Heal thyself

Millions of Americans are turning from conventional medicine to a more natural approach to health.

These days, if you sat the sisters of Calcutta's Missionaries of Charity down next to members of Britain's royal family, they wouldn't have much in common -- except for a mutual understanding of how kali carbonicum soothes a backache, or how a pulsatilla remedy cleared that congested cough right up. They, like about 10 study groups which gather in Central Florida, would find common ground exploring the homeopathic remedies in their medicine cabinets.

Next week, many of the 49 members of the Homeopathic Study Group of Lake County will gather for a session on the treatment of pets with inexpensive alternatives to the medicines prescribed by most veterinarians. On Nov. 8 at Chamber- lin's Market in Winter Park, Dr. Jeffrey Levine will explain to the Greater Orlando Homeo-pathic Study Group the value of using homeopathic remedies to treat flus afflicting humans. Early next year, Dr. Henny Heudens, a homeopath from Belgium, will lead a private five-day course in Winter Park that already is booked solid. And in early February, area homeopathic practitioners will join members of the Homeopathic Society of the State of Pennsylvania at a day-long seminar in Cocoa Beach open to the public. "I always use homeopathy first because it's the safest and gentlest form of healing, in my opinion," says Liz Herwig, coordinator of the Orlando group.

Forget antibiotics, Midol or NyQuil. At these meetings, you're more likely to hear discussions of how arnica, rhus toxicodendron (poison ivy) or allium cepa (red onion) have made significant differences in the way these people -- and their loved ones -- function. "It's a gentle way to stimulate the heeling processes of the body," says Levine, a chiropractor. "If it's used properly, it tends not to have any side effects."

Homeopathy is a 200-year-old branch of holistic medicine which uses natural remedies to encourage the body to heal itself. Instead of using drugs to ease symptoms, this method uses naturally derived remedies to make the symptoms stronger. This, in turn, tricks the immune system into fighting the illness.

Homeopathic remedies are derived from plants, animals and minerals, and are administered in the form of alcohol-based tinctures and plain white sugar pellets. If you are doubtful about ingesting medicine that isn't slickly packaged, homeopathy may seem a little unusual for you. It's not uncommon, when in a homeopath's office, to be handed a vial of sugar pills treated in such solutions as diluted metallic copper (cuprum) or venom from the Surukuku snake (lacesis) -- some of the 1,300 (and counting) remedies to treat everything from PMS and sore gums to depression and leukemia. Practitioners and patients claim homeopathy not only treats physical symptoms, but also improves a patient's emotional or psychological imbalances as well.

Eight years ago, Allen and Debbie Deaver were searching for a cure for her chronic fatigue. "We were trying everything," says Allen Deaver, owner and pharmacist at Taylor's Pharmacy on Park Avenue in Winter Park. Finally, Debbie visited a doctor in Titusville who prescribed three doses of high-potency argenica metricum, which cured her illness. Sold on homeopathy, Debbie began to attend area study groups. And with pledges from the groups to buy their remedies at Taylor's, the drugstore began stocking a full line of homeopathic remedies (Chamberlin's Markets also carry them), in addition to medicines favored by American pharmaceutical companies and the vast majority of doctors.

"We were sick of mailing to California for them, and no one in Florida had them," Allen Deaver said. Also the move made business sense. "You're always looking for ways to be the center of things."

Despite homeopathy's current reputation as an alternative medicine, it has a pretty good historical track record. It began in 19th-century Europe, when German physician Samuel Hahnemann became disillusioned by the medical practices in vogue at the time. They were based on the concept of treating a state of illness with the "opposite" state, and to Hahnemann, purging, bloodletting and boring holes into emotionally disturbed patients' skulls were harsh solutions to what he viewed as a much simpler problem. After describing invasive medical practices as "allopathy," or "opposite suffering," Hahnemann retorted with an approach that treats "like with like," giving homeopathy, or "similar suffering," its name.

His holistic approach took into account a person's emotional, physical and psychological state before prescribing a remedy. Today, practitioners still follow his methods and believe that to retain health, all links in the chain of body, mind and spirit must be secure. For this reason, homeopathic practitioners must spend much more time with their patients. If you're planning a quick trip to the homeopath's office on your lunch hour, expecting to be weighed, poked for blood, prodded a couple of times and handed a prescription while you're being ushered out the door, you'll have to reschedule.

While homeopathy is not a licensed medical specialty in Florida, a growing number of doctors are incorporating it into their practices. Deaver says he provides seven plastic surgeons with homeopathic medicines that they use to control swelling after operations. And Levine estimates about 30 doctors in Orange County turn to homeopathic cures at times.

Much of what your a homeopathic practitioner will want to do on your first visit is hear you talk -- sometimes for an hour, sometimes two. The practitioner will wait for you to express everything you think is wrong with you, from crying jags to your sinus infection to that car accident when you were 12. According to classical homeopathic doctrine, finding a common thread in your life that may have caused your illness is the only way a proper remedy can be found.

Fifty years ago, Jean Hoagland began her education in homeopathy as a mother raising four children in New Jersey. With homeopathy, "you didn't have to go back" to the doctor. "You got better." Today, from her home in Mount Dora, Hoagland coordinates the Lake County study group and sits on the board of the National Center for Homeopathy, as its popularity as an alternative to contemporary health care is booming.

Back in 1990, Americans made 4.8 million visits to homeopathic practitioners. By 1995, the American Homeopathic Pharmaceutical Association estimates, retail sales of homeopathic remedies in the United States totaled about $201 million, and are growing at a rate of 20 percent each year. Remedies also are carried by national drugstore chains, such as CVS, K mart, Meijer and Revco.

