Millions of people use homeopathy around the world, despite it being advised against by various medical and science bodies.
Most recently, the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council (EASAC) issued a damning report on the so-called benefits of homeopathy.
The council said claims for homeopathy are “implausible” and “inconsistent with established scientific concepts”, warning that promoting homeopathy may pose harm to patients who delay medical treatment in favour of an alternative cure.
It has since called for greater regulation of homeopathic products.
What is homeopathy?
Homeopathy is an alternative form of medicine used to treat both acute and chronic conditions - remedies can be given as pills, capsules or tinctures (liquid extracts made from herbs).
It is based on a series of ideas developed in the 1790s by a German doctor called Samuel Hahnemann. One of the main ideas is that ‘like cures like’, so any substance which could produce symptoms in a healthy person could cure similar symptoms in a person who is sick.
For example, onions make your eyes water and your nose burn when you chop them. So, if you’re experiencing hay fever - where the symptoms are watering eyes and a burning nose - many homeopathy websites argue that a treatment made from onion could (in theory) relieve it.
Another idea from Hahnemann is that highly diluted substances are better for treating ailments. It’s believed giving the smallest amount of medicine can prompt a better healing response in the body, with fewer risks of side effects.
The British Homeopathic Association says: “The holistic nature of homeopathy means each person is treated as an unique individual and their body, mind, spirit and emotions are all considered in the management and prevention of disease. Taking all these factors into account, a homeopath will select the most appropriate medicine based on the individual’s specific symptoms and personal level of health to stimulate their own healing ability.”
There is no legal regulation of homeopathic practitioners in the UK currently.
What do people use homeopathy to treat?
According to the NHS, homeopathy is used for an extremely wide range of health conditions. Some of the most common conditions include: asthma, ear infections, hay fever, mental health conditions, allergies, dermatitis (an allergic skin condition), arthritis and high blood pressure.
What evidence is there to suggest it works?
There’s conflicting evidence surrounding homeopathic treatments and whether they work. EASAC said homeopathy most likely causes a “placebo effect” in individuals - where the person believes they feel better because of their trust in the treatment rather than the treatment itself.
The NHS Choices website says “there is no good quality evidence that homeopathy is an effective treatment for these or any other health conditions”. Despite this, there are two NHS hospitals which provide homeopathy and some GP practices also offer it.
Meanwhile the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE), which advises the NHS, has issued advice on the use of homeopathy in three areas. It does not recommend using homeopathy to treat otitis media with effusion (OME) or for treating lower urinary tract symptoms (LUTS) in men. It also said women should be advised against using homeopathy for induction of labour.
Cristal Sumner, chief executive of British Homeopathic Association (BHA), told HuffPost UK the EASAC findings are “little more than a rehash of previously published negative studies and reports, carefully selected from the wider body of homeopathic research to exclude any quality evidence supporting the efficacy of homeopathy”.
BHA said there’s a growing body of published research showing that homeopathy has a positive effect. One study from 2005 reported that 70% of 6,544 patients with a wide range of chronic conditions reported positive health changes following homeopathic intervention.
What does the report mean for the future of homeopathy?
EASAC has called for regulatory requirements to ensure all products for human and veterinary medicine are based on verifiable and objective scientific evidence. It said in the absence of evidence backing up health claims, a product should not be approved for wider use.
The council concluded that advertising and marketing for these products and services should be accurate and clear. In short, they should not be making any bold claims without the evidence to back it up.