Twenty-sixth in an ongoing series

ho•me•op•a•thy (ho-mee-OP-athee) is an approach to health care developed long before the era of scientific medicine, yet it's now flourishing. Experts guess that 1 million Americans take homeopathic remedies. Homeopathy began as a humane alternative to bloodletting, leeching, purging and toxic mercury remedies that were state-of-the-art medicine in the late 1700s. Samuel Hahnemann, M.D., founder of homeopathy, had an idea that illness might come about when something disturbs your body's natural self-healing mechanisms. He came up with this principle: If a substance is known to cause adverse symptoms in a person, a tiny dose of that same substance might jump-start the healing process. The homeopathic rule is "like cures like."

For example, a homeopathic practitioner today might choose ipecac to help control vomiting. We know that strong doses of ipecac trigger vomiting. So, on the theory that your "vomit-stopper" mechanism needs a boost, a solution containing an infinitesimal portion of ipecac might be tried.

Homeopathic remedies are available in drugstores, health-food stores, by mail order, from homeopaths and some naturopaths, chiropractors, veterinarians, nurses, dentists and medical doctors. Many people who seek out homeopathy suffer from chronic diseases like asthma or arthritis, and many are discouraged with standard medicine or side effects of prescribed drugs.

The problem is, there's no solid scientific evidence to support Dr. Hahnemann's ideas. Carefully designed research into homeopathy is rare, and convincing results are scarcer. One often-cited study seemed to show that homeopathic remedies relieved hay-fever symptoms--sneezy nose and irritated eyes--better than look-alike blank pills. The study tested homeopathic grass-pollen remedies containing little or no active ingredients on 144 hay-fever sufferers for five weeks (Lancet, October 18, 1986).

Although this study appeared in a reputable medical journal in England, stateside experts are skeptical. That's because no one has repeated this test and produced the same results--the acid test for medical research today. In fact, another recent European study claiming to show a homeopathic effect was criticized worldwide when attempts to duplicate it failed.

There are scientific reasons to doubt the soundness of homeopathy. Dr. Hahnemann taught that the smaller the dose the more powerful the effect. In fact, sortie remedies used by homeopaths are so watered down that they may contain none of the original substances. That flies in the face of a verified pharmacological fact: The bigger the dose, the greater the effect.

A typical homeopathic remedy today, for instance, might be labeled 30X. That means a drop of remedy was first used to make 10 ("X") drops of solution. Then one drop of that mixture was used to make 10 drops of a new, weaker solution. Then a drop of that solution was diluted and the process repeated for a total of 30 times. The concentration of remedy in the final product, in other words, is about the same as one gallon of water in the entire Atlantic Ocean. So your chances of getting even one molecule of the remedy are slim indeed.

While homeopathic remedies haven't been proved effective, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration presumes that they are nontoxic. Recently, a toxicology expert calculated that swallowing 100 times the homeopathic dose of the poison strychnine would still be too dilute to harm even a very young child (Veterinary and Human Toxicology, June 1989). If you do decide to dabble in homeopathy, remember that some warning signs of a serious condition could possibly escape the notice of a practitioner who lacks medical training.

And some homeopaths are even willing to tackle life-threatening illnesses like cancer. Letting an unproven homeopathic remedy replace proven medical treatment could be playing Russian roulette with your life.

hon•ey is a golden sweet elixir concocted by nature's confectioners, the honeybees. For thousands of years humans have stolen the bees' dinner to satisfy their sweet cravings and to soothe various ailments. Folk-medicine practitioners have long employed honey's natural coating quality to soothe irritated throats. And today, honey helps heal wounds in undeveloped nations where sophisticated medical treatment is hard to come by.

In a recent study in Nigeria, 58 people with wounds that had resisted antibiotics for more than two years experienced dramatic healing after one week of topical application of honey. The researchers think it may be honey's acidity or drying power or a bacteria-killing ingredient called inhibine that allowed the sores to finally heal (British Journal of Surgery, July 1988).

"Antibiotics will help a wound heal only if it is nonhealing due to infection," says wound-healing expert Richard D. Heimbach, M.D., a researcher at Methodist Hospital in San Antonio, Texas. "But infection might not be the only problem in a wound. In such cases, honey seems to be able to attack wounds in other ways besides fighting infection."

You may want to try honey on a small cut or sore and cover with a bandage. (But don't put honey on a burn, since burns get infected too easily.) Consult your doctor if you spot signs of infection: swelling, excessive redness and heat. And remember that no topical remedy will help if sores arise from chronic disease, such as poor circulation from diabetes. Finally, be sure to use fresh, processed honey. Raw honey or honey that's been crystallizing in your pantry for ages may be contaminated with resistant bacteria.

hore•hound (HORE-hound) candy and cough syrups have been taming hoarse throats for generations. Its funny name recalls the plant's hairy leaves and its use by ancient Greeks to treat the bite of mad dogs. While horehound for rabies has gone the way of reading sheep entrails, horehound's use as an agent that brings up phlegm (an expectorant) endures.

Scientists have isolated a "bitter" called marrubiin from horehound that could account for its phlegm-loosening reputation. But no one has extracted the marrubiin and put it through clinical testing to tell us for sure whether horehound works, says John K. Crellin, M.D., Ph.D., professor of medical history at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Dr. Crellin co-authored Herbal Medicine Past and Present (Duke University Press, 1989).

Using throat lozenges with horehound to soothe an occasional cough is generally considered safe and useful.

Here's a recipe for an old-time cough syrup brewed of horehound and honey: Steep 1 ounce of fresh or dried horehound leaves in a pint (2 cups) of boiling water for 10 minutes. Strain off the leaves, then measure the amount of liquid remaining. Add twice as much honey as liquid and mix well. Take 1 teaspoon of the honey/horehound remedy about four times a day.



By By Gloria McVeigh, with Joey Burtaine

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