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Homeopathy, American-Style - 2002-12-04


The practice of homeopathic medicine dates back more than 3,000 years. Today, this alternative healing practice is favored by more than a third of Europeans. Worldwide sales of homeopathic remedies last year topped $1 billion. Still, most Americans know little about this form of medicine. Joe Lillard, the owner of Homeopathy Works, is hoping to change that.

Every year, thousands of tourists flock to Berkeley Springs to enjoy the healing properties of the spas' spring water, get massages, or undergo acupuncture treatments. Once there, they often discover the natural remedies of homeopathy at Joe Lillard's museum and shop, Homeopathy Works. But what exactly is homeopathy? "It's a system of medicine that relies on the body's efforts to heal itself as a guide to what medicine to give," says Mr. Lillard.

Upon entering the turn of the century store-front museum, visitors' homeopathic education begins. Cards placed on antique books, remedy kits and photographs piece together the history of the medical discipline.

The word "homeopathy" comes from the Greek homeo or 'same' and pathos meaning 'suffering'. It's based on the principle of "like-cures-like," which means the illness or discomfort that a substance can cause, it can also cure. Coffee cures insomnia. The poison ivy plant cures a poison ivy rash. The idea may not sound logical, but Dr. Rick Magly says conventional medicine uses this theory to produce vaccines. "With like-cures-like, you're using a very weak version of what is irritating the body, so you're eliciting a strong immune response," he says. "Other than vaccines as far as I know, a lot of the powerful antibiotics and other drugs that mainstream medicine uses are the opposite idea, that they're trying to suppress the body's natural reaction."

The concept of homeopathy, or treating the patient instead of the disease, has been around for centuries. The Greek physician and philosopher Hippocrates used it. But it was Samuel Hahnemann, a 19th century German doctor, who refined the concept by discovering and cataloging thousands of remedies. "He realized you could make these medicines into very minute doses and still get that stimulus effect," says Mr. Lillard. "He found that by stirring or shaking they became even stronger."

During the 19th century homeopathic medicine became nearly as widespread in America as allopathic or mainstream medicine. Today homeopaths still use the same 200-year-old method to create a variety of remedies by shaking and diluting original tinctures. Visitors to Berkeley Springs' Homeopathy Works museum may watch the process through a large picture window. Using antique scales, pill presses and mixing machines, workers create hundreds of traditional remedies and medicines.

Homeopathy's advocates believe the more diluted a remedy is, the stronger it becomes. "Homeopathy is counterintuitive. It doesn't make sense," says Mr. Lillard. "The way it's made, you'd think, well, this can't work. It's tough to explain it away. But there are double blind studies that demonstrate homeopathy's effectiveness."

Mr. Lillard sells the 1700 remedies his company makes in the corner of the museum. Because they are so diluted, and thus unlikely to be toxic, about 95 percent are sold over the counter. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn't regulate homeopathic medicines the way it does conventional drugs. But homeopathic pharmacies like all drug stores, are FDA certified. They are expected to make each of their products according to the well-established rules of homeopathy. They're also required by law to sell their products with both clear instructions for use and honest claims about their effectiveness. So Joe Lillard believes that, armed with the right information, the average citizen can easily select the appropriate homeopathic medication.

"The biggest problem you might run into is not using the correct medicine," says Mr. Lillard. "It might be homeopathy is what the person needs, but it might also mean they need surgery, or penicillin. To approach homeopathy as some kind of religion where it's got to be this or nothing is the wrong thing. It's what's appropriate for the person."

It's also recommended that patients with more serious conditions visit a homeopathic doctor for diagnoses. Before prescribing treatment, a homeopathic doctor conducts an hour-long interview, asking questions about everything from a patient's sleep patterns to what he does at work. Mr. Lillard believes this intensive approach, along with the discovery of antibiotics, led to the decline of homeopathic medicine in America. "You come in, you need an antibiotic, they give them penicillin and bam, they're out the door in five seconds," he says. "Whereas the homeopaths still need to take the time to do an hour interview to figure out just what it is this person needs. So that was an economic and time thing."

Homeopathy also declined due to growing medical restrictions in the United States. However, it has thrived in Europe. The British Royal Family still uses it regularly and it is endorsed by the World Health Organization. "The level of homeopathic use in Germany is about 35 percent. It's in many pharmacies, very common," says Mr. Lillard. "Also France. And it's very popular in India, where they have over 100 homeopathic schools."

In many poorer developing countries, such as Cuba and Mexico, homeopathy is favored because its remedies are considerably cheaper than allopathic pharmaceuticals. And supporters of homeopathy believe it's starting to make a comeback in the United States. In 1996, the Harvard Women's Health Watch reported that annual sales of homeopathic remedies had more than doubled in ten years, from $100 million to $250 million. But homeopathy has yet to gain acceptance by mainstream medicine.

In 1994, the National Council Against Health Fraud published a harshly critical report which stated that "homeopathy's principles have been refuted by the basic sciences of chemistry, physics, pharmacology, and pathology. Homeopathy meets the dictionary definitions of a sect and a cult." The American Medical Association, which represents the majority of the nation's doctors, sounded a less harsh but still cautious note in 1997, when it warned of the health risks to patients of avoiding conventional medical treatment, and the group called for more scientific studies of homeopathy's effectiveness. In fact, researchers at the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicines, part of the federally-funded National Institutes of Health near Washington, D.C., are currently studying homeopathy and the biochemical processes on which it's based. But doubters in the medical establishment continue to question whether homeopathy is a legitimate healing art.

Joe Lillard says he doesn't bother to argue with the occasional skeptic who stops by his store, because there's no point. "I try to encourage them to study it, to talk to some patients who use it, or to try it themselves the next time they get stuck in a particular case and can't move forward."

Though Dr. Rick Magly wasn't necessarily a skeptic, he's been impressed with the remedies he's tried. "I had pretty good effects when I used it," he says. "I had a systemic yeast infection and it worked very well. My energy level went through the roof."

And he's not alone. Homeopathy Works serves over 27,000 customers, from small children to the elderly, and even offers treatments for their pets. The company also provides nearly 2,000 doctors, pharmacies and health food stores across the country with a steady supply of homeopathic products. Joe Lillard says that kind of repeat business is difficult to argue with.

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