How does the Placebo Effect work?

(and why placebos hold such great potential for healing and understanding consciousness)

Placebo: A beneficial effect produced by a placebo drug or treatment, which cannot be attributed to the properties of the placebo itself, and must therefore be due to the patient’s belief in that treatment.

I remember when I first learnt about the Placebo effect. I was in my first year of

studying Naturopathy. The lecturer was saying that it was regularly accepted scientific fact, that approximately 30% of improvements in any study undertaken in medicine, can be attributed to the placebo effect. People have improvement in their symptoms because they believe they will. Not because of any substance administered to them.

People get better using placebo's because of a change of consciousness inside them and not because of any externally applied medicine. This is such an amazing statement! And it happens every day! This is why medical trials are carried out as double blind trials. One group of people are given the drug being trialled. The other group are given a sugar pill or saline injection – so something that looks the same as the drug – and neither the patients or the people administering the ‘medication’ know who is getting what. For a drug to be shown to be efficient, it has to demonstrate better results than the placebo. And placebo’s persistently get approximately 30% improvement. Maybe that’s because those 30% believe they are getting a new ‘miracle drug’ or because they want to please the people running the trial and do well in their results. Whatever the reason, it is their belief, and only their belief, that makes them better.

And you know what? It doesn’t just apply for pills and injections, but also surgery. A widely publicised study on knee surgery (New England Journal of Medicine, December 2013) showed that there was no difference in outcome for people who received the full surgery and those who received ‘sham surgery’. That is, they were put under general anaesthetic, incision holes were made, but no actual surgery was performed. Both groups showed exactly the same improvement.

Not only do we all have this ability to make ourselves well, we also have the power to make ourselves sick. This has been called the ‘nocebo effect’. Telling someone, “This will hurt” will cause more pain. A Doctor telling their patient they have only 4 months to live, will increase their chances of dying in 4 months. In my family, my great grandmother told everyone she would die on Christmas Day. She repeated it over and over again (she wasn’t a particularly pleasant woman, as you can imagine) and low and behold, come Christmas Day she didn’t wake up. Unfortunate way to use the power of belief, but that’s what she did.

So if one third of people get better because you suggest to them they will, what would happen if you actively worked with people to create the belief that they can be well? Why aren’t we focusing on understanding this phenomenon and increasing 30% to 99%? There’d be no negative side effects from drugs, people wouldn’t need to be on medication all their lives, the costs of healthcare would plummet, people could be really empowered to be in charge of their own health and healing!

The point of the placebo effect is not about giving someone a substance with no healing potential and purposefully deceiving them that it will make them well. That’s unethical and abusive whoever you are. The potential the placebo effect demonstrate is that there is healing potential within each of us, and if we can learn how to engage that potential, how to connect the mind and the body, we have the power to heal ourselves.

But unfortunately the current system of mainstream medicine and the pharmaceutical industry perceive this to, quite rightly, be a massive threat to their survival. As I said, the costs of healthcare would plummet, that means the pharmaceutical industries profits would plummet. And whether we like it or not, pharmaceutical companies are first and foremost in the business of making a profit. If they weren’t profitable, they’d cease to exist. What’s more, the mind-body connection cannot be controlled and neatly regulated. It cannot be patented. It is nothing to do with a sugar pill and involves much more than simply telling someone they will be well. Bridging that mind-body connection looks different in every person and there’s no neat formula to follow or set of boxes to tick. Its complex, complicated and time consuming.

Here is the crux of the divide between drug-based medicine, and holistic therapies. Holistic therapies perceive the phenomenon behind the placebo effect (the mind-body connection) to be its greatest strength. Mainstream medicine perceives the same phenomenon to be its biggest threat.

We have heard so many stories of people who have been diagnosed with a condition, gone away to work on it with holistic therapies, gone back to their GP to have tests redone, and found the condition has resolved. Some GP’s are fantastic, and genuinely interested in what their patients have been doing. Unfortunately we too often hear that patients are given one of two responses. 1. Their Doctor pronounces the original test must have been wrong or got mixed up in the lab and the patient never had the condition to start with. Or 2. The follow up test is wrong and the patient is still “unwell” and they have to redo the tests to prove it. I had a client once tell me about having a pap smear a few years ago and the results showing high-grade abnormal cells. She choose to work with a holistic healer to understand and heal her body naturally, and then returned to her GP 6 weeks later to get another pap smear. Those results came back clear. Her GP responded by telling her it was impossible for her to have healed and bullied her into retaking another pap smear then and there.

The perception by western medicine (generally speaking) is that healing is only valid if they can attribute it to action they’ve exerted, and they see the patient as a passive part in the process. Whereas the perception by Holistic Medicine should always be that the aim is to work with the patient as an active participant in helping create their own healing.

There is a fundamental difference in the philosophy of both streams of medicine. Both, we believe, predominantly filled with people with a genuine desire to help people. But divided by polar opposite perceptions of what the healing process involves and the path that should be taken to achieve it.

To be able to have a truly integrated system of medicine, both schools must find a common dialogue on how the mind-body connection affects the process of how we as humans both create disease and heal.

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