Alternative medicine: General principles

Last updated: Sunday, July 12, 2015

1. Herbal medicine

Herbalists use plant-derived medicines at doses where true pharmacological effects can occur and can be measured. This is in contrast to homeopathic medicine (see below).

2. Homeopathic medicine

Homeopathic pharmacy in India      
Courtesy of Jorge Ryan, Wikimedia Commons
The two main principles of homeopathic medicine are that:

  • ‘Like cures like’ – a patient’s symptoms are treated with a medicine that causes the same effects but in a very much smaller dose.

  • The more dilute a preparation, the more potent it is.

Plants yield most of the original ingredients in homeopathic medicines. The first step is to prepare a mother tincture with alcohol. Then the tincture undergoes repeated dilution followed by vigorous shaking (called ‘succussing’). Two systems of dilution exist for homeopathic remedies - decimal ('x') and centesimal ('c') - but the strengths 6c and 30c are common. It is worth noting that dilutions of more than 12c or 24x are unlikely to contain any molecules of the active ingredients.

3. Dietary supplements

In the UK, dietary supplements are defined as ‘foods’ in unit dosage form (e.g. tablets, capsules, elixirs) taken to supplement the diet. Most are products containing nutrients normally present in foods. They are used by the body to develop cells, bone, muscle etc., to replace co-enzymes depleted by infection and illness, and to generally maintain good health. In addition to vitamins and minerals, this definition also includes supplements such as garlic and evening primrose oil.