Book Review -- Fearless Books -- D. Patrick Miller

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Impossible Cure: The Promise of Homeopathy
by Amy L. Lansky, PhD
R.L. Ranch Press: Portola Valley, CA, 2003

Reviewed by D. Patrick Miller

Here's a timely medical pop quiz: After heart disease and cancer, what is the No. 3 killer of Americans today? The answer is shocking, and all the more so for not being the stuff of screaming headlines, Congressional inquiries, and public outrage. According to a 2000 report in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the third leading cause of death in the most medically technologized nation on earth is modern medicine itself, with at least 225,000 deaths yearly attributed to medical drugs, hospital errors or infections, and unnecessary surgeries (read summary). Add in that the steadily rising costs of medical treatment and insurance are enough to give anyone a heart attack, and you have a mounting health care crisis that would seem to demand a top-to-bottom reevaluation of not just how health care is delivered in this country, but how we think of illness and health as well.

In fact millions of Americans are already engaged in such a reevaluation on a firsthand basis, turning to a variety of alternative health care treatments in record numbers. Once-exotic approaches such as Oriental acupuncture are increasingly commonplace, and the next alternative modality due for greater public awareness may be the traditional Western practice known as homeopathy. In her book Impossible Cure: The Promise of Homeopathy, former NASA research scientist Amy Lansky, Ph.D. sets forth the case for a revival of this holistic healing art in a well-written and ultimately inspiring volume arguing that the cure for what ails us medically is a very different perception of how the body works -- and the best way to help it set itself right when it isn't working so well.

Serving equally as a history, polemic, and layman's introduction to a distinct medical discipline of which most Americans are ignorant, Impossible Cure is the result of the author's own philosophical conversion after witnessing the total homeopathic cure of autism in her son Max. During and after that experience, she learned about so many other dramatic cures via homeopathy -- of Alzheimer's, cancer, HIV infection, and acute diarrhea in children, to name just a few -- that she quit her two-decades career in computer science to become an advocate and practitioner of this alternative medicine. This meant a big change in the care of her own family as well: "I would no longer dream of doing things I had done routinely for years -- suppressing fevers with aspirin or acetaminophen, coughs with cough suppressant, skin problems with cortisone, or combating ear infections with antibiotics."

Still, for a scientifically-minded mom to abandon conventional medical care of her family would seem to require more evidence of homeopathy's efficacy than a handful of miraculous anecdotes, even if she experienced one of them firsthand. Thus Dr. Lansky shares what she has learned about the little-known research in the field, summarizing "hundreds of double-blind, placebo-controlled studies [proving] that homeopathic remedies are indeed effective medicine" and providing some details on particular studies of homeopathic benefits for allergies, flu, postoperative pain in children, drug and alcohol recovery, and more. She also points out that homeopathy is a well-established treatment mode outside the US, being integrated into the national health care systems of the United Kingdom, Germany, Mexico, Brazil, and other countries.

In fact homeopathy was once far more accepted even in the United States, giving conventional "allopathic" practice a run for its money in the 19th century. The fact that it fell out of favor is the major factor in its reputation here as the "black sheep" of medicine, although Dr. Lansky claims that the bad rep of homeopathy has far less to do with medical efficacy than medical economics -- not to mention the American penchant for the quick fix of symptom suppression. By the mid-20th century, the author reports that allopathy had become "...easier to practice and much more financially lucrative. Because homeopathy requires individualized treatment for each patient, it tends to be time-consuming. There are very few circumstances in which a homeopath can say, 'Just take this medicine for that condition.' Instead, remedy selection is tailored to the unique symptomatic profile of each patient. This makes homeopathy a much more arduous medical art, as well as much less financially profitable than allopathy."

