Homeopathy, Environmental Toxins and Detoxification
Shandor Weiss, ND, LAc
All forms of life are exposed to natural toxins from the environment. Natural exogenous toxins come from bacteria, molds, mineral, plant and animal poisons, smoke, volcanic fumes, ultraviolet light and so on. All forms of life also create endogenous toxins. For the most part, living beings have adapted to both exogenous and endogenous natural toxins and have found ways to avoid, neutralize and/or eliminate them as a normal biological function. As long as humans lived a natural life, the degree of toxic damage to individuals and larger populations was minimal. But as people became more civilized they lived in larger and more concentrated communities, and they concentrated and changed raw materials and their toxic products through farming, technology and industry. These changes increased the proportion of diseases caused by toxicity. To the extent that humans have created unnatural living conditions, NDs and other physicians have had to increasingly treat toxicity as a cause of disease.
Even before the Industrial Revolution, mining, metallurgy and the practice of medicine had increased the exposure of naturally toxic substances like lead, arsenic and mercury to unnatural levels. Of course, with industrialization and population growth, humanity’s exposure to pollutants has escalated. Nowadays we are well aware of the problems. We may even think of toxicity as a problem of modern times. But before the introduction of xenobiotic compounds starting in the mid-20th century – before the arrival of synthetic drugs, pesticides, herbicides and plastics, and before the modern proliferation of radioactive materials, heavy metals and electromagnetic fields – people were poisoned extensively. By the time naturopathic medicine became a distinct profession, humanity had been toxic for centuries.
In addition to a long history of environmental exposure to toxins, humanity has accumulated toxicity through inheritance. Not only have children inherited the sick environment of their parents, but the mother’s toxic burdens also pass directly into the developing fetus. The baby is born toxic, and then becomes more toxic from drinking contaminated breast milk. To make matters worse, the ova and sperm of the developing fetus are also affected by toxins, increasing the likelihood of genetic damage in the third generation and beyond. Since many of the health effects of chronic, low-level poisoning are indistinguishable from common maladies like allergies, arthritis, cancer, immune depression and auto-immune diseases, it has become difficult to tell which illnesses are truly inherited or acquired, and which are caused by current or inherited environmental toxicity. One thing that we can be certain of, though, is that virtually everyone on the planet suffers from a toxicity miasm that has been growing and accumulating in proportion to the growth of civilization and the proliferation of xenobiotics.
Homeopathy in Nature
It’s even possible that environmental toxins and nature have created “natural” homeopathic remedies out of toxins, and that humanity has been “proving” these “remedies” for a long time. Pesticides, metals, drugs, plastics and so on are often found in minutely diluted concentrations in the air, water and soil. This is similar to the “dilution” step when making a homeopathic medicine. The next steps, those of succussing or percussing along with continuing dilutions, could be occurring as natural waterways flow, tumble, fall, swirl and mix with more water, as toxins travel down a watershed from small streams to large rivers. Isn’t this very much like making a homeopathic remedy? Similarly, toxins in the air are mixed and diluted as the wind percusses them against objects and particulates and gases in the air, spreading from a high concentration near the source, to lower and lower concentrations (higher potencies). In fact, just the movement of kinetic energy in solutions is a form of percussion. The same process may be happening in soil particles that have absorbed toxins like pesticides and metals, as they are eroded and washed into gullies, streams, rivers and oceans and mixed with more soil, sand or sediment.
Nature has become a vast homeopathic laboratory, and we all are constantly taking in homeopathic toxins in addition to “regular” toxins. People who are sensitive to these natural toxin remedies may be proving them and having symptoms from them, even if they are not actually toxic. This may explain why some hypersensitive patients can become ill from exposure to toxins at levels below a few parts per billion. Such concentrations fall within the range of low-potency homeopathic remedies.
The point is, we are more toxic than many of us realize. Our toxicity has been going on for a long time, and toxicity is affecting us in a variety of ways.
