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Published by Bupa's health information team, May 2009.
This factsheet is for people who are planning to have homeopathy, or who would like information about it.
Homeopathy is a complementary therapy that aims to treat symptoms of illness with preparations called remedies. These are made from sources including plants, minerals, metals and insects. Homeopaths believe that the remedies stimulate your body's own healing powers. They call this the 'vital force'.
Your care will be adapted to meet your individual needs and may differ from what is described here. So it's important that you follow your homeopath's advice.
The word homeopathy is a combination of two Greek words - 'homoios' from 'homos' meaning similar and 'pathos', which means suffering. Sometimes known as homoeopathy, it's often simplified to homeopathy.
Homeopathy dates back to ancient Greece but was developed more recently in Germany in the eighteenth century. It's based on the principle that 'like cures like', meaning that a substance that can cause a symptom may also be able to relieve it. Homeopaths believe that diluting a substance makes it more rather than less powerful, even when it's so dilute that it doesn't contain any of the active ingredient.
Homeopathic remedies are dilutions of original, mostly natural substances. The raw extracts (from plants or animals) or triturations (from minerals and salts) are made into a 'tincture' with alcohol. This is then diluted with water. Remedies can come in different potencies depending on the number of times they are diluted. Dilution is either decimal - one drop of tincture in 10 drops of water (or a mix of water and alcohol) - or, more commonly, centesimal - one drop of tincture in 100 drops of water or water/alcohol blend would have a potency of 1c. Common potencies, in order of increasing dilution are 6c, 12c and 30c.
Often the final remedy doesn't contain any of the original substance. According to conventional science, this means the remedy is inactive. However, homeopaths claim that diluting a remedy in this way actually makes it more effective. After each dilution the mixture is vigorously shaken - homeopaths believe this transfers energy into the water and leaves a memory of the starting material in it.
As well as tinctures, you can buy homeopathic remedies in the form of sugar-based tablets, pills, granules and powders that you dissolve in your mouth. You can also get some as creams or ointments to apply directly to your skin.
Homeopathy is now mainly used as a complementary treatment (one given alongside conventional treatments).
Most homeopaths claim that homeopathy is holistic and doesn't just treat the symptoms of a disease. This means it takes into account your mind, body and spirit. Because of this, homeopaths will treat almost any disorder.
Homeopaths treat the symptoms of a number of chronic conditions. A chronic illness is one that lasts a long time, sometimes for the rest of the affected person's life. The term chronic refers to time, not how serious a condition is. Examples of conditions for which homeopathy is used include:
depression or anxiety
Where can I find a homeopath?
Homeopathy is practised by two separate groups. Medical homeopaths are medically qualified practitioners regulated by the General Medical Council and British Homeopathic Association. Medical homeopaths use homeopathic techniques as part of their practice. Non-medical homeopaths are professionals who use homeopathy only.
You can search for medically-qualified doctors and other healthcare professionals who practise homeopathy on the British Homeopathic Association website. You can check whether your non-medical homeopath has a recognised qualification and belongs to a professional body on The Society of Homeopaths website. This has over 1,500 members registered with it, making it the largest representative body. Recently it was shown that many claims made on the websites of professional homeopathic organisations aren't supported by reliable evidence.
Both of these organisations can offer you advice about finding a practitioner. Alternatively, your GP may be able to refer you to a homeopath.
About the procedure
It's important to visit your GP before having homeopathy, to help diagnose your condition and to ensure that homeopathy is an appropriate treatment for you.
If you decide to have homeopathy, you will first have a detailed consultation. Your homeopath will ask you questions about your medical history, diet, lifestyle, emotional state, sleep patterns and personality. He or she may also examine you. You can ask any questions you might have.
Your initial consultation with a homeopath will last about an hour. If you have any further consultations, these will be shorter than the first, as the homeopath will already have your background information.
