Discovering Homeopathy

This wonderful article was written by my dear friend Dale Moss. It’s her own story of navigating the profoundly different approaches of western medicine and homeopathy when her son was severely ill. After incredible, almost miraculous results with her son’s obscure illness she dedicated herself to helping and healing others.

by Dale C. Moss

I fled after only a few classes of my first and only philosophy course.  My mind was not designed to plumb abstractions.

Funny how the very things we avoid catch up with us in the end.  Now I put myself to sleep at night with the lectures of James Tyler Kent, or struggle with the dense, defensive prose of Samuel Hahnemann, all for the sake of wrapping my mind around a new model of illness and healing.  After hard experience that model no longer seems abstract or unreal.  Still, it goes against virtually everything the twentieth century taught.

Ten years ago my son was stricken with IgA Nephropathy, an immunological disorder that slowly destroys the kidneys by keeping them in a state of perpetual inflammation.  Modern science knows neither cause nor cure.  The only treatment was corticosteroids, followed by anti-hypertensive medications as the blood pressure started to rise.  

Corticosteroids suppress the immune system, thus suppressing inflammation.  Or so the theory goes.  In practice, there is a rebound effect, meaning that once steroids are withdrawn, inflammation tends to return.  It is a symptomatic treatment that works only temporarily.  And at what cost?  The doctors described cosmetic side-effects — acne, a moon-face, weight gain from a voracious appetite — but neglected to reveal the more serious consequences, namely, risks of diabetes or cataracts, bone necrosis or weakened musculature (in a boy who wanted to play football!).  What they described as a probable rise in energy spun Gordon into a giddy dervish each night.

Nor did they make clear one truly major outcome of suppressing the immune system:  a suppressed immune system has a hard time fighting off infections, so my son was coming down with more frequent illnesses that exacerbated the inflammation in his kidneys and seemed likely to hasten their destruction.

Over the course of several years, his doctors and I tried many other options – nutritional supplementation, dietary intervention, acupuncture — all of which helped at the margin but did not arrest the progress of a disease that left him debilitated and despondent, with muscles wasting, concentration and energy shot, pounding his stuffed animals against the walls to distract himself from his pain.

It took considerable searching before I found a homeopath skilled enough to turn my son around, followed by two years of dogged adherence to a regimen of differing homeopathic remedies.  It also took, on my part, a suspension of disbelief that such a bizarre treatment could be effective.  Yet the improvement in my son was apparent almost immediately.  Now 21, with his stamina, muscles and health fully restored, Gordon recently returned from studying music and dance in Africa.  

This prologue explains why I became sufficiently interested in homeopathy to enter a professional training program; it does not say what I found there.

Homeopathy has been around for two hundred years, defended by its adherents, scorned as quackery by detractors whose ultimate anathema is to call it “unscientific.”  If we view science as a theoretical construct imposed by fallible human minds on observable (and, increasingly, non-observable) phenomena, then by prevailing “scientific” standards, homeopathy is absurd, because it flies in the face of what we currently acknowledge to be true in chemistry, medicine, and physics.  Yet it works, and every day we see the little miracles wrought by tiny pellets of lactose imbued with what we can only surmise is the energetic imprint of some substance or phenomenon.  Those who say it doesn’t work because it is inexplicable confuse the lack of an adequate theoretical model with efficacy.  If we operated on the principle that something cannot work unless its workings can be fully explained, how many of us would ever resort to aspirin?  

The problem is not that homeopathy is “unscientific” but that it represents a divergent branch of science, one less theoretical than empirical.  When its author, Austrian physician and chemist Samuel Hahnemann, was practicing medicine in the late 1700s, he followed the prevailing doctrines of the time, which were, in a nutshell, polypharmacy (cover all bases by using lots of medicinals in combination), the Doctrine of Signatures (if it’s yellow, it must be good for liver disease), and the Law of Contraries (fight that fever by drawing off all that “bad blood”).  Medicine was heroic in those days not because doctors were gods, but because the few patients who survived their harsh ministrations were heroes.  Hahnemann watched his own children grow sicker and die by these same principles, and he, as a father and a physician, was devastated.

