Chronic colitis caused Beth Sheets more than pain in the gut. The 40-year-old couldn't leave home for more than a couple hours or wear clothes that didn't stretch with her swollen stomach.
Specialists ordered antibiotics and ran numerous tests before telling Sheets that she should resign herself to the condition if she was unwilling to take prescription steroids.
"I didn't want the side effects," the Medford resident says. "Somewhere inside, I knew that my body could heal itself."
So did Dr. Lissa McNiel, a Medford naturopathic physician, who prescribed Sheets two homeopathic remedies: extracts of lycopodium — a species of club moss — and gelsemium, a type of evergreen vine. Within a few weeks, Sheets started feeling better. More than two years later, her gastrointestinal system functions normally.
"For me, it has been an absolute world of difference," Sheet says. "My body's holding onto nutrients that it wasn't holding onto before."
Sheets' belief that her healing could happen naturally is inherent to the discipline of homeopathy, developed in 1796 by the German physician Samuel Hahnemann and still widely used in Europe.
"Homeopathy is quintessentially ... a form of medicine that stimulates the body to heal on its own," says Dr. Daniel Smith, a naturopathic physician practicing in Medford and Klamath Falls.
Smith treats 90 percent of his patients with homeopathy, whether it's for acute symptoms or their "constitutions." Constitutional care, often thought of as "classical" homeopathy, requires practitioners to conduct in-depth interviews with patients and then analyze not just their diets, physical activities and lifestyle habits, but "how they exist in the world," Smith says.
"We really spend a lot of time with our patients getting to know them as individuals."
Practitioners like Smith can then develop a regimen of remedies from thousands obtained from plants, animals, minerals and salts. These substances are combined with alcohol to make tinctures, which are diluted hundreds or even thousands of times before being administered.
An "average" dilution, Smith says, is 30c, which represents an "infinitessimal" part of the original substance, according to the Society of Homeopaths Web site. After each dilution, the mixture is vigorously agitated in a machine calibrated to perform a specific amount of shaking, a process called succussion, thought to imprint the healing energy of the substance throughout the water, according to Society of Homeopaths.
"You could call it energy," Smith says. "You could call it whatever you want."
Smith says it no more matters that a homeopathic preparation's derivative can't be scientifically quantified than it matters what virus has invaded a patient's body. Identifying and treating symptoms are the relevant procedures in homeopathy, he says, because symptoms indicate a blockage in the body's ability to heal itself.
"It's going to be as gentle and friendly a healing method as possible."
While McNiel says she believes homeopathy can be effective, it's best when combined with other approaches. For Sheets, McNiel also conducted blood tests and identified foods that should be eliminated from Sheets' diet. When she eats any of those taboo foods — dairy, yeast, corn, asparagus or copious quantities of greens — Sheets takes her homeopathic remedies, administered in a sugar tablet that dissolves under the tongue.
"It's not wacko," Sheets says. "The elements are available for our health, and we've lost the ability to know what those are."
To know she's prescribing the correct remedy, McNiel enters patients' symptoms in a computer program that cross-references them, checking against numerous homeopathic tinctures. The software could yield a different prescription for every patient, even if some shared certain symptoms.
"There can be a hundred different remedies for diarrhea — probably more like a thousand remedies," McNiel says. "That's why you have to match it with other symptoms."
In Sheets' case, the remedy was clear.
"Her symptoms were so classic, and that's when I usually use homeopathy," McNiel says. "I knew the remedies very well."
McNiel cautions, however, that the remedies she prescribed for Sheets wouldn't necessarily work the same for someone else. And even if a remedy is initially effective, it likely won't help forever because a patient's health is always changing, says Dr. Janel Guyette, an Ashland integrative family practitioner.
"Our bodies are a dynamic process," Guyette says.
Like McNiel, Guyette uses homeopathy in conjunction with other treatments and typically for acute symptoms. While some of her patients perceive homeopathy as safer than pharmaceuticals, others become interested in the discipline while inquiring about alternatives to conventional Western medicine. Guyette can attest, from personal experience no less, that homeopathy is a valid medical option.
Suffering a serious accident last year that injured one of her legs, Guyette tried prescription medication for pain but, instead of relief, felt sickening side effects. She switched to arnica flower in a 30c homeopathic preparation available over the counter. After a week, it had "greatly diminished" her pain.
"It was incredible," she says.
Guyette cautions that although arnica is widely used by homeopaths to speed healing, everyone's body repairs itself at a unique pace, regardless of the remedy. Yet keeping a few common homeopathic formulas like arnica on hand to treat acute conditions is inexpensive, McNiel says, adding that vials containing more than 50 doses range in price from $5 to $12.
Sheets paid less for her homeopathic prescriptions than for pharmaceutical drugs, but her insurance didn't cover the most costly component of care: McNiel's office fees and analyses. But Sheets says she would rather stretch her household budget than settle for being ill.
"I just wanted to be healthy."
More and more insurance plans are starting to cover naturopathic treatments, Smith says, amid growing interest in homeopathy and disillusionment with conventional medicine. Part of homeopathy's allure, he says, is likely the simple fact that patients see results even if they can't be explained to science's satisfaction.
"There's something very magical about homeopathy."