Before a television appearance this week to promote my new book, “A Feast of Science,” the producer asked if we could address “homeopathic drugs, like oil of oregano” that I discuss in the book. Therein lies a problem, namely the widespread misunderstanding of what homeopathy is all about. A far too common belief is that homeopathy encompasses all sorts of remedies that are not mainstream, ranging from acupuncture to herbal remedies. This is totally incorrect. First introduced over two hundred years ago by German physician Samuel Hahnemann, homeopathy is a very specific practice based on the rather curious notion that a substance provoking symptoms in a healthy person will cure those very same symptoms in a sick person. And the clincher? It must be sufficiently diluted to do so. In fact, these dilutions are so extreme that the final “remedy” does not even contain any trace of the original substance.
This notion of non-existent molecules curing existing diseases completely defies everything we know about chemistry, toxicology and physiology. The explanation provided by homeopaths, that molecules leave some sort of molecular imprint in a solution after successive dilutions and succussions (the homeopathic term for “banging against something”) is not scientifically plausible. And even if it were possible, why would this have any sort of therapeutic effect?
Now let’s be clear. I do not dismiss homeopathy because of its implausible tenets; I dismiss the practice because of the numerous studies that have clearly shown that any benefit stemming from homeopathy is simply based on a placebo response. There are, however, some published trials that have demonstrated a statistically significant positive effect, but that is to be expected in scientific studies. Do enough of them and there will always be some statistical quirks, purely due to chance.
But what troubles me most about homeopathy is not its affront to science, but more importantly, its potential to cause harm. The concern isn’t toxicological; tiny sugar pills are harmless. Cancer patients being steered away from conventional treatment by the allure of homeopathy, on the other hand, represents a clear danger. So too does the claim that homeopathic “nosodes” can serve as a replacement for vaccination. While Health Canada does require a warning on nosodes stating that they are not equivalent to vaccines, other homeopathic products feature a DIN-HM number thereby implying to customers that these products have been approved by Health Canada as being safe and effective. Given that these products contain essentially nothing, homeopathic pills are indeed safe. But in terms of efficacy, there is no demonstration of proof that they work. Something of which the public is largely unaware. This is a situation that needs to be remedied. Any substance that claims to address a medical condition is a drug and all drugs available on the market should be required to meet the same safety and efficacy criteria, whether it is a “natural” plant extract, a synthetic compound, or a homeopathic preparation.
So let’s circle back to what the producer thought was an easy oil of oregano question. Like any plant extract, oil of oregano is a complex mixture of numerous compounds. Does it have any merit as a dietary supplement? Well proponents claim that the oil can cure everything from allergies to colds to zits; yet there are no significant randomized placebo-controlled clinical trials in humans to back up any of these claims. One thing we can say with certainty about oil of oregano, however, is that it is most certainly not a homeopathic remedy. And now, you too know why.
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