I had a glimpse of how he must have felt when I had to inject my son with Kutapressin, a liver extract, in hopes that this would address his anemia and fatigue; instead I watched his skinny thighs, unable to absorb the iron, raise huge, painfully bruised welts.  Another glimpse came when his doctor prescribed a drug that temporarily paralyzed him without touching his insomnia, then one that brought sleep but sent his blood pressure climbing.  Each new pharmaceutical intervention brought new pain or despair; each seemed to be sending us into a hopeless cycle of tinkering with new symptoms created by past interventions.  

I did not believe my child was born to suffer so, and neither did Samuel Hahnemann.  We might say his thinking had roots in the Age of Revolution, for Hahnemann grew to believe that orthodox medicine “plays with the life of the patient irresponsibly and murderously, with its massive doses of dangerously violent drugs of unknown action chosen upon mere conjecture, its painful procedures that are supposed to divert sickness to other parts . . . but worst of all, in accordance with the present fashion, by blindly and relentless wasting his irreplaceable blood” through repeated phlebotomies.1

1 Samuel Hahnemann, Organon of Medicine [Kunzli translation] (Blaine, Washington:  Cooper Publishing, 1982), p. 25.

In his efforts to develop guiding principles that would reliably permit physicians to do more good than harm, Hahnemann developed the Law of Similars, a principle stated by Hippocrates but never truly elaborated into a healing doctrine.  Like other physicians of his era, Hahnemann knew a patient suffering from a disease could be cured if he developed another very much like it in symptomatology.  “Two diseases, different in nature but very similar in their manifestations and effects, their respective suffering and symptoms, always and infallibly destroy each other as soon as they meet in the organism,” he wrote.2   The second illness seemed to cancel out the first.  When Hahnemann began experimenting on himself with medicinals, he observed that taking a dose of Peruvian bark (Cinchona officinalis), the source of quinine, created in his healthy body symptoms akin to those of malaria.  Continued experimentation with other medicines of the day confirmed for Hahnemann that the basic curative principle was “like cures like.”  In other words, diseases showing certain symptoms could best be treated by medicines that elicited similar symptoms in healthy people.  

2 Ibid., p. 42.

Hahnemann could not accept the prevailing practice of auditioning medicines on the sick alone, for this made it impossible to segregate the effects of a drug from those of the illness on which it was being used.  Hahnemann revolutionized medicine by insisting that trustworthy data could be developed only by “proving,” or testing substances animal, vegetable, and mineral on healthy people to see what symptoms were elicited.  By painstakingly experimenting on himself and volunteers with extremely dilute doses, Hahnemann gradually compiled his finely detailed Materia Medica Pura, thus beginning a tradition of developing symptom pictures that homeopathy proudly continues today.

One of our earliest exercises in homeopathy class was to conduct a double-blind placebo-controlled proving.  For one week prior to taking the remedy each prover kept a detailed health journal, recording every little tinge, every muscular twitch, every funny sensation, every dream, every food craving or aversion — all to establish our baseline symptoms.  Then came the mystery remedy.  The moment it hit my tongue, I knew it was no placebo.  Pictures on the wall began to float in space, motionless but no longer firmly attached.  If my depth perception was askew, my sense of taste was heightened and eating became a sensual experience.  Driving required more concentration than normal, yet I was not frightened; in fact, a strange sense of equanimity took possession of me.  All was smoothness and ease as a blissful calm supervened.  “Our teacher must have potentized Prozac,” I joked with my friends.  Life felt grand, expansive, wonderful.  

Then came other symptoms less wonderful, the worst being a certain clumsiness that crept into my activities.  After injuring myself in a fall, I took a homeopathic remedy for the pain — and took myself out of the trial (because the new remedy would be a confounding factor).  

Months later, my classmates and I reported on our results.  Some had experienced even worse disturbances of vision and coordination:  one very athletic woman could not ride a bike during the proving, so poor had her sense of balance temporarily become.  Many experienced the euphoria I had, but some had felt depressed, lethargic, irritable.  Some complained of impaired memory or concentration, a spacey feeling, while others felt explosive anger and an impulse to throw things.

Bear in mind that all these symptoms were induced by a single 30C homeopathic pellet (a 1C dilution equals 1 drop of tincture diluted with 99 drops of sterile water; for 30C, the process is repeated 30 times).  At that level of dilution, according to Avrogado’s number, there is no molecular evidence of the active ingredient.  By whatever principle homeopathy works, it is not a biochemical one!

