The bright-yellow mountain flower Arnica montana found in alpine fields in France and Germany is poisonous enough to cause heart failure if ingested. But arnica gel, made with the essence of mountain daisies and used to treat cuts and bruises, is one of the world’s most widely used homeopathic remedies—and has been found to be as effective as ibuprofen in treating muscle aches and arthritis.
How does poison heal?
Homeopathy works on the premise that the same thing that can make you sick can also, in small doses, cure you. A homeopath might treat hay fever, for example, with the essence of Allium cepa (onion), which in its pure form causes watery, irritated eyes. “By taking a treatment that makes symptoms more intense, the body is able to release what it needs in order to get back to optimal health,” explains Jody Shevins, N.D., a naturopathic doctor and homeopath in private practice in Boulder, Colo.
Homeopathy at Work
Developed in the early 1800s by a German physician named Samuel Hahnemann, homeopathy helps the immune system regulate itself. Some scientists theorize that homeopathic remedies might create an electromagnetic pulse that affects the way immune cells respond to certain triggers. Fast-acting remedy For example, researchers know that basophil, a type of white blood cell, releases histamine when it’s activated by something like a bee sting. Since basophil becomes electromagnetically unstable once it’s activated, a sting can provoke a histamine “attack” and all of the accompanying allergy-like symptoms. But homeopathic dilutions of Apis mellifica (whole honeybee) are thought to stop the basophils from releasing histamine: The idea is that the electrical pulses stabilize the cell, muting its electromagnetic fluctuations so it doesn’t let go of its histamine in the first place. That’s why a bee sting and other bites or reactions might heal quickly with A. mellifica. “Homeopathy is rapid, gentle, and permanent,” says Kiersten Stevenson, a professor of homeopathy at the Homeopathy School of Colorado in Boulder. “If you can get a cure that way, that’s the best one possible.”
What the Studies Say
In 1999, more than 6 million Americans used homeopathic remedies, according to the National Institutes of Health. In 2007, the U.S. homeopathic market was worth $400 million, says Dana Ullman, M.P.H., the Berkeley, Calif.–based author of The Homeopathic Revolution (North Atlantic Books, 2007; also see homeopathic.com). Although popular, homeopathic remedies are dogged by inconclusive studies. Take arnica, for example. In 2002, one double-blind study found that Traumeel, a topical arnica solution, might reduce the severity and length of pain and inflammation inside the mouths of children undergoing chemotherapy. In 1998, a different study had found that arnica was not effective for muscle soreness or pain and inflammation of tissues lining the inside of the mouth following long-distance running. But most homeopaths prefer to trust anecdotal evidence. “I think it’s more compelling to see the evidence walking through my office door than to read a study about it,” says Stevenson.
Arnica image via Shutterstock