The placebo effect has confounded conventional medicine for years.
This effect occurs when people take a placebo pill (a pill that contains nothing that is supposed to influence your health) or undergo a placebo (fake) procedure and enjoy a real benefit that improves their well-being.
Researchers used to think the benefits from placebos were psychological – because you believed they were going to help you, they did.
But studies now show that the effects of placebos are not that simple. So here’s what you need to know and how you can use it to benefit your health.
Fake or not, the latest research shows that placebos do in fact change things in the body and brain. And more often than expected, they produce very real physiological benefits. Benefits that can be measured.
Conventional medical doctors should take note…
Conventional medicine used to hold that placebos produce no real therapeutic benefit but that sometimes taking a pill that contains no medication will still provide some relief from a medical problem because people essentially trick themselves into thinking they got a real treatment.
But now, investigations of the so-called placebo effect show that the way that placebos make changes to the mind and body are far more complex.
Placebos Have Important Effects on the Brain
For instance, when researchers from Canada and the U.S. recently teamed up and did an analysis of the brain networks that swing into action after you take a placebo, they found that those regions can coincide with brain areas that are targeted by brain-stimulation therapy that’s designed to treat depression.
The researchers point out that other studies have revealed that there are neurological shifts that occur when you experience the placebo effect. Brain scans have displayed patterns of changes that happen in certain brain areas when this process takes place.
Their investigation compared the neurological effects of placebos to what happens when brain-stimulation techniques are used on patients who suffer depression that hasn’t responded adequately to psychotherapy or medication.
Brain-stimulation therapy has increased in popularity recently. It can consist of either transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) – a non-invasive technique consisting of coils applied to the scalp that convey electromagnetic pulses to the brain – or deep brain stimulation (DBS) that uses devices placed inside the brain.
A variety of TMS devices are now approved by the Food and Drug Administration for alleviating depression. DBS is still being researched but is not yet approved by the FDA.
When the researchers compared brain scans of healthy people given placebos and scans of people treated for depression with TMS and DBS, they found that the brain areas activated overlapped at several sites.1
The researchers say this overlap has important implications. “We think this is an important starting point for understanding the placebo effect in general, and learning how to modulate and harness it, including using it as a potential therapeutic tool by intentionally activating brain regions of the placebo network to elicit positive effects on symptoms,” says researcher Emiliano Santarnecchi, PhD, a professor of neurology at the Harvard Medical School.
And these observations can help clarify which effects of TMS and DBS on the brain are due to the effects of electromagnetic radiation in the brain and which are linked to patients believing they are benefiting (the placebo effect) because they’re sitting in a clinic having a doctor treat them.
The Placebo Boost to Health and Vitality
Other studies demonstrate a wide range of benefits linked to placebos:
- Just being told you have the right genes for better endurance enables you to run faster and farther (even if you really don’t): A study at Stanford shows that being told your genetic makeup helps you run better actually helps you run better, even if it’s not true — your lung capacity and your endurance both increase. In their tests the researchers concluded, “receiving genetic risk information changed individuals’ cardiorespiratory physiology.”2
- A placebo can relieve the emotional pain of a devastating romantic rejection: Research at the University of Colorado demonstrated that a placebo nose spray that was described to test subjects as a “powerful analgesic effective in reducing emotional pain” could ease emotional pain. The spray increased activity in the brain’s dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – an area that takes part in modulating emotions.3
- Many people can sleep better and relieve insomnia with placebo (sham) neurofeedback: Researchers in Austria discovered that when people suffering insomnia got make-believe neurofeedback that was described as helpful for sleep, they often fell asleep faster – and the effects were as potent as those produced by genuine neurofeedback.4
Interestingly, studies of the placebo effect have found that Americans generally experience stronger results from placebos than do citizens of other countries. Some researchers believe this occurs because the U.S. is one of the few countries that allow pharmaceutical companies to advertise directly to consumers.5 So, we’re primed daily by exposure to all that marketing by drug companies to strongly expect that medical treatments will make us feel better.
I think that all of this research confirms something I heard years ago to the effect that the most powerful pharmaceutical factory resides in our heads. And when you take a medicine that you really believe in and it’s given to you by a healthcare practitioner you trust, it can have profound effects. Even when the medicine you receive is just make-believe.