At the end of the consultation your homeopath will give you a homeopathic remedy or a prescription for one. This will usually be in the form of tablets but liquids, powders and homeopathic gels or creams are also used. Your homeopath will advise you how often to take the remedy. You may only need one dose of a remedy, but if you have a chronic condition, you may receive treatment for many months, with several consultations and a variety of remedies.
If you're given homeopathic remedies to take at a later date, it's important to store them in a cool dark place, away from anything with a strong smell.
Some homeopaths warn against eating or drinking any strong tasting or smelling substances, such as toothpaste or coffee, because they may cancel out the effects of a remedy.
You can choose to be treated by a homeopath, or you can buy certain homeopathic remedies, such as those used to treat minor problems like colds and headaches at pharmacies and health food shops. Ask your GP or pharmacist for advice before taking the remedy and always read the patient information leaflet that comes with it.
Is homeopathy effective?
The best evidence fails to prove that homeopathy cures illnesses. Research shows that no homeopathic remedy has a clinical effect greater than that of a placebo (dummy treatment) for any medical condition. Although there is anecdotal evidence to support the use of homeopathy, there is little scientific evidence.
Several studies have looked at the outcomes of different homeopathic techniques on a variety of diseases and conditions. Some of these have been controlled studies and may have involved using a placebo treatment to see how it compares with homeopathy. Scientists insist homeopathy works through this placebo effect. Homeopaths claim that some form of energy is transmitted to the remedies as they are being produced.
Other studies have been much smaller and are therefore less reliable as evidence. The best evidence suggests that homeopathic remedies have no effect beyond placebo. This is when you believe something has helped but it actually hasn't had any effect at all.
What are the risks?
In general, homeopathic remedies appear to be safe, probably because they either don't contain any active ingredients or these are only present in very low concentrations.
The British Homeopathic Association advises that you can take homeopathic remedies at the same time as conventional medicines as homeopathy won't interfere with them.
However, you may find that after taking a homeopathic treatment, your symptoms get worse for a short period of time before they get better. Homeopaths believe this is part of the healing reaction and that it's a necessary part of the healing process.
Several surveys have shown that some homeopaths advise their clients against having vaccinations - this can put you at risk of serious health conditions.
See our answers to common questions about homeopathy, including:
- History of homeopaths. The Society of Homeopaths. www.homeopathy-soh.org, accessed 27 January 2009
- About homeopathy. British Homeopathic Association. www.trusthomeopathy.org, accessed 27 January 2009
- What is homeopathy? The Society of Homeopaths. www.homeopathy-soh.org, accessed 27 January 2009
- Homeopathy simply explained. The Society of Homeopaths. www.homeopathy-soh.org, accessed 27 January 2009
- Homeopathy for babies and children. The Society of Homeopaths. www.homeopathy-soh.org, accessed 27 January 2009
- Homeopathy and conventional medicine. British Homeopathic Association. www.trusthomeopathy.org, accessed 27 January 2009
- Ernst E. A systematic review of systematic reviews of homeopathy. Br J Clin Pharmacol 2002; 54:577-82
- NHS Centre for Reviews and Dissemination University of York. Effective health care: homeopathy. 2002; 7(3. www.york.ac.uk
- Homeopathy: systematic review of systematic reviews. Bandolier. www.medicine.ox.ac.uk/bandolier, October 2003
- About The Society of Homeopaths. The Society of Homeopaths. www.homeopathy-soh.org, accessed 27 January 2009
- Getting treatment. British Homeopathic Association. www.trusthomeopathy.org, accessed 27 January 2009
- What does treatment involve? British Homeopathic Association. www.trusthomeopathy.org, accessed 27 January 2009
- Kaplan B. Obstacles to cure. Homeopathy in Practice; winter 2008/2009
- Is homeopathy safe? British Homeopathic Association. www.trusthomeopathy.org, accessed 27 January 2009
- FAQs. British Homeopathic Association. www.trusthomeopathy.org, accessed 27 January 2009
This information was published by Bupa's health information team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been peer reviewed by Bupa doctors. The content is intended for general information only and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional.
Publication date: May 2009