No wonder that homeopathy became a shunned practice, leading to the modern paradox of treatment that allows a licensed MD to dispense homeopathic treatments without any training whatsoever, while certified homeopaths cannot even say they are practicing medicine (in the US, homeopaths are limited to dispensing treatments as "recommendations" and insurance is nonexistent). Lansky's book is clearly a shot across the bow of popular opinion to change this situation, and her effort appears well-timed. Minnesota, Rhode Island, and California have all recently passed bills legitimizing some forms of alternative practice, and similar legislative efforts are underway in at least eight states. As the American health care system looks increasingly like a stalled Titanic about to break in half, the resurgence of an alternative medical approach that actually does have a track record of success could occur much more quickly than anyone suspects.

But as Dr. Lansky admits, a significant stumbling block for the popular acceptance of homeopathic practice is that even its advocates cannot explain exactly how it works. The "Law of Similars" conceived by Dr. Samuel Hahnemann, the brilliant and sometimes eccentric founder of homeopathy, states that "a disease can be cured by a substance if that substance can cause, in a healthy person, symptoms similar to those of the disease." Thus, the typical homeopathic remedy consists of an ultradilution of some natural substance (anything from pure minerals to flower pollen to snake venom) that, if undiluted, would cause a healthy person to exhibit the same symptoms as the sick person being treated. This mechanism is not in itself exotic; conventional vaccinations work on a similar principle, although they introduce much more toxic material into the body and are thus inherently riskier than homeopathic remedies.

At any rate, ultradiluted homeopathic remedies seem to spur a natural immune response that speeds the body's healing of itself. By contrast, conventional allopathic medicines apply various natural and synthetic substances designed chiefly to suppress symptoms rather than to stimulate a natural healing response. In fact, many allopathic medications actually stress the body's immune system (as in the case of antibiotics, steroids, chemotherapy, and many others), and can lead to more serious medical conditions than the ones they are used to treat.

The mystery of homeopathy is that its remedies are so diluted that they often contain less than one molecule of the substance that supposedly triggers the body's healing response. Chemically speaking, that means the substance can no longer be detected in the solution. But as Dr. Lansky reveals, recent research into the nature of ultradiluted solutions suggests that there may be more to the homeopathic method than the placebo effect and good intentions. Of several angles of research being pursued currently, one of the most intriguing suggests that ultradiluted substances may leave a subtle "electromagnetic signature" in water that triggers the body's response because it may be "just this kind of electromagnetic signal, conveyed in water, that is the key to how information is carried within biological organisms in general."

But Lansky concludes that it is less important how a remedy works than the fact that it does; after all, the actions of many conventional medicines are not fully understood. And in fact allopathy does sometimes make use of homeopathic remedies, notably in the case of the heart treatments known as digitalis and nitroglycerin. Lansky also makes it clear that the shift to a homeopathic point of view is just as much a matter of philosophy as technique. Unlike allopathy -- which views the human organism as a machinelike aggregation of systems whose malfunctions can be disparately treated in much the same way a mechanic would fix a car -- homeopathy attends chiefly to the "vital force" that animates the body, aiming to help that force regain its complex and dynamic balance. This vital-force concept is similar to the "chi" of Oriental medicine and the "prana" of yoga and Ayurveda.

While the symptoms of disease are the homeopath's clues to treatment, she is ultimately less interested in suppressing or eliminating those symptoms than in restoring the body's natural mechanisms for self-healing and maintenance. And it is precisely that holistic focus, Dr. Lansky asserts, that enables homeopathy to produce total and sometimes miraculous cures in cases where conventional medicine would assume that the most a patient can expect from treatment is a little more time to live or partial relief from pain and suffering.

Buttressed with research references, recommendations for further reading and a guide to current homeopathic resources, Impossible Cure presents an uncompromising call for a rethinking of conventional medical practice in the US. "In the 19th century, homeopathy, an inherently energetic system of healing, was perhaps before its time," asserts Dr. Lansky.

"Now that the philosophical ramifications of modern physics and quantum reality are beginning to enter our collective consciousness, it may finally be time for homeopathy to take its rightful place as a leading energy-based medicine of the 21st century. Indeed, homeopathy may be one of the only truly effective means we have for overcoming chronic disease and restoring our mental, emotional, and physical health. Shouldn't we have it available to us?"