Despite the statistics, the homeopathic movement is not without its skeptics. For one thing, the key to homeopathic medicine is in its dilution. Although some substances, like arsenicum album (arsenic), may be toxic when taken in saturated doses, homeopathic remedies can undergo several hundred dilutions before they're ready; according to practitioners, the more a substance is shaken and diluted, the more powerful it becomes. Once a remedy is diluted beyond a moderate potency (one part per quadrillion), molecules of the original substance are hard, if not impossible, to find with chemical analysis. (Skeptics naturally wonder how a highly diluted remedy, with no trace of the original substance, has any effect on a patient.)

Understandably, there are still critics who feel it is nothing more than a placebo effect. The National Council Against Health Fraud (NCAHF), a consumer-watchdog group, issued its own position paper on the subject in 1994, stating that homeopathy is a "magnet for untrustworthy practitioners who pose a threat to public safety." The group, which has spoken out against homeopathy for 12 years now, says the Food and Drug Administration has created an "unacceptable double standard for drug marketing" by not holding homeopathic remedies to the same standards as conventional drugs.

"I'm not going to label [homeopathy] superdangerous or lethal, because mostly it's just silly," says Dr. John Renner, vice president of the NCAHF. He compares the reputation of practitioners to that of dubious used car salespeople. "If I told you I had a car that gave me 300 miles to one gallon of gas, you'd want to ask me a lot of questions, too."

Renner says homeopathy has a long way to go before it should be taken seriously. "What we need [are] good, highly qualified, reasonably sized research studies where an original substance is recognized, analyzed, audited and monitored," he says. "If a practitioner isn't impeccably honest, all else is lost."

But nearly three years after the NCAHF called for more stringent rulings for homeopathic remedies from the FDA, no action has been taken. In the United States, the FDA regulates homeopathic remedies under the provisions of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, and lists guidelines in "The Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia of the United States." According to Ed Miracco, of the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, the FDA requires little scrutiny before a homeopathic remedy hits store shelves or is administered. No chemical analysis is required to prove either the existence of an active ingredient in the remedy or the accuracy of the labeled potency. And a drug is only sold by prescription if it claims to treat a serious disease, like cancer. Remedies are exempt from expiration dating, but they are required to have an ingredient list, plus instructions for safe use and the dilution/potency.

Despite a lack of scientific support for homeopathy, it is considered a highly respected branch of medicine around the world. Back in the 1950s, Mother Teresa, founder of the Missionaries of Charity, started a homeopathic dispensary in India, and the British Royal Family still relies on it to keep healthy. Homeopathy is fully reimbursable under the French social security system, the German national health insurance system and the British National Health Service. In the United States, health insurance covers visits to homeopathic practitioners by virtue of their licensure.

For those who have seen the results of homeopathy, however, labeling and legislation mean little. While declining to identify the doctors or victims whom she has helped, Louise Divine of Tallahassee says she has used homeopathic cures to awaken five young people from comas, several caused by head injuries from car accidents.

In September 1996, the mother of a girl Divine had helped bring back to consciousness referred her to a case involving an 18-year-old boy who had been in a coma for three months after a late-night car crash on a remote Panhandle road. With his brain shrinking and his insurance company pressuring for an end to the use of life-support systems, the boy's mother turned to her for help. After a dose of high-potency arnica and other homeopathic cures, as well as therapy, the boy has returned to a normal life. Earlier this year, "he walked across the stage and graduated with honors," says Divine.

Other less dramatic tales abound: Deaver curing his father-in-law's jammed wrists on the golf course, or reducing his daughter's temperature from 105 to normal in three hours; Herwig chasing off her husband's sore throat, and Hoagland quelling her own.

"Just because something's not well researched doesn't mean it doesn't work,"says Dr. Levine. "It just means we don't know why." While drug companies and the American Medical Association sponsor studies proving the efficacy of new drugs, homeopathic practitioners must point to two centuries of success. "If we had research money," Dr. Levine says, "we'd find that it does work."

Sidebar: Homeopathy how-to

If you're thinking of trying homeopathy, there are some things to keep in mind. Remember that most trained homeopaths can be found working in other medical fields: dentists, physicians and chiropractors also may be homeopaths. Some doctors devote 100 percent of their practice to homeopathy, while others use it as part of their treatment methods.

But there's no regulatory system or federal licensing board to regulate the practice, so just about anyone with the time to research remedies, constitutional types and symptoms of disease is free to practice homeopathy. This leads consumers into a gray area when looking for reliable care.

Training in homeopathy can range from a weekend workshop to four-year programs of study. "Anyone can learn to use homeopathy for first aid or acute illnesses, but for chronic illnesses, we suggest you consult a practitioner," says homeopath Gregory Kruszewski. The National Center for Homeopathy in Alexandria, Va. (phone 703-548-7790, or on the web at www.homeopathic.org) maintains a directory of certified practitioners and lists how much of their practice involves homeopathy.

When choosing a homeopath, the NCH suggests you ask about the practitioner's training level, how long he or she has been practicing, and how much of the practice is devoted to homeopathy. Trust the opinion of others they've treated.

On average, the first visit lasts 60 minutes and costs $137, while an average follow-up lasts about 25 minutes and costs $55.

To get a taste of the homeopathic diagnosis style, one good read is "The Complete Guide to Homeopathy: The Principles and Practice of Treatment," by Dr. Andrew Lockie and Dr. Nicola Geddes. Other books to look for include "Homeopathy for Skeptics and Beginners," by Richard Grossinger, and "Your Introduction to the Science and Art of Homeopathic Medicine," by Dana Ullman.

For additional information, or to check on the schedule and availability of upcoming workshops, seminars and discussion groups, contact the Greater Orlando Homeopathic Study Group (869-8160), the Homeopathic Study Group of Lake County (352-383-1078) or Taylor's Pharmacy in Winter Park (644-1025).

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