Herbs vs. homeopathy

Last week, I was in the recovery room of the Same Day Surgery Unit, having completed my last case of the day. While I was sitting at the computer entering postoperative orders, I overheard a conversation. A middle-aged woman, who appeared to be a relative of one patient lying in one of the recovery bays, was speaking to the patient's nurse. She was expounding in great length and detail about the herbal and homeopathic remedies that she favored, with the nurse politely listening, but with a slight tightening of her mouth that told me she was probably thinking, " I wish this lady would shut up, already." Then the woman said something that I actually found myself agreeing with, although not for the reason this woman would think:

"Remember, homeopathic remedies and herbal remedies are two completely different things."

Believe it or not, I agree with that. A few herbal remedies might actually have a therapeutic benefit, mainly because some herbs contain pharmacologically active compounds that work like drugs (albeit in amounts that vary markedly from batch to batch, making herbs an unreliable source of active drugs). Indeed, many of our drugs are chemically altered versions of active molecules found in nature, usually in plants. For example, Taxol, a chemotherapy drug used to fight breast cancer and a variety of other tumors, comes from the bark of the Pacific Yew tree, Taxus brevifolia. Another drug, digoxin is derived from the foxglove plant, and the list goes on and on. In marked contrast, homeopathic remedies by their very definition don't contain any active ingredients, at least not at any concentration that could possibly have pharmacologic activity. This makes homeopathic remedies completely worthless, the claims of its advocates that somehow the water used to dilute the solution retains a "memory" of the active ingredient that was diluted out notwithstanding.

Remember, if a "homeopathic remedy" actually contains any active ingredient whatsoever, after all, then by the homeopathic Law of Infinitesimals, it is not really "homeopathic" at all!


  1. Orac:

    Homeopathists claim that the curative strength increases with dilution, and that the substance used in the "cure" is carefully chosen. Have you ever heard of anyone presenting to the ER who claimed to be damaged by a homeopathic "cure" that involved the correct substance but too great a strength (in the homeoplathic sense) ? Or by a "cure" involving the wrong substance ?

  2. Reminds me of the scene in Neil Gaiman's 'American Gods' where Mr Nancy (god) sees that Shadow (human, or arguably demi-god) has the mother of all hangovers...

    "I've got something that'll help that," se says. "Traditional African remedy, made from willow bark, stuff like that."

    He hands Shadow a bottle of generic aspirin...

    Also reminds me of Terry Pratchett talking about Absinthe. "It's got herbs in it. Good for you, herbs."

    Amen to that!

  3. The damage from homeopathic "cures" won't be to the patient. Since the strength increases with dilution, the real dangers occur when the leftovers go down the drain.

    By the time it hits the ocean ...

  4. Heh. I'll have to remember that one!

  5. The previous coment about the Ocean gives us an even bigger problem; since the ocean must contain a homeopathic dose of practically everything except salt and water, drinking it should cure every disease known. Unfortunately, if I remember my pseudoscience correctly, there will be a homeopathic dose of every antidote in there, which will mean you get the full poison effect. Hence drinking water is invariably fatal, although the effect can take up to 12 decades.


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