Early Toxic Cleansing
The naturopathic paradigm has always viewed toxicity as a major contributor to the cause of disease. From the beginning, NDs were trying to rid their patients of toxins in order to restore health. Most of us probably associate early naturopathic detoxification with images of enemas and colonics, massage, hydrotherapy, saunas, herbs, fasting and cleansing diets. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg made these treatments famous at his Battle Creek Sanitarium, which was shown in our time to the public in the 1994 film, “The Road to Wellville.” At this time the popular concept of detoxification and its goal, was bowel cleansing. This was appropriate at the time, as many people did have toxicity from poor diet and impaired bowel health. These toxins were of the “classical” type, caused by slow bowel transit time, putrefaction and absorption of toxic waste products. This was a common problem because:
- The population was shifting from rural/agricultural to urban living
- There was no rapid food preservation and distribution system as there is now, so in the urban centers there was a lack of fresh produce, grains, legumes, etc. (fiber)
- Food was often contaminated with micro-organisms and/or parasites
- There was an almost ubiquitous use of narcotic prescription and over-the-counter medicines, which led to widespread constipation
All this led to “bowel cleansing” as the goal of early “modern” detoxification. Of course, now we know that detoxification goes beyond bowel cleansing. Even though maintaining normal bowel function is important, the introduction of more and more xenobiotics has shifted the paradigm in detoxing from bowel cleansing to liver detoxing to cellular detoxing and beyond.
Like Cures Like
Even though we tend to think that detoxification started with bowel cleansing (historically, and perhaps personally), before the use of enemas, colonics, purgatives and so on, homeopathy was an earlier detoxification therapy. In fact, homeopathy was probably the first modern system of medicine to specifically treat toxicity from environmental sources. By its very nature, homeopathy is based on the study of toxicology. The Materia Medica of a remedy is composed of the gross toxicology of a substance, the provings of potentized dilutions and cured cases. For example, in the discussion on the remedy Mercurius, Clarke states, “To the symptoms of Hahnemann’s pathogenesis of Merc. sol. are added observed effects of Mercury in those engaged in working with the metal, in patients taking Mercury and effects in those applying mercurial injunctions to patients. … There is no difference between these effects and the symptoms of the proving so far as the general characteristics are concerned (Clarke, 1985, p. 439).” By proving remedies in potentized forms, homeopaths developed far more information on a substance’s toxicology than toxicologists ever did. In fact, homeopathic doctors are the most informed toxicologists in the world. By combining gross and subtle symptoms, homeopaths can diagnose toxicity due to outright and acute poisoning, chronic subclinical toxicity, and vitalistic or energetic toxicity.
Early homeopathic literature abounds with examples and stories of accidental, medical and industrial or occupational poisoning, and its treatment with potentized substances. Many of the most common remedies are poisons made into powerful medicines to act against poisons. Clarke describes Mercurius under Relations as an antidote for “ailments from Arsenic or Copper vapours” (Clarke, 1985, p. 443). In the discussion of antidotes under Arsenicum album, Clarke describes various natural antidotes to arsenic poisoning such as milk and charcoal (Clarke, 1985, p.179). The same author describes Petroleum as an “Antidote to: Lead poisoning (one of the best remedies)” (Clarke, 1985, p. 746). Nux vomica is famous for its use with people who have taken many drugs, and to treat the (toxic) effects of excess alcohol consumption. The most frequently used homeopathic remedy, Sulphur, is prescribed for “ailments from abuse of metals generally” (Clarke, 1985, p.1306). Kent’s Repertory lists many remedies for the treatment of poisoning in the Generals chapter, under headings such as Arsenical poisoning; Mercury, abuse of; Coal gas, from; Copper fumes agg.; Iod, abuse of, after; Lead, chronic effects of; Narcotics, morphinismus; Sensitiveness, to drugs; Silica, from overuse of; Stone-cutters, for; and other entries.
