We’re proof that homeopathy works – so why has the NHS scrapped it?
- Developed in the 1790s by Samuel Hahnemann, homeopathy is hugely popular
- Based on the idea that the more diluted the remedy, the more potent its power
- However, while many patients love it, scientists remain unconvinced by claims
- Here, four homeopathy users detail their compelling stories and let you decide…
There is no doubt that many people — including the vast majority of scientists — regard homeopathy with extreme scepticism.
With its medieval-sounding ingredients, such as poison ivy, cat’s milk, common toad, all delivered in highly diluted, vanishingly minuscule amounts, how can it possibly work?
Developed in the 1790s by Samuel Hahnemann, a German physician, homeopathy is based on the idea that, in tiny doses, like cures like. So if you have inflammation, for example, then very small amounts of substances such as bee sting or poison ivy could reduce it.
Natural: Developed in the 1790s by Samuel Hahnemann, a German physician, homeopathy is based on the idea that, in tiny doses, like cures like
Remedies, often given as a tablet, but sometimes as a tincture or drops, are used for a particular problem — muscle pain or asthma, for instance — or for general wellbeing.
‘Like cures like’ may not sound a million miles from some more conventional medical treatments, for instance in immunotherapy for allergies, where a patient is exposed to a tiny amount of the allergen (such as pollen) in a controlled way, or vaccines which expose someone to a safe dose of a particular virus to train the immune system.
However, homeopathy operates on the controversial principle that the more diluted the remedy, the more potent it becomes. So the raw material — whether a plant, a mineral or part of an animal — would be diluted thousands of times.
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The mainstream scientific view has long been that it’s impossible for such a dilute substance to contain any meaningful amount of the beneficial ingredient: it would be just water, and any benefit felt by the patient is simply a placebo effect.
Even so, homeopathy has been available on the NHS since the health service was founded 70 years ago — although this could be about to change.
Earlier this month, the High Court rejected a legal challenge by the British Homeopathic Association following the decision by the NHS to no longer routinely fund homeopathy.
Testament: Anna Pluck, 41, a sports therapist who lives in the Wirral, started using homeopathy three years ago for hayfever and nasal congestion
NHS England has recommended that local health authorities stop paying for it on the basis that there is ‘no clear evidence to support its use’. NHS chief executive Simon Stevens welcomed the verdict, saying that homeopathy is a ‘misuse of scarce NHS funds’.
This is disputed by some pro-homeopathy experts. ‘As a cost-cutting exercise it may well turn out to be counter-productive,’ says Dr Elizabeth Thompson, a palliative care specialist and CEO of the Portland Centre for Integrative Medicine in Bristol.
‘Most homeopathic remedies cost around £5 and last for three months. If patients are reporting benefits for, say, pain control, withdrawing funding could push them back onto high-strength opioids, which cost the NHS from £45 to £55 a week.’
As for the lack of evidence, some proponents of homeopathy argue that major reviews of the scientific evidence have failed to include research that suggests patients find it helpful, with results better than when compared to a placebo.
Then there are the patients who say homeopathic remedies have worked when conventional treatments have failed them. Here we speak to people who say it helped — for all sorts of conditions, from nasal polyps to migraines. While not proof that homeopathy works, their stories raise questions about what is going on . . .
Anna Pluck, 41, is a sports therapist who lives in the Wirral. She started using homeopathy three years ago for hayfever and nasal congestion.
Changes: homeopathy has been available on the NHS since the health service was founded 70 years ago — although this could be about to end
For as long as I can remember, I’ve suffered with sniffles and hayfever. In the warmer months, my nose would be completely blocked, and if I caught a cold it would last for weeks.
It made me miserable and affected my work. As a sports therapist, part of my job is massage but I’d have to cancel clients’ appointments because no one wants to be sneezed on while having a massage!
I’d tried over-the-counter nasal sprays and antihistamines over the years. Steroid nasal sprays, which I started getting on repeat prescription from my GP in my early 30s, would stop the symptoms if I used them every day — but that made my nose bleed.
Around five years ago, my GP referred me to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist who diagnosed nasal polyps (swellings in the nasal lining). He said the only treatment was an operation to remove them, but they were quite likely to grow back.
I wasn’t keen on an operation, so I carried on with the steroid sprays and the occasional short course of prednisolone tablets (another steroid) but my nose always got blocked again.
Then three years ago I saw a different GP at my surgery who was also a trained homeopath. I hadn’t requested to see him — it was just coincidence — but he asked if I wanted to give homeopathy a go and I thought, ‘why not?’
I had an appointment on the NHS and he went into depth about my medical history before prescribing treatment which included lac delph tablets — literally dolphin milk.