And what was the active ingredient?  Ethyl alcohol.  We’d all shown symptoms of alcohol intoxication to greater or lesser degrees, depending upon our individual sensitivities.  The euphoria, alas, disappeared with time, but I have been cured of an old problem, namely, esophageal reflux after drinking wine.  This was a demonstration of pure homeopathicity.  As Hahnemann said, the worst poisons make the best medicine, for what can cause a problem can also cure it, if administered in potentized homeopathic dilutions.

I’ll never know why my son developed IgA Nephropathy.  Was it caused by a virus?  It makes sense in terms of what is known of the pathogenesis of IgAN that a low-level viral infection, perhaps allowed to take hold by injudicious use of antibiotics, might provide a continuing source of antigens, thereby assuring a never-ending flow of immune complexes that for some reason lodge in the renal glomeruli and from there stimulate the inflammatory process that ultimately destroys the kidneys.  

Pathogenesis matters less to me now, for it’s part of a different view of disease, an “us vs. them” model that sees illness as largely caused by hostile invaders attempting a takeover of the body human.  The homeopathic model is different, viewing health as a state of balance and ill health as a state of imbalance.  Microbes are not necessarily out to get us; they’re merely one of a host of stresses to which we’re exposed and against which our systems react.  If not bacterial or viral, the stresses might be grief, shock, a bad marriage, toxic chemicals, an auto accident, a lost job, feelings we need to express but cannot.  Embrace the homeopathic model and you realize that Lysol disinfectant spray is superfluous:  if your health is in balance, exposure to germs is not going to upset it.  If it’s not, creating a pseudo-sterile environment will hardly help.  

Paul Herscu, the brilliant homeopath with whom I studied, refined the model further.  All organisms seek to conserve energy, he notes, so our bodies strain against the stresses of life with the absolute minimum amount of energy needed to overcome them.  We strain in ways characteristic of as individuals, and the pattern of our straining creates a cycle.  But sometimes we overstrain, especially if the stress is a great one, propelling us abruptly into the next phase of our cycle, or maybe even pushing us into a new pattern of response.  If we are ill and out of balance the result is a downward spiral.  Seeing clearly these patterns of response permits the homeopath also to see the remedy a person needs to put him back on the path to health.

By the nineteenth century, Western civilization had developed four major theories of disease causality, which historian Sylvia Noble Tesh calls the contagion theory, the personal behavior theory, the miasma theory, and the supernatural theory.  Although these were aimed then largely at infectious diseases, they strikingly resemble modern theories of chronic disease.  Only the miasma theory and its modern counterpart, environmentally-induced illness, separate the source of disease from its victims.3 The remaining three theories convey some element of fault or judgment:  one victim develops yellow fever because he ventures into mosquito territory (contagion); another develops cancer because she smokes (personal behavior); and a third acquires AIDS as retribution for being gay (supernatural).  

3 Sylvia Noble Tesh, Hidden Arguments:  Political Ideology and Disease Prevention Policy  (New Brunswick:  Rutgers University Press, 1988).      

Perhaps these theories matter to architects of health policy and to patients who find it intolerable that they should bear the double burden of illness and blame for having caused it.  They don’t matter to homeopaths, who look upon illness as an unfortunate but unique expression of the individual.  People get sick in different ways, depending on who they are and the stresses to which they are exposed.  Their responses are characteristic of what we call “constitutional type.”  It has nothing to do with blame; it’s simply who they are.

The more we understand the homeopathic model, the more disturbing its implications — and the more we realize how far we have allowed ourselves to follow a certain course without truly appreciating the consequences.  For the homeopath, cure is always the goal — not a palliation of symptoms, not a treatment that requires daily, monthly, or yearly repetition to keep the demons of illness at bay; but a healing.  “The highest ideal of therapy,” Hahnemann wrote, “is to restore health rapidly, gently, permanently…”4 Obviously, this is not always possible, but in Hahnemann’s day it was easier than it is now.  Hahnemann and his followers faced vicious, deadly, but largely acute diseases; their patients responded and got well, or did not and died.  Today the preponderance of disease is chronic, and although we may live longer lives on average, we are not necessarily living healthier ones.  

