The Healing Powers of the Placebo Effect

nutrition Jun 15, 2019

I’ve been very curious lately why we aren’t paying more attention to the placebo effect. The placebo effect occurs when the mind, through positive suggestion, improves health.

Back in my pharmaceutical sales days I discussed the latest ground-breaking clinical trials with my doctors. It was exciting for me to share how much better our drug performed compared to the placebo. As long as the results were statistically significant then it was a win for the drug.

However, there was always an improvement in the placebo group. I never paid attention to that before, but now I wonder why we aren’t addressing this? If it’s just a sugar pill, theoretically there should be no improvement in symptoms. The only thing that explains this is that the patients thought and believed they were receiving the actual drug and their bodies responded with the beneficial results they were expecting. Their mind changed their body.

There are countless cases showing this to be true even with sham surgeries.

A Baylor School of Medicine study, published in 2002 in the New England Journal of Medicine, evaluated surgery for patients with severe, debilitating knee pain. (Moseley, et al, 2002) The lead author of the study, Dr. Bruce Moseley, “knew” that knee surgery helped his patients: “All good surgeons know there is no placebo effect in surgery.”

Mosely’s purpose of the study was to figure out which part of the surgery was giving his patients relief. The patients in the study were divided into three groups. Moseley shaved the damaged cartilage in the knee of one group. For another group, he flushed out the knee joint, removing material thought to be causing the inflammatory effect. Both of these constitute standard treatment for arthritic knees.

The third group got “fake” surgery. The patient was sedated, Moseley made three standard incisions and then talked and acted just as he would have during a real surgery—he even splashed salt water to simulate the sound of the knee-washing procedure. Moseley sewed up the incisions as if he had done the surgery. All three groups were prescribed the same postoperative care, which included an exercise program.

The results were shocking. The groups who received surgery improved, as expected. But the placebo group improved just as much as the other two groups. Despite the fact that there are 650,000 surgeries yearly for arthritic knees, at a cost of about $5,000 each, the results were clear to Moseley: “My skill as a surgeon had no benefit on these patients. The entire benefit of surgery for osteoarthritis of the knee was the placebo effect.” [1]

“The placebo effect is quickly glossed over in medical schools so that students can get to the real tools of modern medicine like drugs and surgery. This is a giant mistake. The placebo effect should be a major topic of study in medical school.” [2]

“If the human body can act like its own pharmacy, producing its own pain drugs, then might it not also be true that it’s fully capable of dispensing other natural drugs when they’re needed from the infinite blend of chemicals and healing compounds it houses—drugs that act just like the ones doctors prescribe or maybe even better than the drugs doctors prescribe?” [3]

Back in 1979, Norman Cousins spoke of placebos saying, “The process works not because of any magic in the tablet, but because the human body is its own best apothecary and because the most successful prescriptions are filled by the body itself.”

We don’t know how many healings are due to the placebo effect but the overall number is extremely significant.

Studies have shown the placebo effect to be powerful in treating other diseases, including asthma and Parkinson’s. In the treatment of depression, placebos are stars.

So much so that psychiatrist Walter Brown of the Brown University School of Medicine has proposed placebo pills as the first treatment for patients with mild or moderate depression. (Brown 1998)

In a 2002 article in the American Psychological Association’s Prevention & Treatment, “The Emperor’s New Drugs,” University of Connecticut psychology professor Irving Kirsch found that 80 percent of the effect of antidepressants, as measured in clinical trials, could be attributed to the placebo effect. (Kirsch, et al, 2002)

Perhaps “the reason the mind has so summarily been dismissed in medicine is the result not only of dogmatic thinking, but also of financial considerations. If the power of your mind can heal your sick body, why should you go to the doctor and, more importantly, why would you need to buy drugs?” [4]

On the flip side, given the powerful effects of the placebo, we must ask what percentage of diseases and illness are due to negative thoughts and the nocebo effect?

When the mind is engaged in negative suggestions that can damage health, the negative effects are referred to as the nocebo effect. [5]

While many in the medical profession are aware of the placebo effect, few have considered its implications for self-healing. If positive thinking can heal your mind and body, consider what negative thinking can do in your life.

“The latest scientific research in psychology estimates that about 70 percent of our thoughts are negative and redundant, the number of unconsciously created nocebo-like illnesses is likely great—certainly much higher than we realize. This idea makes a lot of sense, given that so many mental, physical, and emotional health conditions seem to arise from nowhere.” [6]

What you think is what you experience, and when it comes to your health, that’s made possible by the amazing pharmacopeia that you have within your body that automatically and exquisitely aligns with your thoughts.” [7]

Your beliefs act like filters on a camera, changing how you see the world. And your biology adapts to those beliefs. When we truly recognize that our beliefs are that powerful, we hold the key to freedom. [8]

Have you ever experienced the placebo or nocebo effect in your life? Please share in the comments!




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