Convert: Gary Rugg, 62, a retired engineer from Upminster turned to homeopathy to try to relieve his asthma and to prevent recurrent chest infections
The way it was explained to me was it’s not that they give you a particular remedy for a particular problem, it’s more about your all-round health and personality. It’s very personal to you. It sounds insane and I was a little sceptical.
After the first dose — a single tablet — I actually felt worse than I’d ever done with my nose. It was blocked and I had nosebleeds for three days. But I’d been warned that may happen so I didn’t worry.
Less than a week later, I felt better: my sense of taste and smell improved and I wasn’t sneezing.
Two weeks later I was told to take another dose. Again, I got a little bit worse for a while but then it cleared up.
After that, I took the tablets once a month for a few months and now I take a tablet just a few times a year — if ever I feel my nose blocking up slightly.
I don’t take any steroids at all now and I haven’t needed an operation. I haven’t been back to the ENT specialist, but a doctor has looked up my nose with a light and can’t see the polyps. If it were a case of mind over matter, I don’t see how that could happen.
Gary Rugg, 62, a retired engineer from Upminster who is married to Kay, 59, turned to homeopathy to try to relieve his asthma and to prevent recurrent chest infections.
When I was given my first homeopathic treatment I thought, ‘How on earth are a few drops of that going to help me?’ But it has.
I’d had asthma since I was a kid but as an adult it got progressively worse. For example, rather than having an occasional wheeze when I ran, by my 50s I was wheezing every single evening.
It was frightening, and I had to use inhalers daily. The noise of my wheeze would often keep Kay awake and just going on long walks would leave me fighting for breath.
I developed bad chest infections two or three times a year that would need antibiotics and I’d be off work for a couple of weeks.
Twelve years ago, I thought I can’t live like this and my GP referred me to an asthma specialist.
He took X-rays and tried me on lots of different inhalers. I was left with three: two which I used all the time and Ventolin which I used as and when I needed, which was most days. I got no better and gave up hope that I ever would.
In 2010, Kay suggested I try homeopathy and my GP agreed to refer me as an NHS patient to the Royal Homeopathic Hospital in London. The doctor spent over an hour talking to me and asking me about my lifestyle and the kind of person I was. She even asked me about my dreams. It was quite an emotional experience.
She gave me drops which I had to dilute in water and then take a 5ml teaspoon of, swilling it in my mouth before swallowing.
Results: Jay Hudson, 50, from London, is being treated with homeopathic remedies for a number of conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis and migraine
Four days later I felt as if I had flu, but I called her and she said that was normal. I had to repeat that process three weeks later.
I went back to see her and she talked to me again and gave me silica tablets made of some sort of plants. I had to put one under my tongue morning and night.
The effects were pretty dramatic. I haven’t had a day off sick with a chest infection since. Best of all, I stopped wheezing at night.
I go for check-ups every six months and the doctor measures my lung capacity — which has improved since taking the tablets.
These days, I only occasionally use an inhaler — for example if I go on holiday somewhere hot and dry. I’m not saying it will work for everyone, but homeopathy has definitely worked for me.
Jay Hudson, 50, from London, a former research fellow in mental health, is being treated with homeopathic remedies for a number of conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis and migraine.
When I began treatment at the Homeopathic Hospital in London three years ago, I was under the care of eight different consultants and taking a variety of high dose prescription painkillers — eight pills a day — in a vain attempt to find something that worked.
I had rheumatoid arthritis and peripheral neuropathy (severe pain in the hands and feet) and frequent severe migraines. I also had a big toe that had become so swollen and deformed that I’d been told it needed corrective surgery.
I was worried about the effects of all the drugs I was taking. The ones for migraine made my legs weak and gave me dizzy spells, and the painkillers didn’t even work well enough to allow me to type. I had to stop work seven years ago and was largely housebound.
My rheumatologist suggested homeopathy and my GP agreed because he’d run out of specialists to send me to.
I was given four homeopathic remedies on NHS prescription — and the effect has been remarkable. The swelling in my toe shrunk two inches and my rheumatologist said I no longer need an operation.
Effectiveness: Lucy Werner, 35, has been using homeopathy to treat anxiety as well as recurrent eye infections – and has seen considerable improvements
I am still chronically ill and in pain, but the homeopathy has really helped, especially with the side-effects of the drugs. My last migraine was six months ago: before, they were every few weeks. I can also use the computer again.
The withdrawal of NHS funding for homeopathy is a huge worry. I’m terrified I’ll soon be back where I was three years ago.
Lucy Werner, 35, who works in public relations and lives in London with her partner Hadrien, 33, a creative director, and their son, Rafael, one, has been using homeopathy to treat anxiety as well as recurrent eye infections.
