Homoeopathy is a system of medicine which involves treating the individual with highly diluted substances, given mainly in tablet form, with the aim of triggering the body’s natural system of healing. Based on their specific symptoms, a homeopath will match the most appropriate medicine to each patient.

Like with like

Homeopathy is based on the principle that you can treat ‘like with like’, that is, a substance which causes symptoms when taken in large doses, can be used in small amounts to treat similar symptoms. For example, drinking too much coffee can cause sleeplessness and agitation, so according to this principle, when made into a homeopathic medicine, it could be used to treat people with these symptoms. This concept is sometimes used in conventional medicine, for example, the stimulant Ritalin is used to treat patients with ADHD, or small doses of allergens such as pollen are sometimes used to de-sensitise allergic patients.

The science

Homoeopathic medicines (which homoeopaths call remedies) are prepared by specialist pharmacies using a careful process of dilution and succussion (a specific form of vigorous shaking).

As yet, science has not been able to explain the mechanism of action of ultra high dilutions in the body, but laboratory experiments have demonstrated that homeopathically prepared substances can cause biological effects and are distinct from ‘pure water’, as some sceptics have suggested. There is also a growing body of research into homeopathy in practice that supports the suggestion that homeopathy can be effective, cost- effective and safe as a treatment option.

There is also a growing body of research evidence that homeopathic medicines have clinical effects.

Its origins

The principle of treating “like with like” dates back to Hippocrates (460-377BC) but in its current form, homeopathy has been widely used worldwide for more than 200 years.

It was discovered by a German doctor, Samuel Hahnemann, who, shocked with the harsh medical practices of the day (which included blood-letting, purging and the use of poisons such as arsenic), looked for a way to reduce the damaging side-effects associated with medical treatment.

He began experimenting on himself and a group of healthy volunteers, giving smaller and smaller medicinal doses, and found that as well as reducing toxicity, the medicines actually appeared to be more effective the lower the dose. He also observed that symptoms caused by toxic ‘medicines’ such as mercury, were similar to those of the diseases they were being used to treat e.g. syphilis, which lead to the principle he described as ‘like cures like’.

Hahnemann went on to document his work, and his texts formed the foundations of homoeopathic medicine as it is practiced today. A BBC Radio 4 documentary aired in December 2010 described Hahnemann as a medical pioneer who worked tirelessly to improve medical practice, insisting that medicines were tested before use.