An exploration of sleep and insomnia, with a single destination in mind:
a good night's sleep.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Homeopathic Insomnia Treatment: Possibly Effective, But Not for the Reason You Think

Here's an interesting conundrum for you: Homeopathy is quackery, but homeopathic remedies resolve some people's sleep problems. How? How can homeopathic substances, which contain no biologically active ingredients and are are mere water, work for insomnia?

The answer rests in part with the powerful placebo effect. Placebos can be so potent that they even work when you know you're taking a fake medicine. But the other part of the answer has to do with the fact that sleep, perhaps more than any other aspect of biology, is interwoven with our mind as well as our body. What's cooking in your head is something that nobody else can see or know, but it can affect your sleep in powerful ways. (Who hasn't been kept up at night because of some worry?)

There are any number of homeopathic remedies for insomnia, such as aconite for sudden onset insomnia caused by fright or sadness, and coffee, used to treat insomnia that stems from a restless mind. None of these is proven to be effective, and yet all can be.

The answer also rests with the fact that sleep is highly individualistic: Conditions that are sleep-inducing for one person --a warm room illuminated with flickering candles, for instance-- might be somebody else's stay-awake nightmare. Some people can sleep on planes, but others can't.

There is no laboratory test for good sleep. There is no way for a doctor to measure if you've got a good night sleep the night before. For many medical conditions there are objective measures to tell if you'be been cured (the  fever's gone, the tumor's vanished, the bone has healed), but the only person who can tell if you've had a good night's sleep is you. Did you get a good night's sleep after taking the homeopathic remedy aconite? Did you get a second good night's sleep, too? Then all that matters is that you and dreamland are in good company. Whether or not a particular substance or device has a demonstrable effect or is a placebo is beside the point: It's the result that matters.

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