Alternative or complementary ?

Homeopathy and related non orthodox treatments such as herbalism and aromatherapy, are often called 'alternative medicine'. This term implies that one has to choose one of two courses of action. For example, making decisions between orthodox medicine and homeopathy, or between homeopathy and nothing. In fact it is the complementary approach that is to be favoured. Here it is possible to complement, or complete, what is already available, using the most appropriate combination of treatments in any given set of circumstances. It may well be that an orthodox medicine and a homoeopathic medicine could be used together to treat different aspects of the same disease. Antibiotics are often prescribed with Belladonna by medically qualified homoeopathic physicians. Equally, there may be circumstances under which certain orthodox or homoeopathic medicines are inappropriate and the availability of the other method of treatment can prove very valuable. Good examples of the former are in pregnancy (for morning sickness), or where there are fears of interactions in taking preparations like travel sickness tablets or anti-diarrhoeals by patients already being treated with prescription medication. Treatment of 'exam nerves' is yet another example.

Treating the whole person

The holistic approach to treatment is perhaps the most important concept within the practice of homeopathy and is shared with all other complementary disciplines. To a homoeopath there is no one remedy for an illness. One remedy may be used to treat a wide range of different conditions in different patients and two patients with similar symptoms may not receive the same remedy. The aim is to restore a patient to his or her own unique state of wellness, taking into account any environmental influences, and not just to an 'average' well state. A first consultation might take 30 - 40 minutes up to 2 hours, during which time the patient will be asked all sorts of seemingly unrelated questions about their personality and environmental preferences. In this way the practitioner can build up a total picture of the patient before considering any symptoms that prompted the visit. Rather than treating the case as 'a sore throat attached to a body', a prescription can be issued on the basis of 'a body with a sore throat'. Without some knowledge the beginner would find it difficult to treat complicated long standing illnesses, and this limits the conditions that can be realistically treated by self medication. However, there is a range of around 20 'specifics' or polychrests, remedies with wide applications that can be used routinely to help many common ailments and first aid situations.

Homeopathy - the early years

Britain played an important part in the development of homeopathy, the complementary medical discipline pioneered by Christian Samuel Hahnemann, who was born in Saxony in 1755. While translating a textbook by the great Scottish physician William Cullen, Dr Hahnemann found himself in disagreement regarding the action of quinine, a recently introduced remedy for a condition then called marsh fever, but now known as malaria. He tested the drug on himself, recording every physical and mental symptom to produce a comprehensive 'drug picture' that appeared very similar to the symptom picture reported by patients suffering from malaria. Hahnemann also observed that the symptoms of Belladonna poisoning were similar to those of scarlet fever for which the remedy was being prescribed at that time. He postulated a law of drug action suggesting that remedies producing certain symptoms in healthy persons could cure sick persons presenting with similar symptoms.

The three principles of homeopathy
  • Like to treat like

This first principle is embodied in the phrase Similia similibus curentur or 'let like be treated by like'. Examples might be the use of Coffea (coffee) to treat insomnia or Apis (from the bee) to treat stings and similar histamine type reactions. At first sight, this is rather different to the orthodox approach, when the use of Syrup of Figs to treat diarrhoea might cause a few eyebrows to be raised! However, there are several examples of this practice in orthodox medicine. Above a certain dose level, the drug digoxin causes many of the heart conditions for which it is also a treatment; aspirin in large doses causes headaches.

  • The minimal dose

When Hahnemann did his original work he administered substantial doses of medicine to his patients, not always with good results. Subsequently, he experimented by diluting his remedies and found that as the concentration fell, remarkably the therapeutic effect rose. It is in this area where many people have extreme difficulty in accepting that homoeopathic remedies can possibly work. Much is made of the huge dilutions that are involved in some homoeopathic treatments, when theoretically there are no molecules of remedy left in solution that can be detected with the methods we have available today. However, homeopathy is not only about these huge dilutions. Potencies such as 6c (a 1 in 100 serial dilution carried out 6 times with fierce bursts of agitation) are used frequently, particularly over the counter in pharmacies and at this level there are still molecules left in solution.

