Deconstructing Homeopathy: An Indian perspective

In January this year, sceptics from many cities in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the USstaged a stunt where 300 people took large overdoses of homeopathic remedies. Their aim was to demonstrate that homeopathic remedies are nothing but sugar pills and as expected, no volunteer was killed or injured. As 62% of all Indians believe in homeopathy and with that number growing, it is high time that the country begins to understand the science behind homeopathy and the dangers of blindly believing in its claims.

Let’s consider how a homeopathic remedy to treat common cold is made. Homeopaths follow the ‘like cures like’ principle, according to which one must find something that causes the symptoms of common cold like running nose and watery eyes. It is known that onion juice can. So a drop of onion juice is taken and diluted 100 times by adding 100 drops of water. It is then shaken. But that dilution is not enough because homeopaths believe in another principle: ‘the higher the dilution, the higher the potency’, thus one drop of that solution is taken and another 100 drops of water are added to it, followed by more shaking. This is repeated at least 30 times to give the final remedy. At this level of dilution, the chance of finding Barack Obama sitting in your living room is higher than the chance of finding a single molecule of onion juice in that homeopathic remedy. (See BBC documentary to know more)

There have been serious concerns about the validity of homeopathic principles in the mainstream medical community. They lack any scientific evidence and are in complete contrast to the body of knowledge that is traditional medicine. Such highly diluted solutions, which don’t contain even a single molecule of the active ingredient, also make it possible for homeopaths to claim that their remedies have no side effects. Also according to the ‘like cures like’ principle, as stated before, the same homeopathic remedy used to treat stress can simply be used to treat a brain tumour. After all, both conditions cause a headache and the homeopathic remedy for both would simply consist of a highly diluted solution of something that causes a headache.

Many patients who receive homeopathic treatment say that it works for them and it would be wrong to claim that they are lying. Positive effects of homeopathy are merely caused by something called the ‘placebo effect’. A placebo is a medication with no active ingredients in it. The best examples of the placebo effect are observed when two dummy treatments are compared with each other. If one sham treatment works better than the other then it must be simply because people are expecting it to work. For example, a study showed that four sugar pills a day are better at reducing pain than two but more invasive treatment, like a salt-water injection, is even better. In another study patients reported that a red pill was better at treating pain than a white one, even though both were inert.

Homeopathy ‘works’ because of the placebo effect. It doesn’t matter if you are a sceptic, a baby or an animal – if people around you expect the treatment to work, it is more likely to. Sometimes ignorance of important symptoms which need timely attention can give homeopathy credence. This ignorance often makes people wait to see the doctor until their illness is at its worst. At this point a homeopathic remedy is prescribed to the patient. Once the worst is over, the immune system becomes capable of combating the disease and healing begins. But unfortunately, the natural process of healing is often then attributed to homeopathy.

When a homeopathic treatment does not lead to a cure, people tend to blame either their condition or their fate, but still continue to rely blindly on homeopathy. The belief in homeopathy is also perpetuated by India’s unregulated pharmaceutical market which makes it easy to buy medicines across the counter without a physician’s prescription. As a result, people often take the wrong medication and blame the ineffectiveness on mainstream medicine. This tendency generates an undesirable bias towards homeopathy.

One might question that if homoeopathic remedies work (by placebo effect or by self-healing) then surely there is nothing “wrong” in prescribing them? Ethically speaking, it is not wrong to use homeopathic remedies to treat minor illnesses such as common cold or a headache. But it can be exceedingly dangerous, as WHO warned recently, when homeopathy claims to be able to treat serious medical conditions such ascancerswine fluAIDS, TB, or malaria.

Furthermore, there can be serious consequences when homeopathy becomes enshrined in mainstream medical policy. In Punjab, for instance a state-wide program is being implemented that uses homeopathic treatment to ‘cure’ pregnant mothers of the need for a C-section during child birth. Incidences like these makes one wonder how many mothers will die and if they do, whether the homeopaths will ever be held to account.

The scientific community has, for decades, systematically refuted every claim that homeopathy makes and yet millions of people in India still believe in it. Government funds itministers support itmore colleges are built and more homeopaths walk amongst us year on year. Some say this broad public support for homeopathy remains because the scientific community is unable to communicate this to the people or it comes from a general disdain for “western” medicine.

Further Information:
  1. BBC Horizon documentary
  2. Sense about Homeopathy: A Sense about Science publication
  3. Homeopathic treatment for Ovarian Cysts
  4. Prasad, R. The Lancet, 2007, 370, 1679
  5. Samarasekera, U. The Lancet, 2007, 370, 1677

Always eat fruits before a meal?? The science behind false claims

Short answer: It may have marginal benefits. Definitely not enough to entirely change your eating habits though!

Long rant: I was sent this email as a forward. Many of you might have received it. This blog post is an attempt to put some science to use in countering these outrageous claims that someone is making.

We all think eating fruits means just buying fruits, cutting it and just popping it into our mouths. It’s not as easy as you think. It’s important to know how and when to eat. What is the correct way of eating fruits?

IT MEANS NOT EATING FRUITS AFTER YOUR MEALS! * FRUITS SHOULD BE EATEN ON AN EMPTY STOMACH.

If you eat fruit like that, it will play a major role to detoxify your system, supplying you with a great deal of energy for weight loss and other life activities.

How do fruits supply ‘energy’ for weight loss? It is wrong to say that, may be they meant something else. Yes, there is a possibility of reduction in weight by eating a lot of fruits. If about one-third of your diet is fruits, it helps fill the stomach and avoid the high calorie foods. Thus, eating lots of fruits will decrease the total calorie intake and thus make you lose weight not by some divine ‘energy’ as claimed here.

