Junkfood Science: The essence of wellness

April 10, 2007

The essence of wellness

If your energies have been discombobulated, you may be interested to learn that today is World Homeopathy Day — a day devoted to public awareness of homeopathy. It coincides with the 252nd birthday celebration of its founder, Christian Friedrich Samuel Hahnemann.

We're going to take "public awareness" a bit differently than its organizers likely intended. The news release for this undertaking will be of special interest to healthcare professionals and consumers who advocate for quality and sound, evidence-based medicine. It illustrates the beliefs and claims common among homeopathy advocates and gives us a troubling look at its possible harms. The soul of homeopathy has also found its way into almost every aspect of our food and health beliefs today.

The alternative “healthcare industry” is big: about $1.5 billion in annual sales, of which homeopathy accounts for 14% (about $42.2 million), according to Moneycontrol.com. This growth industry reported annual sales increases of 25% over the past five years.

The promotional information for World Homeopathy Day distributed by the PR firm, Corporate Voice/Weber Shandwick of Bangalore (the Silicon Valley of India), describes homeopathy. Proponents see it as a medical modality and say:

Homeopathy is highly scientific, logical, safe, quick and extremely effective method of healing. It offers long lasting to permanent cure, treating the disease from its roots, for most of the ailments. It is the most rational science with respect to its concepts of health, disease and cure. Homeopathy does not treat superficially by just driving away the symptoms but heals the patient from within. Undoubtedly, homeopathy is the medicine of the future.

The concept of disease in homeopathy is that disease is a total affection of mind and body, the disturbance of the whole organism. Individual organs are not the cause of illness but disturbance at the inner level (disturbance of the life force, the vital energy of the body ) is the cause of illness....It treats the patient as a whole and not just the disease.

Unlike antibiotics and other such medicines, homeopathic pills do not hamper digestion, nor lower body's resistance. Neither do they cause any allergies nor cause any damage even if taken over a long period. Homeopathic pills being sweet in taste, is willingly ingested by children. Indeed, homeopathy is child-Friendly!

Hahnemann was the first physician to introduce vitalism into medicine and in Organon of Medicine he wrote:

In the healthy condition of man, the spiritual vital force (autocracy), the dynamis that animates the material body (organism), rules with unbounded sway, and retains all the parts of the organism in admirable, harmonious, vital operation, as regards both sensations and functions, so that our indwelling, reason-gifted mind can freely employ this living, healthy instrument for the higher purposes of our existence.

Few modern followers of vitalism fully understand it, yet it is the root of most alternative modalities and its beliefs have become surprisingly pervasive everywhere else. The concept is that our bodies have a vital life force energy that differs from the laws of physics, chemistry or biology and cannot be seen, detected or measured by science. This life energy is called by various names depending on the origin, such as chi or Qi (Chinese), ki (Japanese) or prana (Hindus). Illnesses or ill-health are believed to be the result of disturbances to this life energy and, conversely, ideal wellness can be achieved when it’s in balance. Today’s practitioners often refer to it as a type of bioenergy field or holistic essence (not holistic in the way we treat patients as a whole and acknowledge that a range of psychological, social, emotional and physical things play a role in health and healing). Quantum healing is the currently popular buzzword for vitalism and mind-over-matter healing modalities.

Vitalism is also conferred to our foods and environment, as certain whole, natural foods are believed to have more vital life energy, live enzymes and an ability to heal and prevent disease; while others are believed harmful, unnatural, to feed cancer cells, cause aging, and lead to a buildup of toxins and chronic disease. We can also see vitalism playing a role in countless beliefs surrounding clinical ecology and the perceived harm from minuscule exposures to “unnatural” chemicals, allergens and other stressors. We see vitalism at the heart of many of the “worried well,” who turn to alternative modalities believing themselves ill even though medicine doesn’t find physical evidence of concern.

Given what is known about homeopathy, like other beliefs surrounding vitalism, they “work” primarily through placebo and nocebo effects. We can convince ourselves we are desperately ill and experience extraordinary symptoms, as well as believe we’re helped, even by water.

