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BODY WATCH : Trying the Alternative Route to Well-Being


Five years ago, while Cari Nyland was clearing away dried brush in her yard, she contracted poison ivy. As usual, her face began to blow up and her eyes began to swell shut. This time, however, she decided to pass up injections of cortisone in favor of a homeopathic medicine she bought in a health food store.

"Within 10 minutes, the swelling was down," says Nyland, 36, a resident of Monkton, Md. "If I had taken [conventional medicine], I would have sat on the couch and gotten nothing done for four days or so. It was a relief to be able to walk around and be normal."

Nyland and her family now use homeopathic treatments instead of conventional medicine for almost all of their health problems.

Their embrace of homeopathic medicine is part of a wave of public interest in alternative ways to treat everything from ear infections to depression. A 1993 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that one in three Americans is using acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractic and other alternatives to traditional medical treatment.

Although many scientists doubt that homeopathic medicine really works, homeopathic drug sales are growing by 25% a year, according to the National Center for Homeopathy.

Begun in the late 18th Century by German physician Samuel Hahnemann, homeopathy is based on the principle of "like cures like." For a head cold, for instance, a practitioner may prescribe a very diluted dose of Allium cepa--a substance made from onions--to relieve symptoms of watery eyes and a runny nose. A remedy made from coffee is used to calm nerves and help induce sleep.

The reasoning is that a remedy that would cause a problem in a large dose will actually stimulate the body to heal faster if it is administered in a homeopathically prepared small dose.

Homeopathic medicines use extremely diluted preparations of plant, mineral and animal substances. Regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as drugs, approximately 95% are available over the counter.

Because the medicine is so diluted, it carries virtually no toxic material. However, it often lacks any molecules of the original substance upon which it was based. That fact has fueled scientific disbelief in its effectiveness.

Although scores of clinical studies indicate that homeopathic remedies work, critics say that relief of symptoms is due to the placebo effect: A patient's expectation of a cure will lead to recovery.

Homeopathic physician Brian Berman, director of the Division of Complementary Medicine at the University of Maryland Medical Center and assistant professor of family medicine, says many of his colleagues consider homeopathy to be a medicine of sugar pills.

The major impediment to accepting homeopathy is that no one can explain how it works. Some practitioners believe the vigorous shaking that occurs when medicines are being diluted infuses them with a kind of healing energy.

As word spreads about homeopathy, some physicians and practitioners worry that homeopathic wanna-bes will choose medications without the proper guidance.

"Homeopathy is thought to work best with one particular remedy suited to an individual's problem," Berman says. "Over-the-counter medications can work well for limited acute disease, but people with chronic and more complex problems should work together with a professional."

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