Homeopathy 101: Overdoses and Avogadro


Last week, in a forum post on mumsnet.com – a parent’s advice forum – a worried parent left the following concerned question (spelling and grammar as per the original post):

“Just found my labour preparation bottle of caulophyllum 200c Homeopathic remedy open on the floor with several of the little tablets lying next to it. Saw him chewing/sucking a few mins earlier but assumed it was the remains of our sushi. Am not panicking but wondering if anyone can advise if we should expect a level of disturbance/ill effects esp as 200c is such a high dose” – Source: Mumsnet.com

Clearly, the forum user is worried her dear child may be at risk of an overdose on her super-strength, 200c tablets. Of course, an overdose is clearly not possible. Even a homeopath will tell you that! In fact, homeopaths deny the possibility of an overdose because of the fact that homeopathy is ‘non-toxic’ and that ‘if you take fifteen tablets or five tablets (or 100 tablets for that matter) AT ONE TIME it is one dose. You will stimulate your curative response one time‘.

Cool, well that’s put my fears to rest. Except of course, that that’s clearly utter nonsense. Curative response? Non-toxic? One tablet has the same effect as one hundred tablets? Do they really think anyone is going to buy that?!

The real reason why an overdose is impossible is that there’s absolutely, completely and utterly nothing in a homeopathic tablet. It’s just water. The only way to overdose on homeopathy is if you drown.

I was a little bored, and I had the entire internet at my disposal, so I thought I’d do the maths a little – her caulophyllum solution was at 200c strength, which means one drop of caulophyllum in 99 drops of water, then a drop of that into another 99 drops of water… and so on, 200 times. Expressed mathematically, that’s:

1 in 100200 or

1 in 10400 or

1 drop of caulophyllum in a body of drops of water which number 1 followed by 400 zeroes or

1 drop of caulophyllum in 10 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 drops of water.

That’s a lot of water. And not a lot of caulophyllum in it.

Just to put that number into context, and bear with me here because these aren’t going to be exact figures – if you go to the level of one the smallest things we can measure, a proton for example, and you compare it to the size of the known universe, the ratio of scale between the two is a figure with less than 42 zeroes. So a dilution of 200c is many many many time bigger than the known universe.

What’s more, that’s also many many many many times the Avogadro limit – the limit at which in all probability there is nothing at all of the original substance remaining in the dilute. That limit is roughly 6 x 1023. A homeopathic substance of 200c is more dilute than the point at which there’s nothing left in it by an order of roughly 377 magnitudes.

If anything, her son received an under-dose.

Now, I last studied maths at A level, and chemistry at GCSE, so I urge anyone in the know to check my figures. I’ve checked over them myself, not so much because I think I’m wrong in my calculations, but more because the numbers involved are so wondrously absurd. To be double the Avogadro limit is pretty damn dilute. To beat it by 377 orders of magnitude is ludicrous. And yet, it’s for sale, and people buy it. And they use it for very serious conditions.

I checked around for what caulophyllum is used for in homeopathy. I found multiple corresponding sources, including:

“Caulophyllum 30C Homeopathic Tablets x 125 – Painful labour, Prevent Miscarriage, Menstrual Pain” – Source: Amazon.co.uk

To prevent miscarriage?! A 30c dilution is still 37 orders of magnitude past the ‘nothing left’ limit, and is very sizably bigger than our whole universe, and yet there are people who sell this to stop pregnant women losing their children?! There’s a nice home truth about your friendly neighbourhood homeopath for you. What’s more, it’s not some crazy, quack, bogus website I’ve picked that from – that’s being sold on none other than Amazon.co.uk. Come for the cheap books, stay for the magic and ineffective miscarriage-prevention.

There are a few things about this story, beyond the literally-astronomic numbers in play, that trouble me. First of all, it amazes me that someone would take a purported preventative pill at so important a time as in the final stages of pregnancy, and yet have no clue as to what she’s putting into her body. Clearly, to believe in the possibility of an overdose shows a deep lack of understanding in the realities of homeopathy.

Secondly, if she was really so concerned about an overdose, why go online to write up a blog post first? Why not call a doctor, or go to A&E? If you’d found your toddling son chewing on paracetamol, that’s exactly what you’d do.

Thirdly, and most bafflingly, who the hell feeds kids sushi anyway?!

