How Does Homeopathy Differ from Conventional Medicine?

Classical homeopathy differs from conventional medicine in both philosophy and practice in five distinct ways.

1. Concept of Health

Since 1948, the World Health Organization has defined "health" as ". . . a state of complete physical, social, and mental well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity."

Despite progress made particularly by integrative and holistic physicians, much of conventional medicine seems to adopt a less comprehensive definition focused on "normal values" in laboratory data and other procedures. Much of this has been imposed by managed care constraints on service reimbursement.

Homeopathy holds health as being freedom on all levels: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. According to well-known homeopathic physician and teacher Dr. Rajan Sankaran,

"Health is synonymous with flexibility, or the freedom to act according to the reality at that moment." Such flexibility could express in the qualities of physical resilience, appropriate emotional responsiveness, mental clarity, and spiritual presence.Dr. Samuel Hahnemann, founder of homeopathy, wrote in his Organon of the Medical Art:

"In the healthy human state, the spirit-like life force (autocracy) that enlivens the material organism as dynamis, governs without restriction and keeps all parts of the organism in admirable, harmonious, vital operation, as regards both feelings and function, so that our indwelling, rational spirit can freely avail itself of this living, healthy instrument for the higher purposes of our existence."

Homeopathic healing may certainly result in normalization of lab values, but includes more feelings of well-being and engagement with life as well.

2. View of Symptoms and Dosing of Medicines

Conventional allopathic ("allo" = other; "pathos" = suffering) medicine generally sees symptoms as something to eliminate. Symptoms are reduced to presumed pathologic causes, and each is treated with a different pharmaceutical. Often aimed at overriding cellular mechanisms, medicines are dosed in relatively large quantities. Troublesome interactions and side effects are frequent.

For homeopaths, symptoms arise when self-regulatory mechanisms are dealing with some type of stress; they mirror the body's efforts to re-establish health. These efforts may become "stuck", or not able to overcome the problem by themselves. Homeopaths carefully observe patients' complete symptom pictures, and then prescribe medicines that mimic these as similarly ("homeo" = similar) as possible. This is a bit like bringing reinforcements to an overwhelmed or disorganized army; strengthening these defenses augments healing.

Considering a commonly experienced symptom illustrates these differences. For instance, the body shivers when cold. Though the symptom of shivering can be uncomfortable, it is the body's attempt to self-adjust its temperature by generating heat. It does not stop until the body is warm.

An allopathic medication could counteract (and temporarily stop) the shivering and its discomfort. But the body would remain cold overall, and unless warmth is generated otherwise, shivering would reappear when the medicine wears off. More or higher doses would be needed to manage the symptom.

In contrast, a homeopathic remedy works in gentle concert with the body's natural attempts to overcome the problem. In this case, the remedy very slightly increases shivering, liberating self-regulating mechanisms to effectively accomplish their task of warming the body. Thus rebalanced, the body appropriately maintains its own warmth thereafter -- no further medicine needed.

Classical homeopathy uses only one medicine at a time, in the minimum dose needed to generate a healing response. This contrasts with conventional allopathic medicine, where patients often take multiple prescriptions containing much greater quantities of material substance.

3. Holistic Perspective

Conventional physicians are trained to consider and treat symptoms as if they are discrete entities -- as if the "ill" part of the patient can be isolated from the rest. This is an effort to better understand the problem by breaking it down into smaller parts. Unfortunately, intense focus on this "part" may completely overshadow the patient's unique human story and life outlook.

Homeopathy views symptoms as embedded within the whole person, and searches for their unifying source, where mind and body meet. Finding the source requires listening to and understanding the entire patient comprehensively.

4. Individualization of Treatment

Conventional treatments are usually developed from studying diagnostically similar groups of patients; medications are selected according to group results. Similar diagnoses might lead to the same prescription, regardless of individually unique aspects in the patient.

In contrast, homeopathic treatments are very individualized, such that 12 patients experiencing "depression" might require 12 different remedies. In fact, the most unique qualities of the case might be the very clues needed to find the person's effective homeopathic remedy.

5. View of Energy and Minimum Dose

Classical homeopathy joins other longstanding healing traditions such as acupuncture, ayurveda, and Native American medicine in proposing a life force that animates and maintains living beings. Conventional medicine does not include this idea, and tends to view people's bodies in more mechanical terms.

Even though both conventional and homeopathic medicine attempt to relieve suffering, this philosophical divergence makes the target of their interventions profoundly different.

Seeing no vital force or energy in living beings, conventional treatments are usually limited to areas that are physically palpable or perceivable by current technologies -- such as cells, chemical messengers, organic abnormalities, and specific physiological functions. This poses particular challenges for patients experiencing symptoms without abnormal lab data, or whose primary suffering is emotional or mental.

But for homeopaths, the "vital force" is real and influences both health and illness. Although it cannot be seen directly, it can manifest in signs and symptoms throughout one's being. Understanding this concept allows interventions at deeper levels of the organism; how else to address dysfunctions for which there are no conventional treatments? As Dr. Hahnemann noted:

"When a person falls ill, it is initially only this spirit-like, autonomic life force (life principle), everywhere present in the organism, that is mistuned through the dynamic influence of a morbific agent inimical to life. Only the life principle, mistuned to such abnormality, can impart to the organism the adverse sensations and induce in the organism the irregular functions that we call disease."

~Samuel Hahnemann MD, Organon of Medicine, Aphorism 11

Rather than aim only at more superficial cellular or biochemical processes, homeopathic remedies impact the energetic level underlying and connecting all aspects of the person and the case. This is why multiple levels of healing are possible with the same homeopathic remedy, and treatment encompasses the whole person rather than an isolated part.

Dr. Hahnemann felt that if one's spirit-like vital force were mistuned, the only way to track this would be through perceiveable symptoms. Also, the only sensible means of addressing this would be through an equally spirit-like (energetic) medicine. Infinitesimally dilute medicines, given one at a time as indicated by symptoms, serve this purpose very well. They also preclude the metabolic interactions so often seen with drugs, herbs, and supplements given in material quantities.