Due to the widespread occurrence of medical and industrial poisoning, early homeopaths were well aware of cases caused by toxicity. They then proceeded to treat the patient based on the principle that like cures like, matching the right remedy to the patient’s symptoms. For example, Clarke describes the treatment of a 2½-year-old boy who swallowed a bottle of petroleum (paraffin oil). A month after drinking the oil, the boy was still sick with “Appetite bad. Pale, dark rings round eyes. … seems to collapse; … will not play … Cold sweat in bed, … burning heat; then goes cold and clammy. I prescribed Phos. 2.” Even though Clarke knew the boy was poisoned by petroleum, he started treatment by prescribing Phos. based on the simillimum. He goes on to describe treatment of the boy over the next three years, culminating in the curative prescription of Petrol. 30 (Clarke, 1985, p.743). There are countless examples in the homeopathic literature of cases cured by administering the homeopathic version of the same substance with which the patient was poisoned. In addition, at least one study has shown that a homeopathic poison (arsenic) increases elimination of crude doses of the same poison, at least in rats (Cazin et al., 1987).
Sometimes remedies were used to treat toxicity that was different than the original toxin, and sometimes the poisoning was treated with the homeopathic equivalent of the agent of poisoning. In actuality, it is probably impossible to distinguish between remedies that are “the same” and “similar,” even though it is common to discuss this issue in homeopathic circles. That’s because substances and medicines change anyway. For example, DDT converts to DDE over time in our bodies. If we use homeopathic DDT to treat past DDT exposure, are we using the same or a similar medicine? It’s the same as the original toxin, but only similar to the form of the toxin now affecting us. Similarly, the remedy Mercurius is not the same at all as the mercury in our bodies from dental fillings. One of the brilliant discoveries of homeopathic medicine may be that the most popular remedies are similar to, but not the same as, the substances that humanity is most toxic from.
What’s more important than believing or not believing in using the same or the similar homeopathic detoxification remedy is knowing whether one is or is not treating toxicity. Homeopathic medicine is the most powerful detoxification therapy I know of. It should be used carefully. A problem can occur if we think of homeopathy only as the practice of “like cures like.” We tend to forget that toxicity may be involved because of our focus on getting the “right” remedy. But what if the patient’s symptoms are not just a vitalistic simillimum? What if the patient really is toxic? Before finding the remedy, wouldn’t it help to diagnose the cause?
For example, we often use Mercurius for cases in which the symptoms look like those of Mercury as described in the homeopathic Materia Medicas. But if the patient has a mouthful of mercury amalgam fillings, it is a certainty that he or she has mercury toxicity. That’s because:
- It has been proven that mercury is released over time from these fillings
- It is absorbed by the “victim” and is retained in various tissues
- Because mercury is only toxic, and any amount is toxic
Therefore, anyone with mercury amalgam fillings has mercury toxicity. It’s a fact.
So, should we prescribe homeopathic Merc. for patients with symptoms that match the remedy picture, and who have mercury amalgam fillings? And if we do, are we treating the cause and the whole person? Or should we consider removal of the fillings and mercury detoxification as treating the cause?
As NDs, we might start treatment by discussing the problems of mercury toxicity, dental fillings and other environmental and dietary sources. We might present a treatment plan involving replacement of the amalgam fillings and a detoxification program using nutrition and/or chelation therapy. We might even work on improving general health first before attempting dental work or detoxification. If we know that toxicity is involved, we might want to treat some of the toxin-induced damage before releasing more toxins from stored deposits in body tissues, which could occur from either dental work and/or homeopathic treatment. If we do use homeopathic medicine to begin with, knowing that the patient is toxic might lead to a low-potency prescription instead of a high-potency one. Or we might use drainage remedies first, without trying to start by directly targeting the toxins.
