Sugar Pastilles, “Berlin Wall” Pills, and Duck Liver: Regulating Homeopathic Medicine


Though they may seem vastly different to the standard vaccinations and antibiotics, supplements such as Anas Barbariae– extract of duck heart and liver– or tablets containing actual shards of the Berlin wall prevail in a corner of the healthcare world. Natalie Grams, a medical student, turned to sugar pastilles to treat a cold, flu, depression, anxiety, and more. Doug Brown, an American practitioner, turned to Belladonna pills (from a poisonous plant of the same name) as the “key to the missing link” to solving his clients’ chronic illnesses. These treatments are part of what has become a $1.2 billion industry in the United States: homeopathy.

What is Homeopathy?

Homeopathy is based on two primary beliefs, the first of which being “like cures like.” Homeopathics practitioners prescribed the aforementioned Berlin pill, for example, to those with communication issues, as the Berlin Wall was considered to be a barrier to communication. A less extreme example is the use of grass or hay in treatments that seek to cure hay fever. The second is that the lower the dose, the more potent the medicinal power: homeopathic treatments contain one part per trillion of the active ingredient. As part of the overall philosophy behind homeopathy, homeopathic practitioners also believe that one must obtain as detailed insight as possible into an individual in order to discern the cause of a medical issue.

Those who turn to homeopathy often believe that conventional medicine has failed them; a Pew Research study found that primary care can often be lacking, as primary care appointments only last around 5 minutes for half of the world’s population. In Doug Brown’s case, he turned to Belladonna pills out of desperation to cure his son’s ear infection after multiple rounds of antibiotics failed. In other cases, those who favor homeopathy tend to ascribe these treatments to an overall healthier lifestyle; most of these people tend to be female, young-to-middle-aged non-smokers with lower body mass indices that favor dieting and supplements.

Is Homeopathy Unsafe?

The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) has condemned homeopathic treatments as “fundamentally flawed.” The US’s Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has a similarly negative stance, as they issued a 2016 crackdown that required companies to include disclaimers that their products were “based on traditional homeopathic practice, not accepted medical evidence.” Their concern lies in the obscurity of homeopathy; because treatments are highly individualized and lack strict guidelines, certain homeopathic medicines have been found to contain dangerous substances such as mercury, iron, or alcohol.

Advocates of homeopathy, on the other hand, blame the lack of knowledgeable practice: a Harvard study found that a mere 19% of those that use homeopathic medicine actually see a homeopathic provider. As Brown notes, “it’s very unlikely that [off-the-shelf remedies] are going to be what the patient needs.” On top of this, some claim that traditional modern medicine may even have an effect opposite to the placebo, where, for example, a doctor that tells a patient he or she has only 2 months to live will drive the prediction to come true. Most of the evidence in this argument, however, tends to be based on personal opinion.

Though there is evidence against homeopathic remedies, researchers have found little on any inherent danger in well-practiced homeopathy. Overall, more efforts should be made to understand homeopathy before making an outright condemnation.