4 Hahnemann. p. 10.

Even Hahnemann acknowledged that the most difficult and tenacious diseases to treat are those complicated by drugs, for not only is their symptom picture obscured, but prolonged medication can graft entirely new symptoms onto the patient’s constitution, eventually creating a disease of its own.  By the beginning of the twentieth century, the eminent American homeopath James Tyler Kent despaired that mankind was gradually poisoning itself and creating new disease puzzles that no homeopath, no matter how skilled, would ever be able to solve.  The brutal practices of the past — the blood-letting, violent cathartics, and emetics — elicited such rapid and drastic responses that the patient “did not carry to his grave the internal results.”  Modern drugs, on the other hand, are “slow and subtle . . . and though seeming to produce a mild primary effect have secondary effects or after-effects which are very severe.”5

5 James Tyler Kent, Lectures on Homeopathic Philosophy (Berkeley:  North Atlantic Books, 1979.  Originally published in 1900), p. 125.

And which can be passed on to succeeding generations.  Homeopathic theory makes sense of a phenomenon I have observed in IgA Nephropathy patients, namely, that rarely was there a parent or grandparent who suffered from renal disease, yet fairly frequently patients or their progenitors had asthma or psoriasis that was treated with steroids.  

The homeopathic model also predicts that disease suppressed on a superficial level is driven deeper into the body into increasingly vital organs.  Consequently, true healing occurs from the inside out — in other words, there is a natural direction to the course of healing, as there is, in reverse, to the course of becoming ill.  The crux of the issue, for homeopaths, is that in a world geared to instant gratification, there is constant indoctrination in favor of banishing the unpleasant:  Dry up that runny nose with Flonase, quell that acid reflux with Prilosec, tame that wild child with Ritalin.  Such medications obscure the symptoms that are a homeopath’s road map to finding the right remedy.  Worse, they create a culture of expectation that can be at odds with real healing.  From a homeopath’s point of view, it is an excellent sign when a patient being treated for asthma develops a return of the eczema that plagued him as a child, because it signifies a movement of “dis-ease” from a deeper level, the lungs, to a more superficial one, the skin.  A patient who does not understand this, however, may run for the hydrocortisone cream, potentially ruining his chances of ever shedding his asthma.  

It’s hard to shake the habit of viewing symptoms as annoyances we need not endure, to be squashed like a buzzing mosquito, with no thought to potential consequences.  As homeopath Ann Croce observed, contemporary culture holds illness to be suffering, something that happens only to the vulnerable, never to winners.  This credo ignores, at some peril, competing views that illness is a way of exercising and strengthening the immune system, or paradoxically a way of healing, a tocsin alerting us to a life out of balance and an enforcer of needed change.6

6 Ann Jerome Croce, “The Benefits of Illness,” Homeopathy Today (Jul/Aug 2000), 14-16.

As a society we are obsessed with naming our ills, as if the proper label conveys better means of control.  I hear this constantly from IgA Nephropathy patients who wonder if they’ve been correctly diagnosed.  It doesn’t matter, I tell them:  treatment options for any of these disorders are so few that you’ll be treated the same way, whether diagnosed presumptively or definitively.  As a shorthand for communicating with health professionals disease labels have their place, but to the patient they are a snare and a delusion.  There’s a stage in head trauma cases when attention shifts from the patient in a coma to the monitors with their green screens and yellow blipping lights, as if these hold the reality of his state.  The same happens with names, when patients shift their focus from their symptoms to their diagnosis, as if the name were more real than what they are feeling.  Homeopaths like James Tyler Kent found pathology largely useless, calling it the study not of disease but rather of disease’s “ultimates.”  Disease antedates pathology, Kent wrote, and its signs and symptoms are far more subtle than the tissue changes and physiological disturbances dutifully recorded in lab tests, biopsies, and CAT scans.  

To study homeopathy requires honing one’s observational skills to an unimaginable edge.  The first time I took my son for a homeopathic intake interview, I came out feeling like an inadequate mother because I couldn’t answer the doctor’s questions about how his urine smelled.  I knew its specific gravity; I knew the ups and downs of his proteinuria; I knew whether or not his urine showed microscopic amounts of blood; but I didn’t know how it smelled — and its odor differed from day to day.  That experience and everything I’ve learned subsequently made me realize that we focus too often on the wrong things, on what we consider quantifiable, and therefore scientific, to the exclusion of information that ultimately may be more valuable, even if seemingly subjective.  

