Wednesday, August 17, 2011

When New Motherhood Meets Quackery

I hate being wrong.  Even more than that, I hate admitting when I'm wrong.  Not only do I hate the admission, I'm terrible at it and will avoid it whenever possible.  (Just ask my husband.)  So I hope you will appreciate my discomfort as I write this confession...

When my son was a few months old, he began teething.  It happened suddenly, and it appeared to cause him intolerable pain.  He wouldn't nurse and couldn't be comforted for more than a few minutes at a time, a heartbreaking situation for any parent.  Desperate to find relief for him, I picked up a bottle of Hyland's Homeopathic Teething Tablets.  As soon as Mikey would start to cry, I'd shove a few tablets into his mouth.  It seemed like magic - he would immediately stop crying.  Even better?  You can't overdose on homeopathy!  I could safely give him as many tablets as it took to soothe his pain!  At ten bucks per bottle, we must have gone through more than a dozen bottles during the course of his teething.  We had them in every bag, car, room, and sometimes our pants pockets.  I would attest to anyone who asked that this stuff worked.

My understanding of homeopathy at that point was limited.  In fact, I didn't understand it at all.  Now that I do, I shake my head in embarrassment at my behavior during those months.  I'll chalk it up to being a hormonal new mom, but in reality, it was entirely my failure to study something that I desperately wanted to be real.

Just in case you don't know, here's a rundown of homeopathy:

In 1796, German physician Samual Hahnemann came up with the "law of similars," on which homeopathy is based.  At the time, cinchona bark was used to treat malaria.  Hahnemann noted that cinchona bark tended to produce the same symptoms as malaria.  Homeopathy is founded on this observation.  It uses the principle of "like cures like."  For example, cayenne may be used as a treatment for fever, since cayenne and fever both cause sweating.  Pause and absorb that little tidbit of absurdity before we move on.

A homeopath will assess the patient's symptoms, and decide which "remedy" is appropriate.  The next step is to prepare the remedy.  During this process, a tiny amount of the "active" ingredient is placed into a comparatively huge amount of water.  This tincture is shaken in a very special way, including ten sharp whacks against an elastic substance, a process known as succussion.  After it is succussed, they take a tiny amount of the tincture and dilute it again into a large amount of water, then succuss again.  Then they do it again.  And again.  And again and again and again until all that remains is water.  Let me reiterate: all that remains is water.  It's JUST WATER.

Homeopathic remedies have been tested repeatedly, and have been found to contain NONE of the original "active ingredient."  When testing became available to prove this, the homeopaths formulated a response: Water has memory.  It can remember that long-lost drop of belladonna it used to contain.  Somehow, though, it manages to forget all the fecal matter it has carried.

If they are preparing a tablet, here are the additional steps: Pack together a bunch of little lactose tablets (sugar pills).  Take your homeopathic tincture and place a drop on each tablet.  Let it dry.  Tah-dah!  Homeopathic pills.  Even if water had magical memory and like actually did cure like, they have let all the magical water evaporate from the pills!  I haven't yet heard anyone say that lactose has memory.

To clarify the dilutions: If you look at the back of a package of homeopathic preparation, you will see a number followed by the letters C or X.  Hahnemann's C scale means diluting a substance to a factor of 100 at each stage.  A 2C dilution means diluting something to 1:100, then taking some of that diluted substance and diluting it to 1:100.  This works out to be one part of the diluted substance in 10,000 parts of diluent.  Hahnemann believed that a substance gets stronger the more it is diluted.  Most homeopathic remedies are diluted to 30C.  

At 30C, you would have to consume 10^34 gallons of water, or 10 billion times the volume of the Earth, to consume a single molecule of the original substance.

Oh, and that Oscillococcinum you can buy at CVS, right next to the real medicines as a cold remedy?  Duck liver diluted to 200C.  You do the math.

Anyone who takes a moment to understand the basic tenets of homeopathy can surely see the absurdity here.  Unfortunately, so few of us take that moment.  Our society is currently scrambling toward anything labeled as "natural," "organic," or "chemical-free."  Unfortunately, this has made us easy prey for charlatans, quacks, and crooks.  I was so desperate to find some relief for my son that I turned to something that is patantly ridiculous, and I believed that it worked.  In retrospect, of course it made him stop crying.  I was shoving pure sugar into his mouth.  It always makes me happy to have sugar in my mouth.  In fact, if I learned that making a certain noise would cause people to put sugar in my mouth, I'd probably make it a point to make that noise more often.  

No, I probably didn't cause him any harm with my actions.  I just wasted some money and made myself into somewhat of a fool.  But I am not okay with being foolish.  I live in a world in which a healthy dose of skepticism can be quite confrontational.  I think I have permanent bite marks on my tongue from all the time I spend trying not to offend people.  I understand that we must respect others' choices and beliefs, but the fact is that sometimes people believe things that are patently wrong.  I certainly did for a time.


  1. Didn't those pills actually make few babies really sick and the FDA issues a warning not to give it to babies? Thay like got sick and stuff because of the non-homeopathic levels of all natural poisons? Since they are not regulated by the FDA you don't actually know what you get. It may not be just water.

  2. @ Skeptigirl: I was well rid of teething (and homeopathy) by the time this press release came out, but thanks for sharing. It makes the whole thing that much more appalling. This proves that if you fail to dilute the homeopathic "active" ingredients into absolute oblivion, they are actually harmful.

    This kind of thing can happen because anything labeled "homeopathic" is not regulated by the FDA. That's why Zicam was labeled that way even though it contained mega-doses of zinc, which actually caused some people to permanently lose their sense of smell. It's like printing that word on the label is a get-out-of-regulation-free card.

    So what's the right answer? If we expect the FDA to regulate homeopathic substances to the C-scale, then we are asking them to verify that a product contains nothing before they will allow it to be sold,making a governmental agency complicit in this elaborate scam. But if they don't regulate it, people get hurt.

  3. [Duck liver diluted to 200C. You do the math]
    Well - The duck has been diluted out of it, so all we are left with is a quack