That which heals, harms in higher amounts.
As a student pharmacist, I'll one day take a number of oaths that solidify my lifelong commitment to the welfare of others. To that end, I'll take a moment dispel a few myths surrounding homeopathic drugs and side effects.
Its important that I draw a distinction between 4 major types of drugs: homeopathic, herbal, OTC, and prescription drugs.
Prescription drugs simply require a prescriber's consent to receive them. The reasons for their restricted access are many. Often they are prescribed for conditions that should be closely monitored by a doctor in case changes are needed. Some of these drugs may cause the user to develop a dependence (even unintentionally) if not taken properly. And other types of prescription drugs have a very small dosage range in which they do their job, and do too good of a job. Take for instance, a medication thats designed to lower your blood pressure. this can be incredibly useful to treat someone with (big surprise) high blood pressure. Having high blood pressure (or hypertension, as it is known) wreaks havoc on the body. It can cause damage to the internal organs, blindness to the eyes, and rupturing of the internal vessels as blood is pumped at too high of a pressure. Taking something to lower blood pressure may help, but taking too much of it will cause BP to plummet. A patient would suddenly experience all sorts of side effects including dizziness, confusion, fainting, and their eyes blacking out when they stand up. Any legitimate drug that helps that body will harm it if too much is given. Everything about the body is a delicate balance, there's no single substance out there that "you can't have enough of," not even something as benign as water.
OTC or over the counter drugs have a popular misconception about being completely safe. This is not true. They are generally "safer" than prescription drugs because its harder (but still possible) to hurt yourself with them. They are categorized by the FDA as GRAS-E or "generally recognized as safe and effective" and this is true. There are many good remedies for allergies, cough, pain, constipation, available OTC to treat the minor aches and ailments of life. Case in point though, too much of something is never a good thing. Aspirin for instance, when taken in excessive quantities beyond the labels direction, can be extremely dangerous and life threatening. Acetaminophen (aka Tylenol) is effective but hard on the liver if more than 4 grams (or 4,000 milligrams) are taken per day. Its especially confusing because many OTC medications combine multiple drugs into one dose. Cough syrups, cold medicines, and pain relievers can all bundle in acetaminophen and if a patient takes all of these medicines they can easily exceed that 4 gram limit without realizing it. If you ever are curious about which medicines are bundled, glance at the ingredients list or ask a nearby pharmacist, they don't mind.
Herbal medicines and dietary supplements are literally all over the place in terms of effectiveness and safety. They aren't as tightly regulated as the prescription drugs and as long as they tell you that their claims are not supported by the FDA, they're off the hook in terms of guaranteeing effectiveness. Some of these herbal remedies claim to be miraculous cures for dozens of ailments (with very little scientific evidence to back them up) but a few gems may have sound scientific studies that have shown them to be effective. But nothing in the name "herbal" should say "so safe that you can take as much as you want." Herbal medicines contain active compounds that, beneficial or not, may do some degree of harm to the body (like liver damage or worse). When considering whether or not to take an herbal medicine, you better do your homework first. Ask your doctor or pharmacist for one, or if you feel comfortable enough try researching it yourself. Websites that aren't self-promotional and trying to sell you their own products are usually the most accurate. I like Natural Standard in particular. But overall herbal supplements should be looked at closely. Ginkgo biloba is one such herbal remedy that has a fairly decent evidence record for improving circulation (particularly in the brain). Such features make it ideal for treating alzheimers, but many additional claims have been tacked onto ginkgo that may be a bit overblown. Another "dietary supplement" sold on the shelf these days is a hormone called DHEA, which has numerous companies claiming it can delaying the aging process, burn fat, increase sugar metabolism, increase libido, etc. Such claims however, are unfortunately too good to be true. There's very little evidence to support it. One of the curious side effects of DHEA supplementation is an increase of feminine characteristics (in males) and masculine characteristics (in females), which I'm sure only a very select minority of the population actually desires.
Before I go on, let me summarize by saying that all of these drugs operate under the same principle. Standard medicine has long understood that drugs work in the following range:
- if you give a patient too little of a drug, no effect will be observed
- just enough drug, and you get the desired effect (like pain relief, or optimum blood pressure, or curing a bacterial infection)
- Too much drug and bad things start happening.
Last and least, homeopathic remedies are sold in many stores and pharmacy shelves right alongside all the other OTC, herbal, and supplement medications. I find this particularly odd, because homeopathic drugs are completely different from any of the ones I've mentioned before. These drugs are designed under the assumption that in order to cure an ailment, you first need something that causes it in a healthy person. So for instance, to lower my blood pressure, I would need to start with a substance that raises my blood pressure. Then I would need to dilute it with water multiple times, until none of the original substance remained. Homeopathic medicine assumes that the water "remembers" the original drug, so that when the water or sugar, or whatever diluent is given to the patient, it will be an effective treatment. Another important side note, more diluting (or removing more of the drug) makes it stronger. If homeopathy sounds like the complete and exact OPPOSITE of standard medicine, it is. Homeopathic drugs essentially contain no active ingredients. They can make claims to be "regulated by the FDA" which is true except the FDA does not endorse any of its claims their effectiveness. The scientific evidence supporting homeopathy is slim to none. As a whole it is considered pseudoscience: in that there are no scientific explanations to support it and any positive results seem controversial. Homeopathic drugs will also make the claim that they are safe, and won't interact with other drugs. This is deceptively true.
The reason homeopathic drugs won't directly harm you is that (again) there are no active ingredients present. You really can't give too little of a homeopathic drug because, there's nothing in there to begin with. You can't give just enough or too much either. At the worst you'll be stuffed full of sugar or water. Its just not feasible to imagine overdosing on a homeopathic product because there's nothing to overdose on. Since sugar and water don't interact with any known drug, they can keep that claim to. In short, these kinds of drugs won't have toxic effects because they don't have ANY effects. At the very least people can claim to experience relief from using homeopathic drugs through the placebo effect: where they know their getting treated with something, so they think they're getting better. In truth, most of the ailments that homeopathic drugs treat can get better with time anyway. (like the flu, ringing in the ears, or pink eye) There used to be homeopathic drugs that claimed to treat more malicious conditions like AIDs, Cancer, or Diabetes, but the FDA has since nipped these in the bud. Treating such diseases with nothing but sugar or water will lead to disastrous consequences. In the meantime modern day homeopathic remedies for milder conditions remain on the shelf.
The real danger from using homeopathic drugs is their deception. Homeopathic marketing can twist the truth to make it sound like they're offering a "safe" and "alternative" remedy for a patient's symptoms, when in reality there's nothing to it. This can drive patients away from using legitimate and effective drugs that actually CAN relive symptoms, and it may create a sense of distrust when it comes to medicine, especially when the remedies fail to work. The problem is that the general public is not well educated on the distinction between homeopathic and standard medicine, they shop based on effectiveness. "This homeopathic medicine SAYS it will treat pinkeye, cure a hangover, shorten my flu symptoms, cure my allergies, it SAYS its safe and natural, it SAYS its regulated by the FDA, it must work right?"
That which heals, harms in higher amounts.
I make my best effort to ensure that everything I claim is factually accurate and scientifically supported. If you feel that anything stated above isn't correct, feel free to call me out in the comments section and I'll look into it. I am a student Pharmacist with three years under my belt and 3 more to go, that being said, don't take anything I say as a personal medical recommendation or medical advice. I'm not yet at the point where I can use a doctoral degree to offer you that kind of assurance. Consult a doctor or pharmacist before trying any new drug or therapy, and doing your own homework wouldn't hurt either.