Homeopathic medicine: some people swear by it while others swear it's a racket. Up to this point, homeopathy has enjoyed a fairly hands-off approach from federal regulators, but that may soon change. At present the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require homeopathic remedies to go through the same drug-approval process as standard medical treatments, but the agency is revisiting that stance. The agency will hold two days of public hearings this week to decide whether or not to regulate homeopathic remedies in the same way the agency regulates traditional drugs. 

Homeopathy is defined as alternative treatments that use natural herbs, plants and minerals to cure ailments. It's based on the theory that "like cures like," which means if you take a dose of a substance that causes symptoms similar to those of your illness, the plant or mineral can — in theory — cure your illness, especially when that substance becomes diluted to the point that it's no longer in the solution.

The practice has been around for centuries and it's been controversial for almost as long, mainly because it's not based on any science. 

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), "there is little evidence to support homeopathy as an effective treatment for any specific condition." NIH also notes that “several key concepts of homeopathy are inconsistent with fundamental concepts of chemistry and physics.”

"Homeopathy is an excellent example of the purest form of pseudoscience," Steven Novella, a neurologist at Yale, told NPR.

But many people use these remedies every day and swear that they have helped cure their illnesses in ways that standard medicine could not. So if it's helping some people, what's the big deal?

The big deal is that homeopathy has become a big business. A 2007 survey estimated that 3.9 million adults and 910,000 children used homeopathic remedies, spending more than $2.9 billion on their treatments.

Another issue is that these treatments can have side effects and can interfere with over-the-counter and prescription medications. They could cause a placebo effect, meaning they work for a short period of time but not for the long term, causing a person's condition to worsen before they seek medical help. Someone who is using homeopathy to control diabetes, for example, is not addressing the underlying condition, putting the person at great risk — and that type of scenario is the impetus for the hearings.

The FDA will decide after those hearings whether or not to take a tougher stance on homeopathic remedies and require treatments be proven safe and effective before consumers can obtain them.

Related on MNN: