As nurses, we’re educated, medical professionals. The vast majority of us have Bachelor’s degrees, and many of us also have Master’s degrees or even PhDs. Like the physicians we work with, we spent years in school learning everything we needed to know about the human body, pharmacology, and other studies that are integral to the practice of evidence-based medicine.
When you have this level of medical education, it’s always frustrating when you run into “that guy.” You know “that guy.” The one that talks about vague “toxins,” vaccines causing autism (which has been thoroughly debunked numerous times), and about highly questionable approaches to treating human disease. Among these pseudo-scientific approaches to health is
“Homeopathy,” a venerable but ultimately mistaken approach to the philosophy of curing human diseases.
It can be startling how many people buy into such unscientific ideas about medicine and health, especially from our perspective. The worst part is when these ideas spread, and when they motivate people to seek treatments that simply don’t work. Taking graviola fruit extract instead of getting chemotherapy isn’t just a personal quirk or a life decision — it’s a matter of life and death.
Recently, the US government has begun to crack down on bogus treatments, and the misguided practitioners who offer them. A recent new policy statement from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) takes aim squarely at homeopathic remedies, specifically those which are sold over the counter. This statement was released as a response to the fact that increasingly, homeopathic OTC remedies are being sold on drugstore shelves alongside legitimate OTC medications and supplements.
Homeopathy: 19th Century Quackery Turned 21st Century Trend
Homeopathy, as an approach to medicine, originated in the late 18th century. Unlike many systems that could fall under the “alternative medicine” umbrella, such as Ayurveda or Chinese traditional medicine, homeopathy is not rooted in any longstanding cultural or ethnobotanical traditions. It was created originally by a man named Samuel Hahnemann, a physician from Germany. Like many physicians at the time, he disagreed with longstanding practices like bloodletting, which often did more harm than good.
Hahnemann came up with an idea termed “similia similibus curentur” – “like cures like.” The underlying idea was that disease was caused by phenomena that he called “miasms,” and that these could be remedied through homeopathic remedies that cause symptoms similar to those that the person is experiencing.
Homeopathy fits squarely in the realm of pseudoscience. Homeopathic remedies have never been demonstrated to reliably cure any disease, and based on what is now known of how the human body works and how disease functions, it is clear that Hahnemann’s ideas were incorrect. Homeopathy is probably best viewed as a mistaken but well-intended idea, and part of a broader effort on the part of physicians of the time to move away from antiquated medical practices toward more scientific approaches — an effort that ultimately led to today’s evidence-based medicine.
Why Has Homeopathy Made a Comeback?
So why has homeopathy made a comeback in the late 20th and early 21st centuries? Not only is the entire practice based on an incorrect theory of the etiology of disease, but homeopathic practice involves dilutions that often remove nearly all of the supposed active ingredients from the final drug formulations.
Its popularity may stem from the fallacy of the appeal to nature. It’s no secret that people today are often attracted to the idea of the “natural.” Whether it’s organic food, herbal remedies, or anything else, there’s an underlying idea that what is “natural”, is good.
The FTC Will Now Require Homeopathic Remedies to Prove Their Claims
Sections 5 and 12 of the FTC Act prohibit deceptive practices in marketing products, including OTC medications. Any objective claim about such a product must be backed by a reasonable basis, such as clinical trials. The vast majority of OTC drugs are backed only by the hypothesis that underly homeopathy and have not been shown to be effective in double-blind studies. The idea here is to treat homeopathic remedies like any other OTC supplement or medication and hold them to the same standards. Homeopathic remedies are ultimately incapable of meeting those standards, which could help limit the sale of OTC homeopathic remedies.
This doesn’t mean that homeopathic products will disappear from the market completely. The FTC’s jurisdiction only pertains to misleading marketing claims. However, the agency’s new statement can help raise awareness about the misleading and inaccurate claims underlying homeopathic medicine. Packaging for such products will now require it to disclose that it is not backed by scientific evidence. Hopefully, consumers will catch on.