Even if homeopathy is just the placebo effect, I don’t care. In my early 20s I saw a homeopath about recurrent eye infections because I was getting four or five a year — and each time one developed, I had to go to Moorfields Eye Hospital in London for antibiotic treatment.
I’d also need a week off work because my eye was so red, sore and sensitive to daylight, and it would be another week after that before it had fully healed.
I’d first tried homeopathy a few years earlier. My housemate was training to be a homeopath and needed case studies.
Since university, I had suffered from anxiety and a racing heart and took beta-blockers, prescribed by my GP, but the symptoms never really improved.
So I thought I’d try something different. During the one-hour session, I talked through my stresses and the homeopath gave me remedies not specifically for anxiety but rather to get my energy levels in balance.
The second time around, as well as an energy-rebalancing remedy in the form of a pill, the homeopath encouraged me not to take any medicines for the eye infections to allow my body to get rid of it naturally.
It was a big leap of faith and the first two days were horrible, but by day three the infection had passed. Normally it would take almost two weeks to clear.
These days I see a homeopath privately, at a cost of around £45 an hour, two or three times a year and get a tailored course of treatment each time.
Now, I get an eye infection once every few years instead of one every few months
What’s more, the inflammation is never as bad and the infection cures itself quicker.
Additional reporting: JILL FOSTER, LUCY ELKINS and RACHEL ELLIS
EVIDENCE THAT MAY RESOLVE WHETHER IT’S ALL IN THE MIND
There were 2,700 prescriptions for homeopathic remedies issued by NHS GP practices between December 2016 and May 2017. Clearly, there are patients — and their doctors — who believe there may be something to the therapy.
And while patients’ stories are far from proof that homeopathy works, it begs the question: is it simply a placebo effect or is it something more?
Proponents argue that key evidence showing a genuine benefit is often left out of major studies that claim to review all the available evidence.
According to Dr Peter Fisher, a rheumatologist and clinical director of research at the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine, there have been 43 summaries of homeopathic trials and 21 showed an effect greater than a placebo.
‘This is a proportion very similar to what studies of conventional treatments find,’ says Dr Fisher.
He is also critical of the way the trials now used as evidence that homeopathy doesn’t work were run.
One key study published in The Lancet in 2005 found ‘weak evidence for a specific effect of homoeopathic remedies’ and implied they were no more than placebos. However, Dr Fisher describes the research as ‘failing to meet elementary standards of quality and transparency’.
The study analysed eight out of more than 100 randomised controlled trials — the ‘gold standard’ for proving treatments are better than a placebo, where one group gets the real therapy and the other a ‘fake’.
‘But the rules as to what studies could be included were changed half-way through,’ claims Dr Fisher. ‘This excluded 93 per cent of available trials and skewed the results against homeopathy. When the study was re-analysed using the original rules, good evidence for homeopathy emerged.’
On the other side of the debate, Professor Edzard Ernst has said that the British Homeopathic Association has misrepresented studies that it claimed showed homeopathy differs from a placebo.
While the two sides are poles apart on what the evidence shows, all agree the principle behind homeopathy — super dilution — is a problem, flying in the face of science.
Compared with standard drug treatments, once a homeopathic remedy has been diluted thousands of times, there should be nothing left but water. But what if it could be shown that something clearly physical is going on?
Dr Steven Cartwright, a research biochemist formerly of the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology at Oxford University and now working at Diagnox, a commercial lab, is looking at precisely that. He trained as a homeopath after a single dose ‘cured’ the hay-fever he’d had for years — ‘I was curious to find out more.’
Using a group of dyes that have some unusual properties, he believes he’s discovered a clue as to what is going on. The dyes change colour depending on the liquid they’re put into. In water, one might show up as red, but blue in alcohol.
Exactly why is not clear, but Dr Cartwright believes it could be because they respond to electrical and magnetic fields. When he mixed some regular shop-bought homeopathic remedies with the dyes they produced different colours. ‘You couldn’t see them with the naked eye but they showed up when looked at through a standard bit of lab equipment, a spectrophotometer,’ he says.
He believes something in the remedy was affecting the dye. ‘I think it was probably picking up an electric or magnetic charge, possibly the result of the vigorous shaking that goes on during dilution,’ he says.
What’s more, the effect was stronger the more diluted the remedy, and different remedies produced different colours.
‘It’s too early to make any claims,’ says Dr Cartwright. ‘‘There is a group in Brazil working to replicate it.
‘We might have discovered a radical new medical mechanism. But let’s see.’
The NHS view remains as previously stated: that there is no robust evidence to support homeopathy.
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