As scientist, we are taught to be skeptical: we ask questions about how things work and we only believe things when we see scientific data from properly executed experiments. We want to understand how things work and often don’t believe that it works if we don’t understand the mechanism (although a lot of current day medication has been found serendipitously and was prescribed before science understood its mechanism of action). So I was surprised when about 10 years ago one of my undergrad professors (a virologist) suggested that I should go see a homeopathic doctor when I was suffering from migraines and allergies that modern medicine could only relieve but not prevent. I had 2-3 migraine attacks each month that I could most of the times treat effectively with an injectable triptan, but whenever that medication didn’t work I would lay in bed nauseous for about 72 hours. When the medication did work I was still pretty drowsy and sleepy for another day because of that medication. I was also allergic to pollen, dust and animal dander and took antihistamines every day.
So I found a kind lady who was an MD but specialized in homeopathy. She had bookshelves full of medical books and a cabinet full of homeopathic pills: little sugar balls that contained substances that were diluted so much that there was probably not a molecule left but sugar. She took the time to get to know who I was and what kind of things I did and liked. Unlike the average family doctor that spent about 5 minutes to diagnose and write a prescription, appointments with her lasted 30-40 minutes. She was very attentive and tried to figure out why I was suffering from these migraines and allergies. At the end of every session she gave me one of the tiny sugar pills that I had to melt under my tongue. She always looked me in the eye and said that she could see in my eyes that she choose the right pill. I never really felt anything and was skeptical that she could see something happening. What struck me though, was that I also got small patches of rash at different sites on my body after every session and she could usually predict where the rash would be next time.
After about a year of seeing her about every 2 months I didn’t need to take antihistamines every day anymore. I still have allergies, but it’s by far not as bad as it used to be. And before I started seeing her I had at least one migraine attack every time I had my period, and after that year the miraculous thing happened: I had my period without having a migraine attack. I visited her less frequent and until I moved to the US I only occasionally went to see her if I felt like my migraines were getting worse again.
So for the past ten years I wondered how this is possible: did I just ‘outgrow’ my migraines and allergies? I doubt it. Or did I learn to live a more balanced life which caused me to have less migraine attacks? Maybe. Does it just help if someone pays attention and listens to your story and could I just as well have gone to see a therapist instead of a homeopath? Perhaps. Or was it all placebo effect? Possibly.
I know that in science an n=1 doesn’t really count. And whenever people review the literature on homeopathy they find that it doesn’t work. But I can imagine that it is extremely difficult to find study the effect of homeopathy because it requires every individual to get a different treatment based on their complaints and their personality. Similarly, antidepressants and antipsychotics often hardly work better than placebo, because some work for one person but not for the other.
I guess I should add a disclaimer here saying that I don’t encourage people to go to a homeopath instead of to a regular doctor.