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NONFOODS: Pharmacy: Like with like

You know a category is going mainstream when Wal-Mart starts selling it. That's just what's happening with homeopathic remedies, according to Peter Gold, communications director of the National Center for Homeopathy in Alexandria, Va.

"There was a time when homeopathic remedies were only sold at Whole Foods Market and a handful of hole-in-the-wall health stores," he says. "Now some of the large chains are carrying them, and Wal-Mart is a large customer of some of our members. Just the fact that Wal-Mart carries them shows how far they've come."

In the United States about 20 million to 30 million people use homeopathic remedies, according to Gold. "Worldwide, the number is staggering," he says. "In Europe alone, 40 percent to 50 percent of consumers use them."

While U.S. consumers might have a way to go to catch up with Europeans, the whole-health trend is giving the category some momentum here at home, adds Gold. As homeopathic remedies grow more prevalent in mass retail, some retailers are going so far as to hire homeopathic experts to counsel shoppers on the benefits of such treatments.

Blue Moon Grocery of Easthampton, Mass. has a full-time naturopathic doctor on staff to guide shoppers through the complex science behind these remedies. Naturopathy is a system of therapy that relies on natural remedies to treat illness.

"Many of our homeopathic customers are frustrated with traditional medicine," notes Todd Lococo, the retailer's naturopathic doctor. "They've tried regular medicine, and haven't seen results, or the symptoms returned, or they don't like the side effects."

Unpleasant or potentially dangerous side effects of conventional medications are probably the greatest driver of consumers to alternative treatments such as homeopathy. One only has to read the latest news on Vioxx to gauge consumers' growing distrust of traditional medicine. And the pharmaceutical companies can't hide these adverse effects from the public, so consumers are getting the good, the bad, and the ugly in one dose. Many times it's just bad and ugly -- especially when the cures bring undesirable effects themselves.

One prescription drug for depression, for example, lists its most common side effects as dry mouth, insomnia, sexual dysfunction, diarrhea, nausea, and sleepiness. Meanwhile, according to WebMD, symptoms of depression include loss of enjoyment from things that were once pleasurable, insomnia or excessive sleep, stomach ache and digestive problems, and sexual problems (for example, decreased sex drive).

If the cure potentially brings the much the same reaction as the symptoms, plus costs an arm and a leg to acquire, it's not hard to see how it could be frustrating for the consumer to decide on the best remedy.

Interestingly, though, homeopathic medicines use just this method -- treating symptoms with remedies that deliver similar symptoms -- to treat illnesses. Unlike with traditional medicines, however, it's done intentionally.

'Homeopathy' defined

According to a recent paper by homeopathy expert Dr. Andre Saine, homeopathy consists of "treating sick people with remedies that, in crude doses, would produce in healthy people symptoms similar (homoios) to those of the disease needing to be overcome."

Homeopathic remedies come from natural sources and are prepared in such a way that they're devoid of all chemical toxicity. In conventional medicine, drugs are generally given for their effects on the organism, while in homeopathy the unique remedy is given to provoke a reaction of the organism. Since only the living organism can heal itself, the homeopathic remedy is merely an influence used to provoke a reaction to bring about recovery. The greater the degree of similarity between the symptoms that are provoked by the remedy on a healthy person and the symptoms displayed by the person who's sick, the greater the recovery reaction will be.

The goal of the homeopathic physician is to recognize through the unique expression of symptoms of a patient the pattern of disturbed energy, and identify among a great number of remedies available the one most homeopathic, or most similar to the patient's disease.

Because such a careful diagnosis is needed, Blue Moon's Lococo recommends that retailers carrying homeopathic medicine at a minimum provide plenty of information for consumers to study, and -- whenever possible -- have an expert on staff.

Another sign of the higher acceptance of homeopathic medicine among consumers is the increased willingness of traditional doctors to endorse them.

"We have some physicians who recommend them to our customers,'" says Lococo. For example, one of them over the summer got poison ivy, and nothing else was working. He came in, I evaluated his symptoms, and the homeopathic remedies I prescribed took care of the problem."

Better yet, the patient experienced no dry mouth, sexual problems, or diarrhea from the remedy.
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