  • The single remedy

Hahnemann's final idea was that of a single remedy to treat patient's ills although later in life he experimented with combination therapy and in some communites such treatment has become very popular.

The Source Material

More than 50% of all remedies are prepared from plant extracts, and because of this homeopathy is often confused with herbalism by many people. The original work carried out by Hahnemann used naturally occurring chemicals together with their trace impurities. Thus the remedy Calc carb (Chalk) is obtained from the interspaces of oysters and is not prepared in the laboratory. Sulphur comes from geothermal areas. Animal and insect material must be obtained from healthy specimens. Lactrodectus is a spider whose venom is sometimes used in the treatment of the heart condition angina. Finally, there is a mixed bag of source material including mixed pollens, house dust, flowers, cat and dog hair, feathers and various foods. Remedies prepared from these sources are said to be 'isopathic' and involve something akin to vaccination therapy, treating 'same with same' as opposed to classical homeopathy, when 'like is treated with like'.

Homoeopathy in Britain

Britain's first Homoeopath was Dr F J Harvey Quinn who qualified from Edinburgh Medical School in 1820. About 30 years later another Edinburgh graduate, Dr William Purdie from Airdrie left these shores to start a new life in Dunedin and introduced homeopathy to New Zealand. A homoeopathic dispensary was opened in Glasgow in 1880 by a group of Doctors, but after a few years it closed through lack of funds. Subsequently a consulting room was set up in 1909 but this also closed, but for a very different reason - pressure of work! Now there are four homoeopathic hospitals - Glasgow, London, Bristol and Tunbridge Wells in Kent.

Homeopathy in the community

It is probably true to say that most health professionals involved in the provision of homoeopathic services have adopted a reactive approach, seeking to satisfy a demand from the public that has intensified over recent years. However, with professional training this is changing, and there has been a significant increase in the number of NHS, private and veterinary homoeopathic prescriptions presented by patients as a result of a more pro active approach. The Times of London reported that over a recent five year period the number of people using homeopathy in Scotland has more than doubled from 5% to 11% of a sample of population, with 40% saying that they would now consider the discipline. The figure for the UK as a whole is around 30%. The reasons for people turning to homeopathy are interesting to speculate. Many patients perceive homeopathy as attracting much less risk than orthodox medicines with an absence of side effects; others may be dissatisfied with the treatment received by orthodox GPs and see homoeopathic physicians as having more time to discuss their problems in a caring manner; others may be impressed by the Royal connection, or have found orthodox medicines ineffective. Immigrant communities may have a traditional mistrust of Western medicine. Critics of homeopathy base most of their arguments on the lack of scientific evidence. This does not seem to trouble our Euro cousins on the other side of the Channel. If a remedy can be shown to be safe and efficacious the French and Germans will use it, despite a lack of understanding of its mechanisms. There are lots of examples of orthodox or 'allopathic' medicines whose action we do not fully understand - some, like paracetamol, are not as safe as homoeopathic remedies - yet folk continue to use this scientific hurdle against the discipline. Further, such requirements do not seem to apply to the various preparations, including cough mixtures, that have been counter prescribed for years despite doubtful efficacy. The UK homoeopathic market is now worth about £16m annually but this pales into insignificance if one takes a look at the market in other EC countries. France, for example, with a population similar to ours, has a market value of about 15 times the UK. In the Netherlands the average spend on homeopathy per head of population in 1991 was around £5.40 compared with around 20p here. The figures are not entirely compatible for a series of reasons, but even if appropriate adjustments could be made, a large disparity would still exist.


Despite the existence of many papers and media exposure, homeopathy continues to suffer from an inability to explain its action scientifically. A lack of human and financial resources is hampering progress at present, but interesting work in human and veterinary areas is proceeding, not only to prove efficacy but to improve our methods of administration.

Readers will find an interesting commentary on important homoeopathic research in the book, Homoeopathic Pharmacy by Steven Kayne. Health professionals may also wish to contact
The British Homeopathic Library at Glasgow Homoeopathic Hospital, 1053 Great Western Road, Glasgow G12 0XJ +44(0)141 211 1600

There are Homeopathic Hospitals in Glasgow, Bristol and London.
NHS clinics also exist in Dundee, Liverpool and Manchester.