Homeopath, heal thyself
Bloomberg Businessweek|October 18 - 25, 2021
Natalie Grams believed—really believed—in the healing power of homeopathy. Then a health crisis of her own forced the German physician to question her faith
Sami Emory

Behind an arched stone facade in Heidelberg, Germany, Natalie Grams spent years welcoming patients into bright rooms with plastered white walls and hardwood floors. As a homeopathic physician, she listened to their concerns and prescribed tinctures, ointments, and little white pills for their ailments. People trusted her, and Grams was certain that these nontraditional treatments (echinacea for colds; arnica for muscle pain) made them better.

For her, homeopathy was more than a profession. It was something she accepted on faith and an essential part of her identity. She treated herself homeopathically and her young family, too. “I was convinced that homeopathy could heal everything, really everything,” Grams says.

Then one day in 2013 at a nearby lake, Grams fell violently ill with a viral infection. Under different circumstances, she might have turned to a tincture or those little pills, which homeopaths call globules. But there was no time. Her fever was spiking, and her sense of reality was fading away. Her family called an ambulance. Bumping along the potholed country road, the medics tried to distract Grams by inquiring about her work. When she said she was a physician, they asked what field of medicine. Vulnerable and scared, she couldn’t bring herself to tell them. These are real doctors, she thought. They save lives. They were saving her life. She couldn’t do what they did. What, then, did that make her? So she lied and said she was a general practitioner.

It would be a few more years before Grams fully turned her back on homeopathy—becoming, practically overnight, Germany’s most prominent skeptic of the practice. But that afternoon in the ambulance, she began to question her devotion. “I was, somehow, for the first time, not sure whether it was a good thing to be a homeopath,” she recalls.

The pseudoscience of homeopathy was invented in Germany in the 18th century by a maverick physician named Samuel Hahnemann. His theory was based on the ancient principle of like cures like—akin to the mechanism behind vaccines. The remedies Hahnemann developed, meant to help the body heal on its own, originate as substances that with excess exposure (like pollen) can make a patient ill (in this case, with hay fever)—or kill them: Arsenic is used as a treatment for digestive problems, and the poisonous plant belladonna is meant to counteract pain and swelling. These substances are diluted—again and again—and shaken vigorously in a process called “potentization” or “dynamization.” The resultant remedies typically contain a billionth, trillionth, or … well … a zillionth (10 to the minus 60th, if you’re counting) of the original substance.

Today, homeopathy is practiced worldwide, particularly in Britain, India, the U.S.—where there’s a monument to Hahnemann on a traffic circle six blocks north of the White House—and, especially, Germany. Practitioners, however, differ greatly in their approach. Some only prescribe remedies cataloged in homeopathic reference books. Others take a more metaphoric bent, offering treatments that contain a fragment of the Berlin Wall to cure feelings of exclusion and loneliness or a powder exposed to cellphone signals as protection from radiation emitted by mobile handsets.

Grams, the daughter of a chemist, first turned to homeopathy in 2002. While she was attending medical school to become a surgeon, a highway accident left her car in the ditch with the windshield shattered. Grams walked away unhurt, but she soon began to suffer from heart palpitations, panic attacks, and fainting spells that doctors couldn’t explain. Her roommate suggested she visit a heilpraktiker, a type of German naturopath that offers alternative therapies ranging from acupuncture and massage to reiki and homeopathy.

Homeopaths typically spend a lot of time with patients, asking not just about symptoms but also about emotions, work, and relationships. This is all meant to find the root cause of a patient’s suffering and is part of its appeal. The heilpraktiker asked Grams about her feelings and the accident, things she hadn’t spoken about with her doctors—or anyone—thinking they weren’t important in understanding what was wrong. The heilpraktiker prescribed her belladonna globules and recommended she visit a trauma therapist. Steadily, her symptoms fell away. She was healed.

Soon after, Grams dropped the idea of becoming a surgeon, opting for a future as a general practitioner while taking night courses in alternative therapies. After completing her medical degree, she began a five-year residency to qualify as a GP. But three years in, Grams abandoned conventional medicine and began an apprenticeship with a homeopath near Heidelberg.

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