera.

When I contacted CVS for comment about this, its defense was to say that the company abides by current regulations for homeopathic products:

Homeopathic products are legal under federal law and regulated by FDA. The FDA's Compliance Policy Guide provides guidance on the regulation of [over the counter] and prescription homeopathic drugs and delineates those conditions under which homeopathic drugs may be marketed in the U.S. 

I believe that’s lawyer-speak for ,“It’s legal, suck it.” However, the company’s employee handbook states that “on and off the job, CVS Caremark expects all colleagues to comply with the law,” presumably including laws against selling alcohol to minors.

Which leads one to question: How the hell is this legal?

I’m far from the only one who feels this way. With mounting pressure from the public, the Food and Drug Administration held meetings earlier this year to review how homeopathy is labeled in an attempt to give consumers more accurate information. Reform would standardize the labeling and make it easier for consumers to glean accurate information about how they’re deciding to manage their health.

Can homeopathy help you feel better? It can make you think you’re feeling better, but I implore you to think critically about the decisions you make with your health and your wallet. Hahnemann may have birthed the field, but he could be considered a skeptic by our standards and might even question homeopathy today. Consumers deserve to give homeopathy that same degree of skepticism. Consult with your doctor and choose proven, science-based remedies rather than overpriced and poorly regulated placebos. Homeopathy is quite the bitter sugar pill to swallow, especially when you find out you’ve just been served an overpriced, watered-down shot of cheap vodka.

Anyway, I much prefer bourbon.


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