It's the middle of the night. You've got chills and your stomach is turning. You're utterly exhausted, but restless, too -- and your symptoms keep getting worse. Now that you've come down with the flu, you'll need strong medicine to get through until morning. Mentally scanning the contents of your medicine cabinet, you arrive at the perfect solution. Given your set of symptoms, a little arsenic should do the trick.
Of course, ingesting straight arsenic would cause the very problems you're trying to eliminate -- or worse. But the super-diluted homeopathic remedy Arsenicum album accomplishes quite the opposite: According to homeopathy's proponents, it helps the body heal itself. The theory behind the 200-year-old system lies in this paradox: The same plant-, mineral-, and animal-derived materials that produce adverse reactions in large doses actually, in miniscule amounts (one part remedy to, say, 1 trillion parts water), stimulate the body to heal itself of these same disease-causing symptoms. This "Law of Similars" is commonly accepted in countries like France and Germany, where nearly one-third of all physicians prescribe homeopathic remedies.
If homeopathy has its detractors (and it does), it is due in part to the extremely diluted nature of the remedies. For instance, a remedy marked 200C (one part substance to 100 to the 200th power -- 10 followed by 400 zeros -- parts water) would contain very little, if any, of the original substance. For skeptics, this puts homeopathy squarely in the placebo realm. But proponents say the essence, or "memory," of that substance remains in the solution and has the power to heal. In fact, according to homeopathy, the more diluted a substance is, the more potent its effects.
-Take the right amount. The frequency will depend on the severity of your symptoms, but a good general guideline is one dose every two hours during intense pain or discomfort, or every four hours if your symptoms are mild.
-Stop taking a remedy if you don't see improvement after 24 to 36 hours, or if you experience new symptoms.
-Keep your homeopathic remedies tightly sealed, dry, away from light, and at room temperature. Also avoid their exposure to aromatic substances such as menthol or perfumes, which can neutralize their beneficial effects.
-Place the medicine under your tongue without touching it with your hands, so as not to deactivate and contaminate it.
-Refrain from eating or drinking for five minutes before and after taking your remedy so it can be better absorbed under your tongue.
-Avoid coffee, chocolate, camphor, eucalyptus, mint, and other strong-smelling substances when taking homeopathics, as these may interfere with absorption.
Deriving its ingredients from sources as varied as wild yam and barium carbonate, homeopathy comprises about 2,000 remedies, each aimed at treating a specific set of symptoms. The system is specialized in this respect, taking into account even seemingly irrelevant aspects of the patient's demeanor. "For instance, a homeopath might ask a patient what types of emotions she's feeling or what sleep positions she favors," explains renowned homeopath Dana Ullman, author of nine books on homeopathy, including "The Consumer's Guide to Homeopathy." "The patient's answers help the practitioner get a sense of the whole-body picture. This determines the course of treatment."
Although many remedies come from benign sources, such as onion or jasmine, even those treatments containing otherwise harmful substances (poison oak, mercury, deadly nightshade) are completely nontoxic -- even for children and babies.
In the United States, an increasing number of people are learning about what the healing modality has to offer. According to a 1999 survey, more than 6 million Americans had used homeopathy in the preceding 12 months.
Considering it's safe, fast-acting, and known among homeopaths for effectively treating colds and flu, the sniffle season might make an ideal time to give homeopathy a try.
Colds and Flu
Homeopathic remedies differ from conventional cold and flu medicines, which are notorious for side effects such as dizziness, headaches, drowsiness, and parched nasal and sinus cavities.
Unlike the prominent Western medical paradigm, which aims to combat colds and flu with "weapons" like antibiotics, antihistamines, and anti-inflammatories, homeopathy seeks to find a cure that resembles the symptoms. Cold and flu choices, therefore, target a range of specific problems, from dry fever and stiffness to different types of nasal discharge.
One popular remedy called Oscillococcinum (known as Oscillo) aims to reduce the duration and severity of classic flu symptoms: fever, chills, and body aches. "You have to take it within the first 48 hours for it to work best," Ullman advises. "After that I would recommend you use remedies that treat your specific symptoms."
Some practitioners, including Werner Vosloo, a homeopath at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Oregon, even use it preventively. "Generally, I recommend taking three pellets of Oscillo once a week through the flu season, from early November through early April," he says.
Another remedy, Influenzinum, is made from the flu vaccine (which, in turn, is created from the killed virus of each year's major flu strains). Because the flu vaccine -- and therefore the Influenzinum remedy -- are updated each year, be sure to buy the latest version of the homeopathic product, which is released around October.
Clinical studies on homeopathic medicines have yielded mixed results. Among those showing promise, however, is a cold and flu remedy derived from the plant boneset -- at least according to a small clinical trial on Eupatorium perfoliatum that found its benefits were equal to those of aspirin. Another study, conducted by a product manufacturer on 485 patients and published in 2004, found that Eupatorium perfoliatum, combined in a formula with Aconitum napellus (monkshood) and other ingredients, relieved viral symptoms in nearly 68 percent of patients. (Conventional treatments helped only about half the patients.)
So how do you choose among so many treatments? Match your particular symptoms to the remedy. A cold or flu treatment should act quickly if you choose the right one. "When homeopathic remedies work, they work rapidly," says Ullman. "Usually within an hour or two you'll reduce the most significant symptoms; within one night's sleep, you'll feel completely better. Stop taking a remedy when you notice your symptoms are significantly reduced. At that point the body will finish healing itself."
When to Call a Homeopath
When you're dealing with common, acute, non-life-threatening ailments such as rashes, bug bites, colds, or flu, it's usually fine to treat yourself. However, chronic or more-severe conditions such as asthma or depression require the expertise of a homeopath. "A professional is trained to detect symptom information of which a patient may not even be aware," says Vosloo. "Slight nuances can make all the difference."
For example, when treating sore throat, a homeopath may ask you if you've been craving ice cream or lying on your right side at night. If so, phosphorus is likely the correct remedy. On the other hand, if you have a sore throat with foul-smelling breath, you might do better taking mercury.