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  1. #1 by Chris H on August 5, 2009 - 19:17

    Your numbers look fine to me! This is all simply absurd. A part of me would like to set up a homeopathic clinic, sell pills filled with water and take people’s money just to punish them for being so bloody stupid… The worst thing is that the NHS is currently paying people to “practise” homeopathy…

    Oh for Jebus’ sake… I’ve just looked on the NHS website and here are some choice quotes:

    “Despite the lack of clinical evidence, homeopathy remains a popular complementary therapy and it is available on the NHS” (http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Homeopathy/Pages/Availability.aspx)

    “Unlike doctors, nurses, and other conventional healthcare professionals, homeopaths do not have to be registered with a regulatory body. The ‘Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council’ is a voluntary organisation which practitioners can register with, but they do not have to.” (ibid.)

    “Homeopathy is a type of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). CAMs are treatments that are not based on conventional scientific theories. Other CAMS include:

    * acupuncture – where needles are placed in certain parts of the body,
    * chiropractic – where physical manipulation of the spine and joints is used to try to relieve symptoms, and
    * faith healing.” (http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Homeopathy/Pages/Introduction.aspx)

    The best bit is that the same NHS website has a “references” section which lists a meta-analysis investigating homeopathic remedies and the placebo effect (Shang et al. (2005) in The Lancet). The authors conclusion:

    “there was no convincing evidence that
    homoeopathy was superior to placebo, whereas forconventional medicine an important effect remained”

    “Biases are present in placebo-controlled trials of both homoeopathy and conventional medicine. When account was taken for these biases in the analysis, there was weak evidence for a specific effect of homoeopathic remedies, but strong evidence for specific effects of conventional interventions. This finding is compatible with the
    notion that the clinical effects of homoeopathy are placebo effects.”

    WTF!?

    Plus, the NHS is paying £4m per year for this kind of treatment (http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2009/jun/10/complementary-medicine-nhs-more4)…

  2. #2 by Mike on August 5, 2009 - 19:21

    This is the same NHS who refused to let us publish a leaflet detailing the puported mechanism of action and clinical evidence for homeopathy, because they said the “NHS Choices website covers it” and they “don’t want to confuse people”.

  3. #3 by Marsh on August 5, 2009 - 20:09

    That’s a really good point, actually. I wonder if it’s worth kicking up a bit of a fuss, sending official letters/emails of complaint – it would be pretty easy to set up a stock letter and invite people to sign and send I reckon, Simon Perry’s doing just that with Chiros. There’s a danger that Homeopaths might grow while the heat is on Chiros.

  4. #4 by Puzzle Pete on August 5, 2009 - 23:10

    Errr Sushi, raw fish, possibly contaminated with mercury? Mercury the reason dumb Mums dont like vaccinations? Shuerly shome mishtake!

  5. #5 by Colonel Molerat on August 20, 2009 - 18:14

    Nice post – it’s nice to see the numbers shown, always good for a laugh!

    One thing confuses me though – if the ratio of active ingredient to water is so great as to require a whole universe of water for one molecule of said ingredient to be present, doesn’t that fall under some kind of false advertising, since there isn’t any ingredient present in the bottle……………….

    Wooooaaaaaahhhh, alt-med thinking has just kicked in! They explain it by saying that in each dilution batch, the water somehow ‘remembers’ the ingredient, thus not needing it to be present by the end.

    How silly of me! I was being far too rational!

  6. #6 by Phil Morton on August 21, 2009 - 13:18

    Hi, I remember a memorable program on the BBC, years ago, when a skeptic NHS man, prob a consultant did a BBC programme /series on Homeopathy, including experements and research. To his chagrin the results did not match his negative “attitudes” and he changed his mindset.

    No doubt, there is other research that contradicts the above.

    Meanwhile: if my understanding is right (?) homeopathy potency becomes stronger, the weaker the concentration,…..so the joke might be: you overdose by taking to little…

    Whilst there is good reason to always be skeptical about so-called CAMs I’ve spent a lifetime going to visit GP’s , my subjective experience does not always match your aims/claims or inferrence that the NHS is grounded in evidence -based-rational-scientific thought/judgements. Of course some/most of it is. There is in my experience good GP’s and poor GP’s. Good service and poor service within the NHS. And likewise with Chiropratcors. Then, on one occaision the GP was so poor and IMHO stupid, I decided to visit a chiropractor who cured me with what I understood to be scientifically-based, rational, non invasive treatment.

    apologies for the typos
    Quack-quack phil

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