FRUIT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT FOOD. Let’s say you eat two slices of bread and then a slice of fruit. The slice of fruit is ready to go straight through the stomach into the intestines, but it is prevented from doing so.

In the meantime the whole meal rots and ferments and turns to acid. The minute the fruit comes into contact with the food in the stomach and digestive juices, the entire mass of food begins to spoil….

Digestive juices evolved in human being’s stomachs to spoil the food we eat?? How outrageous is that? Yes, stomach is a very acidic place, and for a good reason. Our food needs to be chewed one more time before nutrients can be absorbed in the intestine. Acidifying the food helps the stomach ‘chew’ the food by easing the energy the stomach expends in its mechanical motion. Also, the enzymes released in the stomach are meant to work at that acidic pH. So this hypothesis is false. You eat bread or fruit, the stomach will release digestive juices which will be acidic and no they won’t ‘rot’ your food.

There might be some truth in the fact that digestion of fruits takes less effort by the stomach than the same amount of bread, because fruit is more fibrous and has high water content. So I don’t completely disagree with eating fruits on an empty stomach. It might have some benefit. But not much.

So please eat your fruits on an empty stomach or before your meals! You have heard people complaining — every time I eat watermelon I burp, when I eat during my stomach bloats up, when I eat a banana I feel like running to the toilet, etc — actually all this will not arise if you eat the fruit on an empty stomach. The fruit mixes with the putrefying other food and produces gas and hence you will bloat!

On the contrary, bloating is caused due to inadequate intake of fluids and fibre. Both of which are present in fruit in plenty. So, if you want to reduce bloating please eat fruit.

Greying hair, balding, nervous outburst, and dark circles under the eyes all these will NOT happen if you take fruits on an empty stomach.

Anything else? These are outrageous claims without any reasoning!

There is no such thing as some fruits, like orange and lemon are acidic, because all fruits become alkaline in our body, according to Dr. Herbert Shelton who did research on this matter. If you have mastered the correct way of eating fruits, you have the Secret of beauty, longevity, health, energy, happiness and normal weight.

Dr Herbert Shelton was an American alternative medicine advocate who passed away in 1985. Science and in particular nutritional science has come a long way since then. I’d rather read a peer-reviewed science publication than listen to what a proponent of pseudo-science has to say. Won’t you? And to counter the claim, foods can definitely be classified according to their pH. So yes, orange and lemon are acidic (they have ascorbic ACID!). There is some truth that food becomes alkaline in the process of digestion but only after they have gone through the acidic stomach juices. After being chewed and gulped, the food goes into our stomach where it is attacked by acid in the digestive juices, once broken down this food travels to the intestine where it is neutralised and made slight alkaline which is the pH of the intestine for further processing.

When you need to drink fruit juice – drink only fresh fruit juice, NOT from the cans. Don’t even drink juice that has been heated up. Don’t eat cooked fruits because you don’t get the nutrients at all. You only get to taste. Cooking destroys all the vitamins.

Wrong, wrong, wrong!  Vitamins in food are affected by growing conditions, post harvest changes, initial treatments (washing, milling), blanching and other thermal processing, and storage. Not heating alone, there are only a few vitamins which are lost, NOT ALL.

But eating a whole fruit is better than drinking the juice. If you should drink the juice, drink it mouthful by mouthful slowly, because you must let it mix with your saliva before swallowing it. You can go on a 3-day fruit fast to cleanse your body. Just eat fruits and drink fruit juice throughout the 3 days and you will be surprised when your friends tell you how radiant you look!

Whole fruit is better than juice because it is fibrous. Gulping any food not just juice is not a good idea because the first stage of digestion begins in the mouth. Enzymes like amylase breaks down starch to sugar and salivary lipase (more potent form of lipase) breaks down fat. Chewing or keeping food longer in the mouth will help dissolve or mix these important enzymes and let them act effectively.

Drinking Cold water after a meal = Cancer! Can u believe this?? For those who like to drink cold water, this article is applicable to you. It is nice to have a cup of cold drink after a meal. However, the cold water will solidify the oily stuff that you have just consumed. It will slow down the digestion. Once this ‘sludge’ reacts with the acid, it will break down and be absorbed by the intestine faster than the solid food. It will line the intestine.. Very soon, this will turn into fats and lead to cancer. It is best to drink hot soup or warm water after a meal.

Ok, attack on eating fruit wasn’t enough. You have to dwell on cancer?? All this is complete bullshit. It is possible that if you drink very cold water after a meal then some fat in the food stuff will solidify. But nothing after that is true. Even if it slows your digestion it will not lead to more fat in the body. The amount of fat in the food is decided by the type of food and drinking cold water will in no way affect the absorption of this fat. Excess fats can cause cancer but because cold water does nothing to increase the fat in the food. That should not be a worry at all. It’s such a far-fetched claim!

Sorry for the rant but these sort of emails get on my nerves. It’s worth the time investment to dispel myths like these. Written in genuine public interest. Period.

References:

Britannica Encyclopedia. (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/567085/stomach)

Wikipedia. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stomach)

More on stomach acidity (http://www.madsci.org/posts/archives/may98/892927858.Ch.r.html)

‘Tongue’ in the stomach
(http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18367093)

Stability of Vitamins (Many references for different vitamins, so quoting a few, a google scholar search will give u many academic publications)
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1253064/
http://cdavies.wordpress.com/2006/03/09/vitamins-part-2-stability/

Digestion (Amylase & Lipase)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digestion#Human_digestion_process