Just to be clear, this piece relates to homeopathy only and not to herbal remedies in general, of which the anti-inflammatory benefits of curcumin (turmeric) and the digestive benefits of ginger are just two well documented examples. Personally, I enjoy a cup of chamomile tea, or chamomile and mint tea, most nights before going to sleep.
So; on to Homeopathy. Samuel Hahnemann was a German village doctor who gave up his practice. He developed homeopathy in around 1792, though the term homeopathy was not used until the early 19th century. He suggested that, as he put it, “like cures like” meaning that something that produces a particular illness or set of symptoms could be used to cure someone suffering from that illness. He went on to claim that the "remedy" would be effective following a series of heavy dilutions, a procedure he called "potentization". Following each stage of dilution, the substance had to be shaken to release the cure's "healing energy".
Today, supporters continue to claim that homeopathic practitioners can treat an illness using extreme dilutions of a substance that produces symptoms similar to the illness. Hmm. The dilutions used are so extreme that it is easy to show that, typically, there is not a single molecule of the original substance left. The rationale is that the water somehow has a "memory" of, or some "vibration" from, the original substance. This is so utterly ridiculous that I find it hard to keep typing due to laughter. Fine; if you want to believe this stuff, go ahead. You will probably benefit from the placebo effect. But it is not science, there is no basis in science, and it runs counter to even the most basic of scientific understanding. If water had some sort of memory, then this makes for an unpleasant thought!
In 2005, Dr. Matthias Egger and colleagues from the University of Berne in Switzerland analyzed 110 placebo-controlled homeopathy trials and compared the results to the same number of trials of conventional drugs. The results, published in the Lancet, showed that the benefits from the homeopathic remedies were entirely compatible with the placebo affect. They went on to add that: "the findings were less surprising than the fact that debate over homeopathy continues, despite 150 years of unfavorable findings". It was interesting to see that there were more positive, pro-homeopathy, results from the smaller, less well scientifically controlled experiments, than from the larger studies. In the trials of conventional remedies, the results were basically the same regardless of the size of the study.
In 2009 to 2010, the British Government set up a committee to conduct an investigation of homeopathy. Some of the conclusions they reached were: "The Committee concurred with the Government that the evidence base shows that homeopathy is not efficacious (that is, it does not work beyond the placebo effect) and that explanations for why homeopathy would work are scientifically implausible. The Committee concluded, given that the existing scientific literature showed no good evidence of efficacy, that further clinical trials of homeopathy could not be justified. In the Committee's view, homeopathy is a placebo treatment and the Government should have a policy on prescribing placebos. Prescribing of placebos is not consistent with informed patient choice, which the Government claims is very important, as it means patients do not have all the information needed to make choice meaningful. Beyond ethical issues and the integrity of the doctor-patient relationship, prescribing pure placebos is bad medicine. Their effect is unreliable and unpredictable and cannot form the sole basis of any treatment on the NHS. "
I have even seen supporters propose that the effects are due to quantum mechanical or relativistic effects! Unfortunately, their explanations demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of both quantum mechanics and relativity. I particularly like Tim Minchin's comments that alternative medicine "has either not been proved to work, or been proved not to work", and "You know what they call alternative medicine that's been proved to work? Medicine". Similarly, Richard Dawkins defines alternative medicine as a "set of practices which cannot be tested, refuse to be tested, or consistently fail tests". He goes on to say that any technique proven effective in properly performed trials ceases to be alternative medicine and becomes medicine.
A parting thought. Lake Tahoe, in the USA, is about 22 miles (35km) long, 12 miles (19km) wide and averages 1,000 feet (300m) deep; it corresponds to about 36 cubic miles (150.6 cu kms) of water. Now, throw in an aspirin tablet; just a normal 325 mg tablet, and leave it for a couple of years so it mixes in well with all the water. Take a cup of water from Lake Tahoe and drink it. This is the equivalent average dilution of homeopathic remedies!
Let us review a couple of well documented studies that looked into the benefits of homeopathy.