The system of homeopathy was founded at the turn of the nineteenth century by a German pharmacist named Samuel Hahnemann, who abhorred the drastic healing practices of the time, such as bloodletting. Experimenting on himself, he discovered that cinchona bark (from which the anti-malarial quinine is made) would induce in him – a healthy person – the same symptoms it would cure in a sick person. This principle became known as the law of similars, or ‘like cures like’.

Hahnemann created a sensation in 1800 when he successfully used highly diluted doses of belladonna as a cure and preventative to treat victims of a scarlet fever epidemic that swept through Germany at the time. Successful treatment using homeopathic remedies of other infectious diseases such as yellow fever and typhus further aided the reputation of homeopathy as an efficacious treatment. Though disavowed by conventional pharmacists and physicians of the time, the popularity of homeopathy spread throughout Europe (helped in part by his second wife’s associations with the French nobility), and has been practised in the UK since the 1850s.

Homeopathic prescriptions are tailored to the symptoms and the patient, rather than an illness, so patients with the same illness but different symptoms will be treated with different remedies. Using extremely small doses of plant and mineral extracts (a ‘microdose’), the remedies are given in sugar-based tablets that are taken by melting under the tongue.

The mode of action of homeopathy is not fully understood, though there is a body of research that suggests that the effects of homeopathy have around a 2.5 greater effect than placebo (The Lancet 1997, Line et al). Another European study (Belon et al, 1999) showed that homeopathic concentrations of histamine have a dramatic effect on a certain type of white blood cell. In another study (Belougne-Malfatti et al, 1998), it was found that homeopathic doses of aspirin had significant effects on platelet aggregation and in reducing bleeding time. As normal doses of aspirin increase bleeding time, it was predicted that homeopathic doses would reduce it, a prediction that was verified in this study. There are also examples in the animal kingdom of extremely small doses having a powerful effect, one of which is the action of pheromones (certain species of moth, for example, can detect another of the same species up to 3km away).

Homeopathy is mainly used to treat chronic conditions such as asthma, arthritis, Crohn’s disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, eczema, irritable bowel syndrome, ME and repeated infections, as well as patients who are unwell but whose doctor can’t find a specific problem. Some allergies also respond well to homeopathy, particularly hay fever and related pollen allergies. Homeopathy is useful for patients who do not tolerate the side effects of conventional treatment well, and as it is such a gentle treatment children are also commonly treated. Some homeopathic remedies are available over the counter in pharmacies and health food shops.

In the UK there are five homeopathic hospitals, and some conventional healthcare practitioners also practice homeopathy, sometimes in an NHS setting.

A homeopath will take a detailed medical history, as well as details about the patient’s eating, sleep and work patterns in order to choose a suitable remedy. A follow up consultation will usually be required, and the homeopath will want to know any changes that the patient notices. Sometimes patients may have flu-like symptoms, a discharge or rash may appear, and this is regarded as a sign that the patient’s system is going through a cleansing stage. As homeopathy is based on such small doses there are no contraindications to treatment, though it is thought that strong smelling substances such as essential oils (often found in cosmetic and personal hygiene products) can counteract the homeopathic effect.