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Homeopathy is a tradition of diagnosis and cure created in the late 1700s by a German doctor named Samuel Hahnemann. He recorded the principals of this system in The Organon of the Healing Art, a text that is still widely used by homeopaths today.
The principle concept of homeopathy is that "like treats like" in the sense that a subtle stimulation of the body's innate healing response by a highly diluted agent will help one to heal more effectively. Homeopathic remedies are made from substances that would cause the symptoms a patient is experiencing, but are diluted many hundreds or thousands of times to achieve the opposite effect -- healing and resolution of those symptoms.
When homeopathy was conceived, mainstream medicine in the late 1700s employed such measures as bloodletting and purging, the use of laxatives and enemas, and the administration of complex mixtures, such as theriac, which was made from 64 substances including opium, myrrh, and viper's flesh. Such measures often worsened symptoms and sometimes proved fatal. While the virtues of these treatments had been extolled for centuries, Samuel Hahnemann rejected such methods and unadvisable. Instead, he promoted the use of single drugs at lower doses and extolled an immaterial, vitalistic view of how living organisms function. He believed that diseases have spiritual, as well as physical causes. Hahnemann also advocated various lifestyle improvements to his patients, including exercise, diet, and cleanliness.
Homeopathy is much more commonly used in India, Western Europe and Canada than in the United States. In India, up to 15 percent of the population uses homeopathy as a regular part of their traditional medicine. Partly because homeopathy originated in Germany, its use has always been more common in Europe than in the United States. However, the US had many more schools that taught homeopathy and doctors practicing the system in the late 1800s and early 1900s than it does now.
Part of the reason homeopathy is less prevalent than it used to be has to do with the rise of pharmaceutical medicine and advances in chemical science. Modern research of homeopathic principles and the efficacy of homeopathic remedies have generally been inconclusive and have caused enormous controversy in the medical community. The British medical journal The Lancet in 2005 published a front page meta-analysis comparing homeopathic clinical trials with those of conventional medical care, concluding that the effects of homeopathy are indistinguishable from placebos. Some have argued that the very nature of homeopathy -- its effect on an energetic level of healing, rather than strictly physical -- negates the attempts to understand it from a scientific perspective. Furthermore, because of the intensely individualized diagnosis and treatment process, proponents say that randomized and controlled clinical studies of homeopathic efficacy are fundamentally flawed.
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