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The Thought Behind the Action - Potency: What it is and what it means

Part One

Ann Jerome Croce, PhD, CCHNewcomers to homeopathy have a lot to contend with. Remedy names may seem like Greek (they're Latin), "the simillimum" may loom as inviting and secure as a floating iceberg, and taking a thorough case may feel like fishing for back-fence gossip material. Then there are all those numbers with C's and X's after them, and once you find out what they mean, you feel certain you're off the deep end once and for all. Understanding the law of similars and the single remedy requires something of a conceptual leap into what homeopathy is all about, but grasping the full meaning of potentization takes us to the deepest core of its profound significance and its healing power.

The Process: Potent medicines

Potentization is the process by which homeopathic remedies are made. It is a series of dilutions and agitations. First, the substance from which the remedy derives is either dissolved into a tincture or ground into a powder from which a tincture is made. Then begins the process of potentization, which is what distinguishes homeopathic medicines from herbal tinctures, mineral suspensions, and other natural medicines made with whole substances. In potentization, one part of the tincture is mixed with either nine (for an X potency, X being the Roman numeral 10) or ninety-nine (for a C potency, C being the Roman numeral 100) parts of a solvent such as water or alcohol, depending on the solubility of the substance. The newly diluted mixture is then shaken vigorously, which is called succussion; now that it has been both diluted and succussed one time, the result is called 1X or 1C, depending on the proportions used in the dilution. Then one part of the 1X or 1C mixture is diluted with nine or ninety-nine parts of the solvent and succussed again, producing a 2X or 2C potency. The process continues in this same way, with each step using the product of the preceding one as the basis for the next dilution. A 10X potency, for instance, has undergone ten dilutions and succussions, with the dilutions at the ratio of one part to nine; a 30C results from thirty dilutions and succussions, the dilutions being one part to ninety-nine. Remedies with higher numbers along with their X or C are more dilute and are referred to as higher potencies because they have gone further in the potentization process.

Samuel Hahnemann, the founder of homeopathy, developed potentization as a way to create gentler medicines. Since his time, homeopaths have created higher potencies and found that the process remains dependable. Today, homeopathic pharmaceutical companies in this country produce potentized remedies under FDA supervision and according to the Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia of the United States, which sets the standards for their manufacture. Some homeopathic pharmacies employ machinery and some still create remedies by hand as Hahnemann did, but the process of serial dilution and succussion remains the same. Potencies commonly used for home care are those up to 30C; professionals may employ remedies on the X or C scale up to 200C, or higher. Past 1,000C, potency is often indicated by the Roman numeral M which stands for 1,000; 1,000C is the same as 1M.

The Paradox: Potent questions

Perhaps the most remarkable fact about potentization is that remedies become more powerful as they reach higher potencies. In other words, the more dilute a remedy, the stronger it is. However, "strong" has a different meaning here than it does with conventional medicines. As Hahnemann discovered while experimenting with potentization to create gentle medicines, potentized remedies act differently from those that remain in their original material form. The healing that a potentized remedy initiates is far more profound and inclusive of the whole person; it can, depending on the individual, heal mental and emotional problems and even chronic diseases. Rather than simply eradicating a particular physical problem, it can stimulate a higher level of health overall, so that the person becomes more resilient mentally and emotionally as well as physically. We are accustomed to thinking of "strong medicine" as that which may cause upheaval and even damage while it is serving its intended purpose, but this is a very different kind of strength. The strength of a potentized homeopathic medicine is not that of a linebacker but that of an archer: quiet, subtle, focused, and profoundly accurate.

How is all this possible? In a world where "extra strength" painkillers and cleansers crowd the shelves in stores and homes, it seems preposterous to assert that something so dilute could act so powerfully. The key is not in the dilution but in the combination of dilution and succussion. Experiments have shown that dilution alone does not produce a potentized medicine; nor does succussion alone. In fact, to characterize homeopathic remedies as "dilute" is a distortion, because they are not merely dilute. They are qualitatively different from their original state.

There is no other process that is fully analogous to potentization, but it may be helpful to compare it with distillation. Distilling a liquid removes certain of its components and retains others, creating a product which is in some ways similar and in some ways different from its source. The potentization process is like distillation in that certain properties of the original substance are gradually winnowed away while others are retained; in potentization, though, the aspects of the substance which remain are changed and even intensified by the process. Specifically, the material structure of the substance fades away while its energetic aspect is magnified.

Potentization, like much of cutting-edge science today, challenges the modern conception of matter. Generally, a remedy above the 12C potency contains no molecules of the substance from which it was made, and yet it has properties which stimulate healing and which are unique to that remedy alone. In other words, even without the molecules that identify it in its material form, the remedy still has qualities that belong to it and not to any other remedy. Moreover, the more highly potentized the remedy, the more clearly these other qualities come through, both in provings and in healing. We can infer that there is something other than molecules that makes substances unique, something that becomes stronger in the process of potentization. This has been described as the energetic aspect of the substance, and sometimes homeopaths use the analogy of electricity or resonance to explain its action, saying that the remedy works by "conveying a charge" to the patient or by matching the patient's "resonant frequency."

Partly because of this analogy, homeopathy has come to be known as "energy medicine."

Implications: Potent meanings

The observation that potentized medicines actually do work is a challenge to our accustomed ways of thinking. Culturally schooled in the twentieth-century concept of nature as essentially mechanistic, we have tremendous difficulty believing that such "dilute" medicines can work, even when we have experienced their power ourselves. If potentization makes credibility difficult for those who have seen homeopathy's effectiveness, it poses an enormous challenge to homeopathy's wider introduction in health care. At the same time, exploring its implications can lead us not only to a much deeper understanding of health but also to new questions about the nature of reality.

Ever since Descartes, western culture has accepted the idea of dualism, that mind and body—or spirit and matter—are two separate things, that they operate by different rules and mechanisms and that they have entirely different properties. By this reasoning, it seems preposterous that a non-material entity such as a potentized remedy could have any effect on the material body. How can a medicine with no detectable molecules of anything but water cause swelling to recede, bleeding to stop, high blood pressure to come down, and depression to vanish? And yet these experiences and others like them are commonplace in homeopathy.

They happen because the potentized remedy speaks the same language as the vital force. Instead of acting directly on the material body as material medicines do, potentized medicines stimulate the vital force to create material results. Measurable changes such as normalized white cell count, improved hormone levels, and shrinking cysts may follow the administration of a remedy, but not because the remedy has produced them directly. The remedy addresses the vital force, which is the power that animates the whole organism and which is no more "material" than the remedy itself.

In a sense, potentized medicines are a bridge between the physical and the metaphysical. Beginning in material substances and ending in the realm of the vital force, they span the two sides of the universe that the twentieth century saw as irreconcilably divided. Behind the fact that potentized remedies can stimulate such profound healing, behind the fact that they address the whole person, is the even more significant suggestion they make: that matter and energy, body and spirit, are not so far apart from one another after all.

About the author:

Ann Jerome Croce, PhD, CCH, is a tenured Professor of American Studies at Stetson University, having earned her BA at Yale and MA/PhD at Brown University. She is also a homeopathic assistant to Joya Lynn Schoen, MD, in Orlando, Florida; teaches "A Course in Classical Homeopathy" for practitioners; and has authored numerous articles for homeopathic and other scholarly journals.