Homeopathy is a natural, noninvasive system of medical treatment based on the theory that substances that cause certain symptoms in a healthy person can—in diluted amounts —cure those symptoms in an unhealthy person. Thus, we get the name homeopathy: homeo for similar, pathy for disease. The logic is that the similar substance promotes healing by stimulating your body's natural healing mechanisms.
The term "homeopathy" is often incorrectly used to refer to almost any alternative approach to medicine—especially the use of herbal and other natural remedies. The practice does, however, share much in common with other forms of alternative health care. For instance, homeopathy, like some other types of alternative medicine, takes a holistic approach to health: It focuses on the whole person, not solely on the condition. Homeopathy is designed to help the body heal itself—not to suppress or control symptoms. In conventional—or allopathic—medicine, the aim often is to control illness through drugs or surgery. Homeopaths contend that this approach often fails to restore the patient to health and only suppresses symptoms. Homeopathy seeks to restore health rather than to cure illness.
Samuel Hahnemann, a German physician, founded homeopathy in the late 18th century, and it came to United States around 1825, spread by American physicians who had studied in Europe and embraced the approach. Its popularity reached a peak in the 19th century. As allopathic medicine (the term applied to the general practice of medicine today) gained prominence in the 20th century, homeopathy fell off dramatically. It's always been popular in many European and Asian countries, and it's starting to regain a following here, thanks to the current interest in alternative and complementary approaches to health care.
It is estimated that more than 2.5 million people seek homeopathic care annually. But since there's no single entity counting patients or practitioners, it's impossible to know an exact figure. It's also hard to gauge how many Americans use homeopathic remedies—and it's particularly difficult to determine which consumers buy the products because they are "natural" and which are making the purchase because they embrace homeopathy. But manufacturers do gauge sales, and sales of homeopathic remedies are on the rise. Retail sales for homeopathy in the United States are around $300 to $450 million annually and growing, according to the National Center for Homeopathy.
Today, there are estimated to be several thousand homeopathic substances on the market. Most are available without a prescription. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies them as drugs. The Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia—the official listing of homeopathic remedies—was incorporated into federal law in 1938.
The FDA regulates these products, but differently than it does other drugs: There's no expiration date requirement and no limit on the percentage of alcohol they contain. And these formulas don't undergo the same scrutiny as typical pharmaceuticals. The FDA points out that safety isn't really a concern, since homeopathic drugs have little or no pharmacologically active ingredients. Nevertheless, the labels must include a list of which substances are included (and at what dilution), instructions and an indication as to how to take the remedy.
These remedies, derived from plant, mineral and animal sources, are used to treat patients with conditions ranging from depression to diarrhea. Minute traces of a particular substance are used to stimulate your innate healing processes. A good example is nux vomica. Consumed in large quantities, nux vomica can cause nausea (it's a seed from the Strychnos nux-vomica tree that contains strychnine). In very small, highly diluted doses, however, it is a typical homeopathic remedy for treating nausea and upset stomach.