Homeopathic Science

Last year the company Matrixx Initiatives of Scottsdale, Arizona sold $40 million worth of Zicam brand cold remedies. Zicam is marketed as homeopathic and so comes under the FDA’s consumer product jurisdiction and not under its drug regulation jurisdiction. Two weeks ago, the FDA issued a warning to consumers that use of Zicam brand products puts users at risk of losing their sense of smell, perhaps permanently.

The FDA has asked Matrixx Initiatives to recall their Zicam products and cease their sale until the severity of the risk can be assessed. However, in this realm, the FDA has no power to force Matrixx to do anything. Matrixx has denied that there’s a problem, although they are alleged to have received 800 reports from consumers who lost their sense of smell after using the Zicam products.

The FDA’s action would have been unheard of during the Bush Administration. With the Obama Administration, legislation is working its way through Congress to give the FDA some teeth with which to protect consumers in situations such as the apparent risks posed by Zicam brand cold remedies.

Should we be reassured? Personally, I’m nervous.

What makes me nervous is the lack of understanding about homeopathy demonstrated in the news reports on this issue. For example, Zicam brand products use zinc gluconate in a 2X dose. For those of you unfamiliar with homeopathy, that says one part zinc glucanate was added to ten parts water and then one part from that solution was added to ten parts water. One part in ten twice. 2X. This is very far from a homeopathic dose. In fact, it’s simply a weak dose of zinc. A homeopathic dose would be something like a 30C—one part zinc in one hundred parts water thirty times.

One of the virtues of homeopathy as a healing art is that it won’t destroy any of your senses or vital organs or other moving parts. A remedy might not work, but it won’t cause positive tissue damage because it stimulates what might be called vital forces rather than disrupt biochemistry as pharmaceuticals do. In other words, homeopathy stimulates the body’s innate capacity to heal.

So the makers of Zicam brand remedies, by inaccurately calling their product homeopathic, threaten to focus the FDA’s regulator power on homeopathy and other healing arts that the FDA is not competent to judge. This is not to say that consumers shouldn’t be protected against harm by products from companies that are, after all, in it for the money. What worries me is a question of science.

In the news reports on Zicam, no one knowledgeable in homeopathy was interviewed. Instead, readers of the New York Times article, for example, were told flatly, “The products have no proven benefit.” In fact, the best that conventional science can do for a criticism of actual homeopathy is to claim that it doesn’t work.

I don’t have a problem with the regulation of business for the public interest nor with consumer protection by public agencies. What I have a problem with is ignorance. The science of homeopathy is not anything like the science of pharmaceuticals. The most striking difference is that the science and use of homeopathy is actual and specific while the science of pharmaceuticals is general and abstract.

The benefits and dangers of pharmaceuticals start with the assumption that every body works the same way and that differences are the result of individual variations. The science abstracts from specific people and generalizes results to all people. One size fits all.

The benefits of homeopathy start with the assumption that each body works in its own unique way and that a remedy suits a symptom in the context of each person’s unique complex of characteristics, starting with her or his personality and mental and emotional state. The science of homeopathy moves from the common effects of remedies to the specific character of the person and what he or she actually experiences as a whole person.

That’s why homeopathy lends itself to the art of self-care. Regulating it with pharmaceutical science would only make it another subject from which we are excluded.