When I was really young, whenever I felt sick, my grandmother used to make me cinnamon sugar toast. I felt like I could taste her love with every bite, and by the time I had finished my toast, my stomachache would have magically disappeared. In hindsight, I recognize that the dairy in the butter and the refined sugar in the cinnamon blend probably weren’t helping my digestive issues, yet somehow this meal always made me feel better. How does this make any sense? Herein lies the mystery of the placebo effect.
No, science cannot prove that when my grandmother delivered me cinnamon toast with a loving smile and a giant hug, I instantly felt better, but as a five-year-old child I certainly experienced that. Though my grandmother may not have realized it, she was likely harnessing the power of the placebo effect.
What Is the Placebo Effect?
The placebo effect is essentially the idea that your brain can convince your body that a fake treatment, because it (your brain) thinks it’s real, can provide real solutions and stimulate healing in the body. In essence, the placebo effect shows us how powerful our minds, how powerful our consciousness is, in that we can change our biology using our beliefs.
Many of you may have played around with the concept “You become what you think about most of the time,” meaning your thoughts literally become your reality. Businessmen like Kevin Trudeau have used it to make billions of dollars, and many people including myself enjoy witnessing the law of attraction in our everyday lives. However, how does this work when it comes to our health?
Well, science is starting to realize that, in some cases, a placebo can be equally as effective as the original treatments themselves.
“The placebo effect is more than positive thinking — believing a treatment or procedure will work. It’s about creating a stronger connection between the brain and body and how they work together,” says Professor Ted Kaptchuk of Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, who has studied the placebo effect extensively.
However, Kaptchuk believes that the placebo effect can only go so far. “Placebos may make you feel better, but they will not cure you,” says Kaptchuk. “They have been shown to be most effective for conditions like pain management, stress-related insomnia, and cancer treatment side effects like fatigue and nausea.”
It’s people like Kaptchuk who are challenging the way the scientific community typically looks at the placebo effect. In the past, placebos have been used in clinical trials, most often in drug tests, and were typically associated with failure. The mentality was that if you weren’t one of the participants who got the drug, you didn’t receive the benefits. Alternatively, if both groups of participants — those who received placebo pills and those who actually took the drug — experienced similar effects, then the drug was deemed ineffective.
However, scientists are now starting to realize that similar reactions may not mean a drug doesn’t work, but rather that the placebo is actually working in a similar fashion. What if these participants believed they were taking the drug, and thus experienced health benefits as a result? Experts have concluded that reacting to a placebo doesn’t mean a certain treatment doesn’t work, but rather that an alternative, non-pharmacological treatment may be present.
The Science Behind the Placebo Effect
Though we don’t understand how the placebo effect actually works just yet, a Harvard University article explains that “it involves a complex neurobiological reaction that includes everything from increases in feel-good neurotransmitters, like endorphins and dopamine, to greater activity in certain brain regions linked to moods, emotional reactions, and self-awareness. All of it can have therapeutic benefit.”
“The placebo effect is a way for your brain to tell the body what it needs to feel better,” says Kaptchuk.
“When you look at these studies that compare drugs with placebos, there is the entire environmental and ritual factor at work,” explains Kaptchuk. “You have to go to a clinic at certain times and be examined by medical professionals in white coats. You receive all kinds of exotic pills and undergo strange procedures. All this can have a profound impact on how the body perceives symptoms because you feel you are getting attention and care.”
A study published in Science Translational Medicine that was conducted by Kaptchuk in 2014 tested the placebo effect in relation to migraines. One group of participants took a migraine drug that had the drug’s name listed on it, another group took a placebo labelled “placebo” (meaning they were conscious that they were the placebo group), and a third group took nothing. Shockingly, their findings showed that the placebo was 50% as effective as the actual pain medication after experiencing a migraine, despite the participants having known who was in the placebo group and who was not.
The researchers concluded that this was largely due to the simple act or ritual of taking a pill, as it’s considered to be comforting to people.
“People associate the ritual of taking medicine as a positive healing effect,” says Kaptchuk. “Even if they know it’s not medicine, the action itself can stimulate the brain into thinking the body is being healed.”
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This is comforting to learn, as this suggests that you yourself could administer the placebo effect, despite you knowing that it is simply placebo and nothing more. Kaptchuk actually has some suggestions as to how you can facilitate this yourself.
“Engaging in the ritual of healthy living — eating right, exercising, yoga, quality social time, meditating — probably provides some of the key ingredients of a placebo effect,” says Kaptchuk.
Another study published in 2002 in the New England Journal of Medicine, (1) conducted by the Baylor School of Medicine, looked at surgery for patients with severe and debilitating knee pain. The patients were divided into three groups. One group endured the first type of knee surgery, as the surgeons shaved the damaged cartilage in their knees. Another group had their knee joints flushed out, removing all of the material believed to be causing inflammation. Both of these processes are the standard surgeries people go through who have severe arthritic knees.
The third group received a “fake” surgery, as the patients were sedated and tricked into thinking that they actually had knee surgery. The doctors still made incisions and splashed salt water on the knee as they would in normal surgery, and then they sewed up the incisions, but without performing any real surgeries on their knees. All three groups went through the same rehab process, and the results were astonishing. The placebo group improved just as much as the other two groups who had surgery.
Another 2002 article published in the American Psychological Association’s Prevention & Treatment, conducted by University of Connecticut Psychology Professor Irving Kirsch and titled “The Emperor’s New Drugs,” made some more shocking discoveries (5)(4). Kirsch found that 80% of the effectiveness of antidepressants, as measured in clinical trials, could be attributed to the placebo effect. Kirsch even filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to get information on the clinical trials of the top antidepressants.
“The difference between the response of the drugs and the response of the placebo was less than two points on average on this clinical scale that goes from fifty to sixty points. That’s a very small difference, that difference is clinically meaningless,” Professor Kirsch explains (source).
A Conscious Note
Some of this information may not be new to you, as monks and other teachers have been preaching the power of the mind for years. Many people have been successfully using a combination of thoughts, meditation, and emotional healing to cure diseases for a very long time.
For example, radiation oncologist Dr. Carl Simonton and his wife Stephanie Matthews-Simonton, a psychologist, wrote the book Getting Well Again: A Step-by-Step Self-Help Guide to Overcoming Cancer for Patients and Their Families. The book explores how people can affect their disease process through healing their emotions.
Louise Hay is another well-known author who discusses the emotional causes of cancer in her book You Can Heal Your Life. A cancer survivor herself, she cured her disease in only six months using a combination of affirmations, visualization, nutritional cleansing, and psychotherapy. According to Hay, cancer is simply the manifestation of deep hurt, secrets, longstanding resentment, grief, and/or hatred.
The mind can be an incredible asset when it comes to your physical and mental health, but it can also contribute to your illnesses. Negative self talk can lower your vibration and increase your stress levels, and chronic stress is associated with countless diseases, including cancer.
I personally believe that your thoughts become your reality, and I have experimented with this and found it to be true in all aspects of life, including health. If you believe that you can heal yourself through positive self talk and other modalities using the mind, then I believe you’re increasing your chances of succeeding in improving your health. Likewise, if you don’t believe your mind can change your overall health, then you probably won’t see any notable differences because that’s what you believe!
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