I have learned not to ignore these issues in treating toxicity the hard way: from mistakes made in treating patients. Unfortunately, my patients have had an even harder time of it. More than once I have caused a patient to be sick in bed for a week, barely able to move and in constant pain just from taking one dose of a low-potency homeopathic toxin. A chronic fatigue/multiple chemical sensitivity patient I had used to be bedridden like that after taking a dose of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) 6C. See the accompanying Case Study for a more detailed example.
Homeopathy and Modern Toxins
When it comes to treating people for modern toxins, the homeopathic literature is often of no help. Neither is the industrial literature on product safety, nor government information on toxicology. The Toxicology Profile for 4,4’-DDT, 4,4’-DDE and 4,4’-DDD (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 1993) didn’t help me when a 12-month-old male was brought into my office for treatment of failure to thrive. He had had diarrhea since birth and poor appetite, with almost no weight gain or growth. The parents felt he wasn’t absorbing any nutrients. Electrodermal testing indicated that DDT toxicity was the cause of problems. The only treatment was homeopathic DDT 6C TID for one month. At the end of the month I learned that the child had regained a normal appetite, was eating well, had no diarrhea, looked and acted healthy and was gaining weight. This didn’t make much sense at the time. The child had been sick since birth; apparently he had DDT toxicity and yet the parents ate mostly organic food. The probable explanation was that the mother had been exposed to DDT earlier in her life, had stored it in adipose tissue and during pregnancy had released stored deposits from fat utilized to meet increased caloric demands. The DDT was then passed on to the fetus and the nursing infant (National Research Council, 1993). Since that episode there has been a lot of verification of the presence of DDT and other toxins in the breast milk of nursing mothers.
I have treated many people for DDT toxicity. Most people in the country have measurable levels of DDT or its breakdown products in their bodies. Women with breast cancer have four times the levels of DDT in their blood as women who don’t have breast cancer. Breast cancer risks were elevated at levels as low as 19 parts per billion (Wolff, 1993). Exposure could have been in utero or in childhood. Many patients doubt they could be toxic, due to years of healthy diet and lifestyles. But chemicals like DDT don’t respect health righteousness. They will stay deposited for decades in anyone’s fat cells, whether the fat is made from hamburgers, candy bars, brown rice or tofu. In my practice, the conditions most often associated with chronic subclinical DDT toxicity are allergies, autoimmune diseases (MS, ALS, Parkinson’s), cancer and multiple chemical sensitivity or chronic fatigue syndrome. Many of my patients with DDT toxicity can remember using it around the home, running behind the mosquito trucks spraying it in the summer to cool off in the spray, or having other notable exposures. On the other hand, many patients don’t know of or remember exposures to environmental toxins.
The first time I was ever tested with electrodermal techniques, the doctor’s first words were, “You have DDT toxicity.” I was still a student in naturopathic school at the time. I was stunned, because I instinctively knew it was true. I flashed back to the days of my youth, growing up on the shores of an estuary near the coast of central New Jersey. We caught or gathered fish and shellfish from the brackish river and ate them frequently. We also ate a lot of seafood that was caught locally in the ocean. The local ospreys, who also ate the same food, used to number in the hundreds. As I grew up, they all died off due to DDT poisoning. The DDT came from many sources, including widespread aerial spraying to control Gypsy moths. I also remembered riding my bike behind the truck that sprayed DDT to control mosquitoes in order to cool off on a hot summer day. Later I found out that my family also used DDT all around the yard. To make matters worse, I had become a vegetarian in my early teen years, and had become protein deficient. Vegetarians, if they (and others) are protein malnourished, have the most toxicity per exposure levels. (That’s because the liver needs amino acids to detoxify.)
Our own toxicity links us to the environmental poisoning of the planet and all other living things. When I found out that I had DDT toxicity, I had an epiphany about why I felt so deeply affected from learning about and witnessing environmental toxicity as I was growing up: what I saw we were doing to nature, we were doing to ourselves, also. I knew this intellectually, from reading books like Silent Spring and by reading journal articles on environmental toxicity (which I started doing when I was about 14 years old). I felt sadness for nature and for the animals that we knew were being poisoned (birds of prey, seals, etc.). But I didn’t really know that I, too, was being poisoned.