I’ve also learned that we cannot pigeonhole physical, mental, and emotional problems in separate compartments:  they are all interconnected.  Our bodies somatize emotions in so many ways, from the poetical to the terrifying.  I have seen depression and rage manifest in the back of child as spasms regular as the contractions of advanced labor, as if he was trying to expel the blackness within.  Thwarted love appears in one woman as inveterate constipation, in another as idiopathic hypertension and panic attacks.  My descriptions may sound simplistic, but the concept is not:  it is part of a complex pattern of response that occurs on every level of a person’s being.

Legend has it that Troy was a great civilization, yet it left no trace.  So, too, it sometimes feels with homeopathy.  Its very real clinical achievements have been expunged from the institutional memory of medicine.  Pick up any of the recent books on the influenza pandemic of 1918 and you will see no mention of homeopathy’s astounding success in treating victims of that deadly flu.  In America’s Forgotten Pandemic:  The Influenza of 1918, historian Albert Crosby writes that at least 30 million people died worldwide from the epidemic, with 600,000 dying in the United States, nearly one-third of those in a single month.

Data collected by Hahnemann Medical College in Philadelphia on 26,000 Americans treated homeopathically in the epidemic showed a mortality rate for homeopathic patients of 1-3%, whereas for patients treated by orthodox medicine it was 20-30%.  Yet as Julian Winston, historian of the National Center for Homeopathy, observes:  “The comparison did not make a ripple at the time and still doesn’t.  It was completely forgotten.”  One young man who worked as delivery boy for a doctor during the flu was inspired to become a homeopath, for he saw that those who took the latest wonder drug, aspirin, died, whereas those who resorted to homeopathy lived.7 Was the link between aspirin and mortality ever made by orthodox doctors?  Did they come to understand that aspirin suppressed the immune systems of the ill, allowing the flu to transform “into a raging pneumonia that killed within hours”?8  Or did they blindly continue to prescribe aspirin out of misguided efforts to make their patients comfortable rather than cure them?

7 Julian Winston, New England Journal of Homeopathy, vol. 7, no. 2 (Fall/Winter 1998), pp. 7-8.

8 Ibid.

Not much seems to have changed.  If anything, the situation has worsened as pharmaceutical companies expand their advertising from the pages of medical journals to mass media, while seemingly every other week brings the recall of yet another drug deemed more dangerous than the condition it seeks to palliate.  The latest, as I write this, is Propulsid, Janssen’s medication for heartburn, a drug linked to severe cardiac problems and one that has caused an estimated 70-80 deaths since its introduction in 1993.  As the Rolling Stones sang, “A choice of cancer or polio.”  Except in this case it seems to be a choice of heartburn or ventricular fibrillation.  

As a homeopath, I find this incomprehensible.  In the first place, none of these medications — not the corticosteroids used on my son, nor Propulsid or thalidomide or Paxil — is curative:  they seek only the modest goal of suppressing symptoms.  In the second place, a prescription is often a lifetime sentence to a drug whose long-term effects have rarely, if ever, been tested.  

I’m not saying that orthodox medicine is all wrong, but that there are other approaches, based on different theories, that can be equally or even more effective, depending upon the complaint being addressed.  If I broke my arm, obviously I’d go to an orthopedist to get it set — but first I’d go to a homeopath for a remedy to reduce pain and swelling, and after the casting I’d go back for other remedies, as needed, to deal with bone pain or ensure prompt healing and a strong juncture.  And if I had residual problems from possible neurological damage, I’d go to a Feldenkrais practitioner. 

Early in the course of my son’s illness, I sought opinions at every turn, as if sheer mass of data and options bettered the odds of finding answers.  Yet when I asked one nephrologist about alternative medicine, she said with a dismissive sniff, “You’re just grasping at straws.”  Well, yes and no.  Grasping at straws is what you do when facing a serious illness for which there are no cures.  And not all straws are straws.  Some become lifelines.

*  *  *  *  *

This article first appeared in the Barnard Alumnae Magazine in 2001, and subsequently was on the website of the IgA Nephropathy Support Network.  Dale C. Moss is a classical homeopath who lives in Western Massachusetts and writes occasionally for Homeopathy Today and other publications.  Her son, now 40, remains healthy and a staunch proponent of homeopathy.