How Does Homeopathy Work?
by Allen M. Kratz, PharmD
This is a question I am often asked, particularly by
fellow pharmacists, physicians and health care professionals. The direct
answer is…we don't know. That said, and before you stop reading, let
me ask you a question. How many drugs do you recommend or prescribe
with an unknown mechanism of action? Check your PDR or favorite
pharmacology textbook and you may be very surprised.
There are several theories of how homeopathic drugs
work. Let me present what I perceive to be the most plausible of possible
Edward J. Calabrese, PhD at the University of Massachusetts
in Amherst has written extensively on this subject in very conventional
journals. The hormesis hypothesis states that most, if not all, chemical
and physical agents, such as radiation, have the capacity to stimulate
biological effects at doses below the toxicity threshold, while causing
toxicity at doses above the threshold.1 This concept is validated
by the Arndt-Schulz Law of pharmacology which essentially says the same
thing and is often used to explain the beneficial effects of microdoses
of potentially toxic substances that are often used in homeopathy.
Can water remember?
A second theory is the systemic memory mechanism of
water, which simply states that water can remember. It can be imprinted
with the memory of a substance.2 This may explain the effects
of homeopathic drugs well beyond Avogadro's number (12C or 24X). This
concept is also being researched with modern analytical procedures.
There is much that we still do not know about something so apparently
simple as water. Stay tuned.
Other possible mechanisms of action
The American Association of Homeopathic Pharmacists
(AAHP) in their pharmacy c.e.u. program, an Introduction to Modern
Concepts of Homeopathic Pharmacy3 presents the following
"possible mechanisms of action" of homeopathic drugs:
The human body is wonderfully adaptive and is constantly
maintaining its equilibrium and harmony. This process of adjustment
is continuous. For example, on a hot day we sweat and in the cold we
shiver. These simple examples are good illustrations of the constant
adjustments being made due to the environment or specific stimuli. The
endocrine and nervous systems are involved in mediating these adjustments,
though all of the body's systems are involved in a complex process designed
to maintain homeostatic equilibrium.
When the stimuli is weak, the body's response is moderate;
the resulting changes are minimal or pass without our notice at all.
When the stimuli is great, then the body's response must be equally
strong or the body will be overwhelmed and the changes which occur to
our body can be equally dramatic.
These adjustments are our "symptoms." We may not think
of perspiration as a symptom, but it is the body's way of cooling itself.
When we fall and bruise ourselves, the area becomes tender and discolored.
These symptoms, while mild, are the healing processes for the damage
done to the injured tissue. Inflammation occurs, damaged cells collect,
the lymphatic system and lymphocytes mobilize to phagocytize dead cells
and debris and remove it from the area. In the case of a viral infection,
the same process of inflammation occurs, the immune system is activated,
antibodies are formed and systems develop. The symptoms may include
fever, runny nose, sneezing, cough, headache, body aches. All of these
symptoms represent the body's efforts to overcome and eliminate the
Symptoms are therefore a positive phenomenon. They are
the body's way of telling us that it is coping with stimuli or stress
being applied to it. Homeopathy utilizes these symptoms to assist the
body in its efforts to regain its balance and state of health through
the application of the "law of similars."
Many of the concentrations used in homeopathic drugs
may at first glance seem to be so dilute as to have no possible physiological
effect. But it is important to put these concentrations in perspective
by comparing them with the normal concentrations at work in our bodies.
Our body typically deals with ion concentrations in lymphatic fluid
and serum of 10-3 g/ml. Hormone concentrations range from
10-6 to 10-18 g/ml depending upon the hormone
and the tissue where it is being measured. From this it is apparent
that most of the lower homeopathic potencies correspond with the natural
physiological concentrations found in the body. Higher homeopathic potencies,
which correspond to extremely low concentrations, utilize mechanisms
for their actions that are not understood. While controversy surrounds
the effectiveness of high dilutions, there is research which reports
that these very highly diluted solutions do have physiological effects
on a variety of natural systems.
In a series of experiments continued over 35 years,
Kolisko4 reported that wheat seed growth was promoted by
low dilutions of various metallic salts, inhibited by somewhat higher
dilutions, and stimulated again at dilutions higher than Avogadro's
number. Another experiment5 tested the effect on guinea pigs
of daily doses of sodium chloride prepared in 30X, 200X, 400X, 600X,
800X, 1000X, 1200X and 1400X dilutions (all well past Avogadro's number).
The trial, lasting six months, was repeated two years in succession.
Controls received distilled water. Test animals lost weight and appetite,
had dull shaggy coats, and dull watery eyes, were less active than controls,
gave birth to young weighing less than the controls and had a higher
mortality and lower reproduction rates than the controls.
Other experiments, using techniques from physics, have
also reported that homeopathically dilute substances display measurable
differences that may seem paradoxical due to the small concentrations
present. Nuclear magnetic resonance experiments6 conducted
in 1963 measured three solutions: a) 87% ethanol in water, b) sulphur
12X (prepared with succussion at each step, and c) an equivalent dilution
of sulphur 12X prepared without succussion. The authors were able to
distinguish the properly prepared sulphur 12X from the others, and concluded
"some form of energy is imparted by succussion to a homeopathic drug,
resulting in a slight change of the alcohol in these dilutions. There
is a structural change in the solvent as the potency is made from the
tincture to a higher dilution."
A more recent experiment7 measured the changes
in hydroalcoholic solutions prepared with serial dilution and succussion.
Dilutions of sulphur from 5X to 30X were prepared using succussion,
vial rotation and neither succussion nor rotation. Measurable and characteristic
changes in the spectra were found at each stage of dilution with succussion.
These characteristics were absent in analogous solutions prepared without
succussion or solute.
A number of theories have been attached to homeopathy
in an attempt to explain how these dilute solutions work. The effects
of homeopathy can be clinically evident and the physiological changes
that homeopathic remedies create in the body have been measured. However,
the exact mechanisms for how homeopathy interacts with the body's systems
One possibility is that homeopathic dilutions assist
the body to reactivate enzyme and endocrine systems by interacting with
regulatory and biofeedback mechanisms. Homeopathic concentrations are
in the proper range for interacting with the receptor sites at the level
of cellular membranes, enzymes and neural synapses.
Researchers have stated that the length of the bond
between molecules increases in length with repetitive succussion sites.
Bond length is a measure of bond strength since it takes more energy
to hold the molecules together at greater distances. The kinetic energy
of the succussion process becomes transformed into potential energy
held within the molecules in the form of molecular bonding.
Current thought is that low dilutions (1X-12X) work
on organs and tissue and are used in acute conditions or for drainage.
Drainage remedies facilitate or enhance the function of the detoxifying
organs, such as liver, kidneys or lymphatic systems. They are claimed
to have a stimulatory effect on the system. The intermediate dilutions
(12X-30X) are thought to act in a regulatory fashion, with a slight
stimulation of intermediary metabolism in order to achieve homeostasis.
Potencies above 30X are used for emotional and mental symptoms or for
the constitutional nature of the individual.
Some individuals feel that homeopathic medicines work
in a manner similar to vaccines. Others claim that their action is due
to the specific resonance that each drug possesses. There is a specific
and consistent energy pattern under electromagnetic resonance imaging.
Technology allows resonant frequency to be measured, so this may be
part of the answer. Still others claim an action similar to the phytotherapeutic
effect for low dilutions of herbs. All of these ideas may be true. However,
if the symptoms of the body are viewed as total disregulation, and an
attempt is made to find the appropriate homeopathic drug(s) based on
similarity with symptoms, it could be theorized that homeopathics are
able to affect receptors in a way to reestablish normal function. The
bottom line is that the exact mechanism of action in homeopathy has
not yet been determined.
1. Developing insights on the nature of the dose-response
relationship in the low dose zone: Hormesis as a biological hypothesis,
Biomedical Therapy. 1998; 3: pp. 235-240.
2. The plausibility of homeopathy: The systemic memory
mechanism, Integrative Medicine. 1998; 1: pp. 53-59.
3. Possible mechanisms of action for homeopathic medicines,
Introduction to Modern Concepts of Homeopathic Pharmacy. 1999;
4. Physiological and physical results of the effects
of diluted entities, 1923-1959. Abstracted as: A Physiological Proof
of the Activity of Smallest Entities, Spring Valley, Mercury 11, Journal
of the Anthroposophical Therapy and Hygiene Association. 1991.
5. Experimental data on one of the fundamental claims
in homeopathy, Journal of the American Institute of Homeopathy.
1925; 18: pp. 433-444, 790-792.
6. Modern aspects of homeopathic research, Journal
of the American Institute of Homeopathy. 1963; 56: pp.363-366. 1965;
58: pp.158-167. Modern instrumentation for the evaluation of homeopathic
drug structure, Ibid. 1966; 59: pp.263-280. Changes caused by
succussion on N.M.R. Patterns and Bioassay of Bradykinin Triacetate
(BKTA) Succussions and Dilutions, Ibid. 1968; 61: 197-212.
7. Nuclear magnetic resonance studies of succussed solutions,
Journal of the American Institute of Homeopathy. 1975; 68: pp.8-16.
Anomalous effects in alcohol-water solutions, Review of Mathematical
Physics. 1975; 13: pp.10-12.