Andrew Lockie, homeopath and general practitioner, has his own flu brew. Fifteen years in the making, this "potentised" mixture contains all the varieties of influenza vaccine approved by the Department of Health each autumn. Each year he adds a drop of the new vaccine to his mother tincture and since the vaccines are already in combination he reckons it works against some 50 strains.
His flu remedy illustrates the great strengths and weaknesses of homeopathic medicine. The earliest vaccines in his flu remedy have now been diluted so often they will not be traceable, yet he and his patients believe in its power. Homeopathy uses infinitesimally small amounts of the agent that causes the illness, or which cause the same symptoms, to trigger the body's resources to fight the condition.
In the end you either believe in it or you don't, but belief has a real part to play in medicine, be it orthodox or alternative, and should not be underestimated. After all, the placebo effect - when patients given dummy pills in drugs trials report improvements - is an established phenomenon.
Homeopathy is enjoying an upsurge of interest. Sales of over-the-counter remedies have doubled in five years and some surveys have shown that more than 75 per cent of doctors are interested in this gentle form of medicine and would like some training in it. In many ways it is the least alternative of all the complementary therapies. The National Health Service provides homeopathic hospitals in London, Bristol, Glasgow and Liverpool. Dr Lockie's practice is recognised by major health insurance companies.
He was conventionally trained at medical school in Aberdeen; as a GP in Southampton; in homeopathy at the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital and since then has maintained his interest in orthodox medicine, working in a local casualty department. But early in his student days he began to dislike the way in which he was taught to dismiss patients' personal information in favour of the "mechanical" facts.
"In conventional medicine the symptoms become the disease: therefore if there are no symptoms there is no disease. What I began to understand was that symptoms are not diseases but the body's reaction to the diseases. If we augment the symptoms with a remedy we help the body to do what it is trying to do already," he explains.
Homeopathic remedies are "potentised". As this involves diluting it seems to run counter to logic. They are made by diluting the active ingredient, one part to a 100, time after time, and succussing, or agitating, the mixture after each dilution. The more it is succussed the more efficacious it becomes. Often this process goes beyond the point at which the molecules of the ingredient can be measured. 9
The scientific theory is that the violent mixing imprints a molecular "memory" of the original ingredient on the mixture. There is some evidence from studies with nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) imaging that electrochemical changes may indeed take place in these homeopathic solutions.
Dr Lockie says that NMR research in America from the mid-Sixties, and more recently from Germany, suggests that the succussing in some way alters the molecular structure of the water in which the active ingredient was dissolved. "But we are still a long way from discovering what really happens," he said.
A few hours in Dr Lockie's surgery, a private practice, revealed consultations that were as much psychological as physical. The homeopath treats the whole person and not simply the symptom; study of his latest book, The Women's Guide to Homeopathy, written with Nicola Geddes, shows that the remedies address both physical and emotional complaints. …