In homeopathy, certain substances are thought to reverse, or “antidote” the action of homeopathic remedies, causing the person’s original symptoms to return. For this reason, homeopaths often suggest that their patients refrain from using even small amounts of coffee, camphor, tea tree oil, and other strong smelling substances.
Let’s look at the word antidote. Webster’s Dictionary defines it as: a medicine or other remedy that counteracts the effects of a poison.
This doesn’t really describe the process as we apply it in homeopathy–as I have understood it. Our medicines are not poisons. This vexed question of antidotes is one the homeopathic community wrestles with over and over again. So at the risk of opening a rusty old can of worms (?!) let’s take off the lid and have another look.
In my early years in practice I embraced enthusiastically everything homeopathic, including the concept of antidotes. I wrote a patient information leaflet that forbade everything from mint toothpaste to coffee ice cream and cough lozenges. I believed patients were glad to have something they could do towards their own healing. Because this is what I had been taught. I believed that my medicines were rather vulnerable, delicate, easily affected by external influences–by heat and x-rays and strong smells. I wouldn’t even let my patients touch their own remedies … the tablets they were taking. I never went to the extremes of some homeopaths who forbade their patients to cook with garlic. My Italian blood simply freaked out at the very thought!
So … about ten years ago I spotted a worrying development in my practice, in terms of the relationship between me and my patients. This is what would happen. Sometimes (as much as once a busy day) a patient would return for a follow-up consultation … typically after 4-6 weeks, and tell me they had had a nice response to their treatment–at first. There had been an improvement of some sort that lasted only a week or two and was followed by a relapse.
What concerned me was this. I noticed a certain tone creeping into my voice when I asked The Big Questions. “Did you antidote your remedy? Did you drink any coffee?” Responses varied from the indignant “Of course not!” to coy giggles and “Well I did forget this one time,” to guilty glances and “We went to Paris for the weekend and I just couldn’t resist it,” or a pathetic whine “I missed it so much, I only had one cup, surely it isn’t that bad.”
I would, of course, repeat the remedy and I’d impress upon my hapless patient the importance of obeying the rules. I don’t think I actually got out my finger and wagged it pointedly at them, or rather I hope I didn’t! But the words bad boy or bad girl definitely lingered unspoken in the air at these times.
At the other end of the spectrum there was the anxious mother who would call in a panic to ask what to do about her child who had eaten a piece of chewing gum. Or the conscientious new patient who wanted to know if he could eat the salad his wife had made because it had some mint from the garden chopped into it.
And then I remember reading about the old French homeopaths who would send their women patients home with a dose of Nux vomica for a drunken husband and instructions to put it in their unsuspecting spouse’s soup…and it worked. I remember reading this and hearing my mind skid to an abrupt stop. I wasn’t concerned about the ethical issues. I was amazed at how a remedy administered in hot soup could work. My patients were timing their 30 minutes before and after each dose with something approaching religious fervor, in order to take their remedies according to the rules about having a “clean mouth.”
I started experimenting. I crushed remedies and sprinkled them in my dog’s food. They worked. I told mothers not to worry about whether their children ate before or after a remedy. The remedies worked. A friend put her child’s remedy in his macaroni and cheese. It worked. Another patient was desperate to give her elderly parent a remedy. Her mother didn’t want a remedy. Her mother was suffering. I struggled with the ethics of this and finally relented. I suggested she put the remedy in her mother’s morning tea. It worked.
And then I reflected on my practice and the relationships I was building with my patients and added into my reflections my hopes and goals for these relationships. I realized that the many rules I had built up around my treatments were acting as constrictions and sometimes as traps. I also realized that the very notion of enforcing them made it difficult for me not to persecute my patients when they “messed up,” and this put them into an unpleasant victim-like position. Not the sort of healing relationship I had in mind.
I found out that some of my patients were lying to me, because friends of theirs squealed on them. This made me feel terrible. I had created a situation where these patients were hiding things from me. We were both acting out a most unfavorable aspect of the age-old dance of parent and child. And it was my fault. What a mess. And I found out that I was not alone. I have come across many patients who have lied to homeopaths with similarly stringent rules. When we behave like a critical parent by giving our patients rules to adhere to, we automatically bring out the scared or rebellious child part in our patients–whatever their age.
I did a complete about face. And I called it an experiment. For a whole year I did not take anybody off anything. The effects were interesting. The most immediate and palpable result was that a whole layer of tension that had settled into my practice completely melted away, disappeared. I relaxed and so did my patients. We never looked back. Actually I never went back to believing in antidotes in the same way, although I do ask my patients to avoid strong aromatic oils especially camphor, eucalyptus and peppermint (but stress that ordinary toothpastes and mint in cooking is fine).
So what happened, I hear you asking! Well, a number of patients did not improve. The number was no different from my previous year in practice. As you know, we cannot help all the people all the time, and these patients I referred to other practitioners.
Some patients improved and then relapsed. The numbers were not very different from the previous year. I realized that these were patients who had been given the wrong remedy–a similar remedy rather than the simillimum in many cases–and I worked that little bit harder to find a treatment to help them, rather than blaming coffee.
In addition, with each of these patients I checked the relationship of coffee to their remedy (at the back of Kent’s Repertory or with Dr. P. Sankaran’s Clinical Relationships), and if it was a listed antidote, I negotiated with my patient to cease and desist from drinking coffee for a period of time–again, mutually agreed upon. This worked well. If their symptoms returned when they drank coffee again, then we went back to the negotiating table and worked out a longer term plan. Now that I live in the latte capital of the world this way of working is much appreciated by patients whose morning coffee is sacrosanct!
My bottom line–for what it is worth–is this. Anything that affects a person strongly can affect any healing response including one that is due to a homeopathic medicine. Any medicine (whether it is coffee or corticosteroids or cannabis) which has a strong effect on the psyche or substance of a person can counteract a healing response, whether this positive response is due to a homeopathic medicine, an acupuncture treatment or falling in love. Patients whose nervous systems are affected by coffee, or whose headaches are brought on by alcohol need to avoid these substances, at any time but especially while they are pursuing any treatment which seeks to enable healing to take place.
I do ask whether coffee-drinking patients experience palpitations and/or the “shakes” after relatively small amounts of coffee, or find it difficult to get to sleep at night if they drink it after mid-day. Coffee is strong medicine for these people and should be avoided. These patients are well aware of this and are usually only too happy to be encouraged to do so.
I have heard of patients whose remedies have been “antidoted” by a single coffee-flavored candy. I find this very hard to believe. I wonder whether it is because the homeopath and the patient believe it so strongly that neither take the time nor the trouble to investigate other possible stresses. Our beliefs are powerful motivating forces in all our lives. To a certain extent they shape how we think, feel and behave. And to another, probably larger extent, they shape our expectations.