It's not wizardry; in fact, it's based on the same principle as vaccination.

Published March 16, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Genevihve Buot, a French microbiologist, is telling me about the time she used homeopathy instead of antibiotics to treat her son's ear infection.

Says Buot: "He had what was essentially a messy mucus plug in his ear. It can be very painful and, when not treated, dangerous. I took my son to a conventional doctor who was adamant about treating him with antibiotics. I took the prescription but never filled it. Instead I used a combination of ferrum phosphoricum, aviaire and arsenicum album. When I went back to the same doctor to check on my son's ear, the doctor was overjoyed. 'Your son's ear is perfect,' he said. I never told him that I'd actually used homeopathy."

Buot is among the roughly 40 percent of the French population who use homeopathic medicine to treat everything from colds, flu and measles to depression, anxiety and insomnia. The same percentage of clinical physicians regularly use homeopathy in their practices, and the French government reimburses the cost of homeopathic medicines. Indeed, collections of substances in thin tubes and vials with curious Latin names -- belladonna, bryonia and pulsatilla -- are as common in French homes as spice racks.

While the French remain the world's largest consumers of homeopathy (and also the biggest consumers of pharmaceutical products in the industrialized world, an apparent contradiction that is particular to the French), the U.S. homeopathic market is growing quickly. According to the National Center for Homeopathy, sales of homeopathic products in the United States increased from $170 million in 1995 to $400 million in 1999. Still, despite the colossal boom in alternative health care in America (a market estimated at $18 billion), homeopathy remains a mystery to many in this country.

What exactly is homeopathy? In the late 1700s Samuel Hahnemann, a German physician disenchanted with contemporary health care, set off on a quest to study the effects of various natural substances on his body. To avoid problems of toxicity he used substances at smaller and smaller doses, thereby establishing a fundamental aspect of homeopathy -- infinitesimal dilutions.

Hahnemann was convinced that "the same things which cause the disease cure it" -- a principle espoused by Hippocrates in the fifth century B.C. Hahnemann's first experiment with the plant cinchona to cure the symptoms brought on by ingesting the same plant was decisive. He went on to study an entire range of plant, mineral and animal substances on himself, and eventually created the foundation of what would later become the official Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia still used today.

Hahnemann influenced an entire generation of European and American health practitioners. By the mid-1800s there were several homeopathic medical colleges in Europe and the United States, and one in five doctors used homeopathy, especially to fight cholera epidemics. While the move toward a more mechanistic view of the body and the growing use of pharmaceuticals eventually pushed homeopathy into obscurity in the United States (by the late 1940s homeopathy courses were virtually nonexistent), successive generations of European clinical physicians and pharmacists inspired by Hahnemann's work created the bedrock on which homeopathy thrives today on the Continent, particularly in France.

Simply put, homeopathy involves treating a patient with infinitesimal doses of a substance similar to that which caused the illness in the first place. In this general way homeopathy shares the same premise as vaccination: that it is possible to cure a patient of a disease by administering the same substance that would induce that disease in him if he were well. The National Center for Homeopathy uses as an example a plant root called ipecacuanha, which means "the plant by the road that makes you throw up"; eating it causes vomiting. If a woman experiencing morning sickness is not relieved by natural vomiting, then ipecacuanha, administered in extremely small doses in accordance with Food and Drug Administration guidelines, can allay her "similar" suffering.

Dana Ullman is a leading spokesman for homeopathy, an author and an advisory board member of alternative-medicine institutes at Harvard's and Columbia's schools of medicine. He uses a musical metaphor to describe the homeopathic law of "similars": "If one piano is at one end of a room and if one strikes the C key, the C notes in another piano in the same room will reverberate. This experiment works because each key is hypersensitive to vibrations in its own key. This is called 'resonance.'"

Ullman adds that the body's symptoms are, in fact, a defense -- "the body [trying] to fight a particular stress," he says. "With traditional medicine symptoms are wrong, must be managed, stopped. We look for homeopathic medicines that mimic the symptoms. Homeopathic medicines will only work when a person has a hypersensitivity to them. This individually chosen medicine represents the same frequency as the person, and the energetics of the medicine can augment a powerful immune and healing response."

"Energetics" is a buzzword used by many in the alternative-health field these days. According to author and physician Andrew Weil, "energy medicine" like homeopathy is one of the major medical developments of the 21st century. The energetics of homeopathy involves factoring into the diagnosis equation various psychological and emotional aspects of a person's disposition.

Says Ullman: "It seems that most conventional physicians have been schooled in the 'Marie Antoinette' college of medicine, where they understand the body and head as two separate entities. Disease is a complex process that affects the whole person. Homeopaths do indeed seek to uncover various psychological symptoms as well as various idiosyncratic physical symptoms. These symptoms are 'signs' and 'signals' of the disease, and very relevant information about a person's 'body-mind' metabolism. Homeopathy is based on the totality of physical and psychological characteristics that define the person."

