10:23

This post was written by Liz Stephens on February 2, 2010
Posted Under: Health Care

I did something different this Saturday. I stood in a freezing park in London and took a deliberate overdose of tablets in the company of some of the UK’s most well known scientists.

No I haven’t joined some kind of doomsday cult. In fact, none of us were ever at any risk. We were overdosing on homeopathic remedies…

For those of you who don’t know what homeopathic remedies are (I know I didn’t understand it until recently) I suggest looking at this website. Homeopathy means taking a (usually scary sounding) active ingredient like Nux Vom (Strychnine), Belladona(Deadly Nightshade) or Arnica and diluting it to 30C – in other words until there is 0.000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 1% active ingredient in each tablet. To put this in perspective, there is probably about as much of Julius Caesar in the tap water of Rome than there is active ingredient in these tablets. However, homeopaths claim that water retains a memory of the substance, which has a therapeutic effect. They then mix this water ‘solution’ with sugar and lactose and it retails for £4.99. A packet of sweetener costs £1.

Although the tablets themselves are not dangerous, people sometimes take them instead of taking actual medication in the belief they will cure real illnesses – and that is potentially dangerous. So last Saturday, a group of scientists decided to stage a publicity stunt to draw attention to this.

It would have been easy for me as a journalist to just report on this story and let this bunch of sceptics take the ‘risk’. Except I am also a sceptic so I wanted to know for myself. And having had only 5 hours sleep the night before the stunt, I desperately needed some sugar…

So on Saturday morning I found myself getting out of bed at the ungodly hour favoured by a bunch of atheists to stand in the freezing cold outside Conway Hall in London. After deliberation I selected some Sepia (Cuttlefish ink) tablets for the job – they had an old school photographic appeal. The packaging said you should only take two. Presumably in case you are a diabetic.

Among my fellow overdosers were Simon Singh, Lib Dem MP Dr Evan Harris and the comedian Dave Gorman. There were also about 80 other protestors, some of whom had travelled across the country to take part in the stunt (and got up much earlier than me).

I had to film everyone taking their tablets first and then take mine afterwards. This was not a cunning plan to watch and see if anyone dropped dead before following suit – it’s just impossible to overdose and shoot good hand-held footage at the same time.

Watching a mass overdose ought to be spine chilling. It ought to make you think of KoolAid and Waco but unfortunately there is something undeniably comical about a whole load of people making the same action at the same time. It’s like synchronised swimming.

What was even more amusing was that, for the benefit of the hungry media, the protestors had to simulate the overdose a further 4 times so everyone could get good footage. If you can just imagine a bunch of press photographers shouting “Simon, could you just overdose again for me please?”…

Finally, the time came for me to take my own overdose. This was harder than I had hoped because while everyone else managed to take the end off their tubes and dispense all the tablets into their palm at once for dramatic effect, my tube malfunctioned. I was forced to dispense the tablets one by one into my hand like Pez – a frustratingly slow protest.

Eventually I managed to pop out a handful – enough for a serious attempt – and with my friend the mathematician and comedian Matt Parker holding the camera I knocked back the tablets – without a drink. I figured the tablets were diluted enough already without washing them down with water.

It’s now three days later and nothing has happened to me whatsoever. I feel no more or less healthy than I did prior to the overdose and I felt no more or less healthy immediately after the overdose either. It’s an unscientific form of research – and it was never meant to be anything but: it’s a publicity stunt. For the purpose of legality, I should say that I do not condone or encourage you to take an overdose of anything at all (however benign) – this was a personal decision to prove a point.

The NHS currently spends somewhere in the region of £4 million on homeopathy – money which could be funding life saving research into genuine non-placebo medicine. I hope this little protest did change some minds.

As a footnote to this story, after the event only one of my friends bothered to enquire after my health on Facebook. One sorry person. I would like to think this is because they were all really well informed on the subject of homeopathy and knew I was in no danger but I suspect the real reason was they were too busy watching Murray v Federer.

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Reader Comments

Jacob

Yeah, of course homeopathy is a huge load of bollocks, and that’s obvious to anyone who studied science above the age of 11, ad again, of course the government shouldn’t be funding the NHS providing “treatments” that have no proof of helping people, but I have a question: Is the argument that “if I can’t overdose on it, it can’t have a medical use” not as bad science as homeopathy itself. Let’s take another real life example, you have scurvy in the days before you could buy vitamin C pills. The doctor tells you to eat lots of oranges and it sorts you out, while some “sceptics” on the street try to overdose on oranges and fail. Let’s keep the arguments scientific not speculative.

#1 
Written By Jacob on February 3rd, 2010 @ 8:16 am

Actually, you can overdose on oranges. Surplus vitamin C is quite easily disposed of by the body, so a very large overdose is required. Anything that has any effect on your body can, in principle, have too much of an effect.

Having said that,given the claims of homeopaths the correct way to overdose on homeopathic medicines is surely to dilute it another 10000 times. The problem being that homeopaths have never bothered to quantify effectiveness as a function of dilution. My suspicion is that the the effectiveness is measured by percentage of patients cured, not by the effect on the individual patient, and has an asymptotic form flattening at the level of a placebo. So further dilution could be claimed to only make a tiny difference.

#2 
Written By Michael on February 3rd, 2010 @ 8:58 am
Jacob

Michael, I am quite happy to conjecture that you cannot overdose on vitamin c from eating oranges. I’m no mathmo, but check these numbers:

You need 11.9g per kilogram of bodyweight for it to become fatally toxic, and each orange contains about 70mg. According to my slightly dodgy maths, that means a 70kg man would have to eat over 11,000 oranges to have a fatal overdose of vitamin c. You’re gonna fuck yourself up in all sorts of ways if you try that but not because of the vitamin c content. Nonetheless the vitamin c content can viably be medically useful. Anyway this is just one counterexample. There are many more.

#3 
Written By Jacob on February 3rd, 2010 @ 2:05 pm
Michael

The fact that eating sufficient oranges to give one vitamin C poisoning would be implausible for the other medical problems it would create doesn’t quite make it a counterexample. It means that, as a medicine, oranges have very high side effects relative to thier active ingredient (side effects which, at low dosages, happen to coincide with normal nutrition and hydration). Homeopaths claim that their medicine is side effect free (except for the slight increace in blood sugar from the pills), so overdosing should be easy. As I said before, until the homeopaths give some quantification of how dosages are calculated their aren’t really any sensible conclusions to draw at all.

Except that homeopaths have no interest in proper scientific tests, but we knew that anyway.

#4 
Written By Michael on February 3rd, 2010 @ 2:17 pm
Dan

Liz, can I ask, unless I’ve misunderstood, what you think the relevance of the group being ‘atheists’ is?

#5 
Written By Dan on February 4th, 2010 @ 9:32 am

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