Of course, now many more of us are aware of how widespread environmental health hazards really are. “Green” has become the new cultural buzzword, and has even been taken over by corporate America, as has “organic.” But we still don’t know how each of us, individually, is affected by environmental toxins. In fact, some of what is considered “green” is actually toxic to health. By finding environmental toxins in our patients, and by relating those toxins to specific symptoms or illnesses, we can bring the “green” movement home in a deeply meaningful way. I have gotten thousands of people (as patients) to eat organic and live in a more non-toxic way by showing them the link between commonly used food and household toxins, and their own poor health. There is nothing like showing a patient with cancer that her cancer is from using a household spray pesticide all the time at home, to get her to stop using pesticides. One’s own health is a powerful motivator.
Diagnosing and treating environmental toxicity requires that the doctor be a detective. Of course, lab tests such as hair analysis, blood tests, urinalysis and liver detoxification profiles are available and can be useful for finding metals, chemicals, oxidative stress, detox capacity and so on. But lab tests don’t reveal the vital force of the patient from a homeopathic perspective. Lab results do not necessarily correspond or help with selecting the right remedy, knowing which layer to treat and other peculiarities of homeopathic prescribing and detoxing. For example, a patient’s lab test may show mercury toxicity, but the patient may not be ready for mercury detoxification. Toxins, like other obstacles to health, can occur in layers. Treating the right layer at the right time can be very important.
For finding and treating toxicity from “old” toxins like lead and mercury, the classical approach based on case taking and homeopathic literature is an excellent method. For newer toxins like DDT and PCB, it works better to “read” the patient with other methods of evaluating the vital force. I prefer electrodermal testing, otherwise known as electroacupuncture according to Voll (EAV), although other methods like applied kinesiology (AK) can work well, too. The method of evaluating vital force is not as important as remembering that the patient – not the doctor – is the one with the most critical information for curing the case. The best place to learn about homeopathy and environmental toxicity is from the patient.
In addition to the classical approach and the use of EAV or AK, homeopathic detoxification can be done with drainage remedies and detox formulas. A number of vendors make homeopathic formulas for drainage and the targeting of specific classes of toxins such as metals, pesticides or petroleum products. These formulas can be useful, but like other types of homeopathic formulas, they might not be as effective or as well tolerated as more precise prescribing methods. Exceptions are when a formula is made specifically for the patient based on EAV or other vital force measurements, or when standard formulas are indicated based on such testing. Some medicine manufacturers make better homeopathic detox formulas than others. If formulas are used, it is important to select a brand or product line that uses energetic testing to devise the formula.
As with the rest of homeopathy, the mechanism of homeopathic detoxification is unknown. One could speculate it is similar to allergy desensitization or immunization, that it affects toxins at receptor sites, or simply improves blood and lymph circulation, kidney and liver function, and increases the vital force. However it works, though, it is clear that homeopathy works for detoxification and related treatments. It is also probable that much of homeopathy’s effectiveness throughout its history is due to its ability to detoxify. In fact, all the homeopathic remedies can be seen as potential catalysts of detoxification, whether or not we are aware that detoxification is occurring.
This patient was a woman in her mid-30s. Her chief complaint was sores in her mouth and on her body. They were always present since starting one year earlier, three days after she had stopped smoking cigarettes. Each sore started as a small dot, grew to a large white circle, then indurated and ulcerated as it healed over a two- to three-week period. There were dull aches or sharp shooting pains, waking her at 2 a.m. and keeping her up for hours. She cried from pain. Occasionally there would be a yellow-green discharge with streaks of blood from the indurated ulcers. There were also sores on the lower legs, ankles and forearms like those in the mouth. They appeared wherever her skin was cut or bruised. On her legs the sores started as a deep ache within the muscle, then it would rise to the surface and erupt as a .5 to 1.5cm indurated, ulcerated scarring sore. The woman’s gums bled easily, and she also perspired very easily. At the time she was on prednisone PRN, about 12 20mg doses a week. I treated her with one dose of Merc. 200C. It made her a lot worse. I then tried other remedies, but she lost hope and stopped coming in.