Vitalism is showing up in mainstream medicine, not only in the adoption of popular alternative modalities, but the nursing profession has even created one of its own. Therapeutic touch was invented in the 1970s and has been integrated into bachelor of nursing curriculums at more than 100 colleges and universities, alone. It holds that illness and pain is due to imbalance of the body’s energy field and practitioners believe that by moving their hands several inches above the body, they can detect this energy and redistribute it to relieve congested areas. It includes “unruffling” — a flicking-like motion to shoo away excess energy. There is not a shred of sound evidence that anyone can feel a human energy field and, in fact, double-blind studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and the Scientific Review of Alternative Healthcare disproved the ability of even its founders to detect energy fields. But therapeutic touch was the opening salvo to the adoption of the “postmodern paradigm,” which has welcomed into the nursing profession alternative energy modalities and other ways of knowing as being as valid as science.

As Dr. Victor J. Stenger of the Dept. of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, wrote in a recent issue of The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine:

If bioenergetic fields exist, then some two hundred years of physics, chemistry, and biology has to be re-evaluated.... Much of alternative medicine is based on claims that violate well established scientific principles. Those that require the existence of a bioenergetic field, whether therapeutic touch or acupuncture, should be asked to meet the same criteria as anyone else who claims a phenomenon whose existence goes beyond established science. They have an enormous burden of proof.

The reality of generating quantum energies can be impressive, especially when things go wrong, and provide fodder for skeptics. And some of the promotionals for homeopathy in honor of World Homeopathy Day may be seen as entertainment, except that they appear serious. In honor of the day, a new internet talk radio show “Inner Health through Homeopathy” is being launched, dedicated to healing through homeopathy. The host is a practitioner and teacher of the “sensation method,” which combines “classical and modern homeopathic methods,” and treats babies to the elderly. The premier episode will feature a guest whose:

dog had a skin condition and food allergies. She took her dog to a homeopathic veterinarian and was amazed at how gentle the treatment was--and how quickly it took effect. She was so impressed that she sought a homeopathic doctor for her 18 year-old son, David, who was suffering from chronic headaches, congestion, and sleep problems. Now, five of Kathy's seven children are being successfully treated for everything from anxiety and asthma to ear infections and allergies.

But most disturbing among today’s promotions are the treatment claims and promises of cures that could deter people from seeking known, effective medical care:

Homeopathy is an effective alternate to antibiotics in infectious diseases, producing no toxic side effects and bringing about rapid recovery. It has definite treatment for most of the infectious disease such as Sinusitis, Tonsillitis, Bronchitis, Pneumonia, Tuberculosis, Meningitis, Otitis media (pus from ear), Gastro-enteritis (vomiting-diarrhea), Dysentery, Urinary Infections, etc...

In modern life infections have diminished and various allergic disorders have grown rampant. It offers very effective treatment in all allergic diseases such as various skin diseases like Urticaria, Eczema, Contact Dermatitis, as well as gives unbelievably miraculous results in Asthmatic Bronchitis....Problems related to broken bones, diarrhea, vomiting, skin allergy and even chronic diseases are being treated with homeopathic medicines.

Because of ignorance and lack of awareness in general public about the usefulness of homeopathy in all kinds of diseases ranging from Cold to Cancer, many patients approach homeopathy late...However timely given homeopathic treatment could be a blessing to the ailing humanity....Homeopathy should be more and more made available to the benefit of ailing persons, as it can positively help 90% of the diseases we have today.

The obvious problem is, of course, that homeopathy has been clinically shown in credible studies to be no more effective than a placebo. A particularly vigorous debate on unproven homeopathic remedies is going on in Britain with a homeopathic hospital favored by the Queen and Prince of Wales facing closure as science-minded professionals object to limited public healthcare funds going towards something that’s “no better than witchcraft” and feel the money could be put to better use to benefit more people. According to the Observer: “‘Study after study has shown it is simply the purest form of placebo. You may as well take a glass of water,’ says Edzard Ernst, the UK’s first professor of complementary medicine.”

A lot of water will no doubt be consumed today in honor of Hahnemann.

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