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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Myth or medicine?

Homeopathic products prosper even as controversy rages

Julie Deardorff Chicago Tribune

A popular homeopathic flu remedy boasts that it comes with no side effects, no drug interactions and won’t make you drowsy. But the product also lacks something most people expect to find in their medicine: active ingredients.

Oscillococcinum (pronounced O-sill-o-cox-see-num), a tongue-twisting concoction used to treat flulike symptoms, is a staple in many European homes. Sales are steadily growing in the U.S., where it can be found everywhere from storefronts to major retailers.

Homeopathy critics, however, derisively call the product “oh-silly-no-see-um,” a reference to the absence of active ingredients.

Products such as Oscillococcinum have placed homeopathy in an awkward position: popular among holistic-minded consumers but scorned by scientists and most Western-trained doctors.

One U.S. group has offered $1 million to anyone who can prove homeopathy works and has challenged major drug retailers such as CVS, Rite-Aid and Walgreens to stop selling the products.

“Nobody, not even homeopaths have an idea how the remedies work,” said Dr. Edzard Ernst, a longtime critic of homeopathy and professor of Complementary Medicine at Peninsula Medical School at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom.

Few things rile scientific skeptics more than homeopathy, a baffling form of alternative medicine in which patients are given highly diluted and vigorously shaken preparations to trigger the body’s natural healing ability.

Though it has been used for centuries and some studies have reported positive findings, the practice has no known scientific basis. Most analyses have concluded there’s no evidence it works any better than a sugar pill.

Yet homeopathy hasn’t just survived the years of scathing criticism; it’s prospering. In the U.S., consumer sales of homeopathic treatments reached $870 million in 2009, growing 10 percent over the previous year, according to Nutrition Business Journal estimates.

For Oscillococcinum, sold in 60 countries, estimated annual retail sales in the U.S. are more than $20 million, according to the manufacturer, Boiron. It ranks 49th out of 318 cold and flu brand products that do more than $1 million in sales. Other popular homeopathic products include arnica gel for bruises and strains and diluted zinc remedies for colds.

“Some people feel these products shouldn’t work due to the dilution level,” said pharmacist Christophe Merville, director of education and pharmacy development for Boiron, the world’s leading manufacturer of homeopathic medicines. But he said basic science studies have shown “that highly diluted solutions have biological properties that are different than water.”

Homeopathy is one of the most polarizing forms of complementary and alternative medicine in part because it’s based on principles that defy the laws of chemistry and physics. One pillar is the assumption that “like cures like.”

Chopping a red onion, for example, can make your eyes tear and nose run. Seasonal rhinitis can trigger the same symptoms, so a homeopathic treatment derived from a red onion — Allium cepa — may be a possible remedy.

The second assumption proposes that diluting and violently shaking (or “succussing”) the remedies makes them more effective.

The mechanism behind the diluting and shaking remains a mystery. Some say homeopathic medicine may stimulate the body’s natural defenses; others suggest homeopathic medicine retains a “memory” of the original substance in the water and the effect is due to nanoparticles.

Regardless, proponents say it shouldn’t be discounted simply because it can’t be explained. For years, no one knew how aspirin worked. And scientists still don’t fully understand the mechanism behind a conventional drug such as Ritalin, argued Dr. Tim Fior, director of the Center for Integral Health in Lombard, Ill.

Mona Grayson, 35, of Warrenville, Ill., turned to homeopathy for chronic digestive issues after her insurance expired and she could no longer cover the cost of her conventional treatment: $4,000 every eight weeks. Though she was tolerating her pricey medication, she had concerns about the long-term effects.

After an initial two-hour consultation with Fior, Grayson was given a remedy of phosphorus; she said she hasn’t had problems since. “What matters to me is that I feel good,” said Grayson, a raw food chef and happiness coach.

But does homeopathy provide anything beyond a placebo effect? Overall, many of the studies are small, of poor quality and funded by homeopathic manufacturers.

Despite that fact, some see homeopathy as a safe way to complement treatment choices. “We don’t always know why things work, but sometimes they do,” said Freeport podiatrist Roland Tolliver, who uses it with his children and occasionally recommends arnica for patients with musculoskeletal issues.

“Regular medicine doesn’t always work either,” he said. “The most important thing is to leave all options open.”

Critics say there’s a risk in perpetuating the notion that homeopathy is equivalent to modern medicine, in part because people may forgo or delay conventional treatment. Moreover, it’s unethical for pharmacists to prescribe placebos, said W. Steven Pray, a professor of pharmacy at Southwestern Oklahoma State University.

“You don’t need placebos to generate placebo effects,” Ernst has written. “Furthermore, if we allow the homoeopathic industry to sell placebos, we must do the same for Big Pharma. Imagine a world in which pharmaceutical companies could sell us placebos for all sorts of conditions just because some patients experience benefits through a placebo response.”