To my surprise, this woman returned to see me about three years later. She had been to a major university medical center for one week, incapacitated with infections and sores. There was no firm diagnosis, but doctors thought she might have Behcet’s syndrome, a multi-system inflammatory condition of unknown etiology. She was treated with antibiotics and 40mg of prednisone a day. She had returned because a friend had sent her an article about the neighborhood in which she grew up. There was a photo of the house she used to live in. The whole neighborhood had been declared a toxic waste site, contaminated by a local industry. The area was condemned. She knew I worked with environmental toxins and, even though she forgot the name of the toxin, she thought that I could find the toxin that she had been exposed to and treat her for it. She thought it may be related to her illness.
According to electrodermal testing, the toxin was PCB. When I mentioned it, she remembered that that was the name of the chemical in the article. I treated her with homeopathic PCB and some botanical and nutritional support for detoxification. She improved slightly. Because she couldn’t afford much treatment, I showed her how to keep diluting the remedy on her own, and suggested she could treat herself that way for as long as it seemed to keep helping. It did help some, but her condition continued.
After about two years the patient returned. She had had a dream in which I appeared, standing in a pool of water, holding up a very large jar filled with something. I said, “Mercury” to her, and then the dream ended. She remembered that I had given homeopathic mercury to her years before, so she came back to see me for another dose of mercury. Not wanting to repeat an aggravation, I gave her Merc. 6C and told her to be very careful with it (i.e., to try one dose and wait to see the effects before taking another dose). We also discussed her amalgam (i.e., mercury) fillings, of which she had many. She decided to gradually replace them as she could afford it.
This case revealed many lessons. One of them was to think of toxicity and not just of finding the right remedy. Even though Merc. was absolutely the “right” remedy based on classical homeopathic criteria, the reason it seemed right was that the patient was actually suffering from mercury poisoning. She wasn’t just exhibiting symptoms that mysteriously “looked like” mercury.
Shandor Weiss, ND started the Arura Clinic in Ashland in 1989. Licensed by the state of Oregon as an ND and acupuncturist, he also has specialty training in homeopathy, environmental and body-mind medicine. Dr. Weiss received his undergraduate degree in ecology and environmental studies from Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., then moved to Berkeley, Calif, to study natural and holistic healing. He completed his education in Portland, graduating in 1988 from NCNM and the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine. Dr. Weiss served as a research consultant to the National Institute of Health’s Office of Alternative Medicine; has written many lay and professional articles on health; and enjoys reaching the public through lectures, teaching, radio and television. As an ND, Dr. Weiss integrates environmental medicine and an ecological model of evaluating patients as an integral part of his practice.
Clarke JH: Dictionary of Practical Materia Medica (vol II, 1st ed). New Delhi, 1985, B. Jain Publishers, p. 439, 443.
Clarke JH: Dictionary of Practical Materia Medica (vol I, 1st ed). New Delhi, 1985, B. Jain Publishers, p. 179.
Clarke JH: Dictionary of Practical Materia Medica (vol III, 1st ed). New Delhi, 1985, B. Jain Publishers, p. 743, 746, 1306.
Cazin JC et al: A study of the effect of decimal and centesimal dilutions of arsenic on the retention and mobilization of arsenic in the rat, Human Toxicol 6:315-320, 1987.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry: Toxicology Profile for 4,4’-DDT, 4,4’-DDE and 4,4’-DDD. CITY, 1993, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Public Health Service.
National Research Council (U.S.) Committee on Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children: Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children. Washington, D.C., 1993, National Academy Press, pp. 240-41.
Wolff MS: New York University women’s health study, Journal of the National Cancer Institute April 21, 1993.