Friday, April 07, 2006

Sceptical about... Alternative Health

Everywhere we look there are offers of so-called alternative or complementary health products and services. There are homeopathic remedies in health shops, reflexologists that cure our illnesses by fooling around with our feet, people that sell us crystals because they channel energy and, well, the list is almost endless and seems to be growing every day.

So am I going to say that it's all rubbish and that people are wasting their money every time they buy one of these remedies?


Well, OK, perhaps not all of them. I may be sceptical but I'm not totally dismissive. I DO realise that many of the mainstream medicines we consume came from what you can call "natural" origins. Penicillin for instance was discovered when samples in a laboratory were infected by an air-born mould. Warfarin, commonly used to treat heart conditions, is found in many plants such as sweet clover and even in liqorice.

So I'm not against the idea that tomorrow scientists might discover that another so-called natural remedy does actually contain chemicals that cure disease and boost health. It happens all the time. Scientists all over the world are examining traditional remedies and finding amazing things.

What I AM against though is some of the more ridiculous claims that have absolutely no scientific basis.

A good example is homeopathy. The idea behind homeopathy is quite simple. An ailment can be treated with minute quantities of substances that produce similar symptoms to those of the ailment. Quite how this works is never explained although homeopaths no doubt want us to think that it's a bit like vaccination where an inert form of a dangerous infectious agent is given to the patient so he or she can form a resistance to it.

However, homeopathy and vaccination are completely different. One has a scientific basis and can be proved to work and the other? Well, no evidence I'm afraid, other than those "experiments" conducted by homeopaths themselves and they aren't exactly renowned for their scientific credentials.

Oh and one other difference between homeopathy and vaccination? One actually contains an active ingredient and the other doesn't. Homeopathic "remedies" are produced by repeatedly diluting a sample of the supposedly active ingredient. A homeopath may take a 1% solution of the active ingredient, perhaps a plant extract in water or alcohol and dilute it further several times. After being diluted to 1% each time you can quickly work out that after 10 dilutions only 1 atom in every hundred billion billion will be of the so-called active ingredient. And the most common forms of homeopathic remedy are actually diluted in this way thirty times. There is simply nothing left from the original ingredient. There's nothing there apart from water or alcohol.

So how do homeopaths claim it works? Well, if you have scientific background, sit down before reading further.

Apparently the water in which this ingredient once resided "remembers" that it once met the substance in question. Homeopaths talk seriously about "the molecular memory of water". And there was me thinking water was just hydrogen and oxygen and not something that remembered previous visitors.

Want another absurdity? Homeopaths believe that the more diluted the liquid becomes the more effective it is. And another? The principle of homeopathic "succusion" states that the remedy becomes even more effective still if you thump it against the heel of your hand or a leather pad. I promise you I am NOT making this up.

Homeopathy is nonsense. It flies in the face of all that we have learnt over the last couple of thousand of years in the fields of chemistry, physics and biology.

So what about all of you who have taken a homeopathic remedy and felt better afterwards? Were you imagining it? Was your mind playing tricks on you?

I don't think you were imagining it and I don't think you've gone mad. It just wasn't the little phial of water you drank that made you feel better.

So what was it? Well, there are three possibilities. Firstly you may have just got better! It happens. People just get better. Their bodies fight an ailment and win. Our bodies are usually pretty good at it. They have had millions of years to develop an immune system after all.

Secondly, there's the intervention effect. Sometimes just deciding to take action about your health brings about an effect indirectly. You start eating properly, taking exercise and looking after yourself better and this might involve you starting to take homeopathic remedies. Why assume it's the remedy that did it? Maybe all that extra fruit you ate that kept the colds away? At least fruit contains Vitamin C, something that actually does something!

The last possibility is the one that people often dismiss but is actually one of the most remarkable things that can happen in medicine. A truly remarkable effect that should never be dismissed or thought of as somehow second rate. The placebo effect. Just the action of taking medication can bring about an improvement, even if the medication is no more than a sugar pill. Nobody quite knows how it works but it does.

So why not embrace these possibilities instead of assuming that the homeopathic remedy you bought did something when it cannot possibly have done so?

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