Homeopathy has its detractors, even in France, and the body-mind aspect is largely dismissed by conventional doctors as New Age psychobabble. "Sounds good in theory," says Michel Tramos, a Paris general practitioner. "But in practice, it's all about placebos. The theory of homeopathy is not scientific."

Ullman counters that "there are many things that we don't fully understand in theory -- anesthesia, for example. We don't entirely understand how it works in theory, but I've never heard anyone going into surgery question the theory behind it. Most homeopaths don't bother with theory. They use homeopathy because it works. They're clinicians."

Numerous research studies, including double-blind and placebo tests done in conjunction with large health institutes, tend to support Ullman. Many of these studies are used by manufacturers of homeopathic products to counter dissent from the traditional medical community. There are a few manufacturers in the States -- Standard Homeopathic, Nature's Way (for whom Ullman formulates remedies) and Boericke & Tafel -- but none of them produces the sheer volume that the French laboratory Boiron does.

Founded in 1932 in Lyon by twin-brother pharmacists, Boiron is the world leader in homeopathic products. Every year it manufactures 100 million tubes of 1,500 different homeopathic medicines and delivers 8 million specially prepared homeopathic remedies for individual prescriptions filled by 23,000 pharmacies around France. Its biggest seller is a cold and flu remedy called Oscillococcinum, which is used regularly by 5 million French and recently became the most commonly used homeopathic flu remedy in the United States. (U.S. sales of Oscillococcinum jumped 40 percent between the 1997 and 1998 flu seasons.)

Oscillococcinum is made from the heart and liver of Barbary ducks, but you won't find any traces of feathers here. Almost all homeopathic products look exactly alike: tiny, translucent white pellets the size of fish eggs that bear no trace whatsoever of their original source.

Boiron uses 1,250 different plants, 1,800 natural substances of chemical or mineral origin and 300 biological strains. Much if not all of the plant material is found by medicinal plant harvesters like Rigis Buffihre. Every year Buffihre journeys through the upper valleys of the Forez, Jura and Pyrenees mountains in search of wild plants; he returns with 10 to 12 tons of material. The transformation of homeopathic medicine from its raw organic forms -- be they Barbary duck livers or exotic-plant roots -- to the sterile pellets is a complex, high-tech process that involves things like laminar air hoods, vacuum chambers, hydraulic presses, demijohns, filtration cartridges, air purification systems and centralized guidance systems, along with the sciences of thin-layer chromatography, densitometric interpretation, micropulverization, triple impregnation and thermoluminescence, to name just a few.

Homeopathic medicines are, in fact, the end products of sequential deconcentrations of basic substances, in which each operation is followed by thorough shaking known as "succussion." In some cases, the resulting substance is so diluted that no molecule of the original substance remains in the medicine. This extreme form of dilution is precisely why many conventional doctors associate homeopathic medicines with placebos: The doses are so exceptionally small that, logic would suggest, no curative properties exist.

Ullman, however, sees no contradiction here. "There are many phenomena in nature in which extremely small doses of something can create powerful, even very powerful, effects," he says. "One certainly cannot say that the atomic bomb is a placebo just because some extremely small atoms bump into each other."

Jim LaValle, a pharmacist, homeopath and author of several books on alternative medicine, puts it differently. "The activity of hormones in the body commonly can occur in parts per million or less. An animal can change behavior with the scent of a single pheromone from several miles away. There have been several well-designed studies that reported that these high dilutions somehow have a physiologic effect. Some scientists feel that the dilution in water somehow holds a memory of the agent."

The manufacture and sale of homeopathic medicines are regulated by the FDA. (The Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia of the United States was written into federal law in 1938 under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.) Most of the medicines are available without prescription and several insurance carriers cover them. They are often cheaper and usually safer than conventional drugs. "Homeopathy is curative, truly curative," says Ullman, who predicts that major drug companies will soon seek to purchase or form joint ventures with homeopathic companies.

Homeopathy is not used only by homeopaths and physicians; there are 700 homeopathic veterinarians in France and 17 student chapters of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association among the 27 U.S. veterinary schools.

With the future of homeopathy looking bright in America, the French continue to do what they've been doing for more than 200 years. "I can't even begin to assess how much money I've saved and how many potential negative side effects I've avoided using homeopathy in my home," says Buot. "I have three teenage sons. They're rarely sick." When asked what she thinks about doctors who claim that homeopathy is essentially a placebo, she shrugs. "If you don't understand homeopathy or have never used it regularly, you can't have any idea what it's all about. Of course conventional doctors deny the efficacy of it. It counters the very basis of pharmaceuticals, which are effective for certain things but not for everything. When I think about my son's serious ear infection, I have all the proof I need. Granted, the doctor who prescribed the antibiotics would have told you that homeopathy is only psychological in its effects. But I promise you, there's nothing psychological about ear mucus. Homeopathy works."

By Debra Ollivier

Debra Ollivier, a contributor to Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real Life Parenting, is the author of "Entre Nous: A Woman's Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl." Her work has appeared in numerous publications including Harper's, Playboy, Le Monde and Les Inrockuptibles.

MORE FROM Debra Ollivier

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Drugs France