Learn what happens under the placebo effect and how you can positively influence your own self-healing process today!
Our bodies have an innate ability to self-repair when injured. Just think about the scab that naturally forms over a grazed knee, or how a torn muscle regenerates, and even the way broken bones fuse together again. It happens so naturally that we may take it for granted, but I’d like to shine light on this inherent self-repair mechanism because its effectiveness is directly related to what’s going on in our mind.
The medical community have known for over 50 years that the mind has a strong influence on the body. They call this influence the Placebo Effect. The placebo effect is a beneficial response to an inactive substance. People get better using placebo medication because they believe they are receiving the genuine drug. This healing response is triggered by the mind’s own beliefs.
Many people dismiss this effect as “all in the mind” taking a view that no healing has actually happened. In reality there are measurable physiological changes in the brain and body under this effect, and the changes are often consistent with what the person expects to happen.
Lisa Rankin M.D, physician and author tells us:
Placebos change your biochemistry.
There have been many studies on the placebo effect, and many reports from the pharmaceutical industry. For example, a number of bald men allocated to the placebo group of a “hair growth” clinical drug trial actually grew hair when given a placebo - they never received the real drug yet their bodies responded as if they had. There are even studies that show fake surgeries can be as effective as real surgeries!
The placebo effect is so renowned that it is expected that 30-35% of the placebo group will show improvement, and if the actual drug does not perform better than this it likely won’t be approved by the FDA. Modern studies are actually showing the placebo effect has a much higher success rate than previously thought. Most modern studies cite placebo effectiveness as 70% but some have found it to be even higher.
What Happens Under the Placebo Effect
The belief that a treatment will work, is enough to trigger the brain to produce the natural chemicals needed to manifest the improvement. The cells receive these chemical messengers and respond with the appropriate growth and healing behaviour.
It isn’t just “all in the mind”, people don’t just think they feel better, they actually do feel better because the physical changes occurring within their body have created healing, and it is measurable.
But here’s the thing, the body’s natural self-repair mechanisms only activate when your body is in the Relaxation Response. When the body is in Fight or Flight because of a perceived threat – and that may be an actual life-threatening situation, or a modern day stressor such as being late for a meeting – it cannot afford the energy to repair and regenerate. The chronic activation of the fight or flight response is what is so dangerous to our health. We must actively turn this response off in order to engage the relaxation response.
While conducting research for this article, I found out something even more interesting…
Ted Kaptchuk is a Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He has been running experiments for years around the Placebo Effect and he has taken it a step further.
Ted tells the Placebo Group that they will receive a Placebo Pill and they still get better! He calls this "Honest Placebo".
Their healing response isn’t fully understood, but can be likened to the effect that movies have on us. When we watch a movie, even though we know it’s not "real", we get caught up in the story, characters and location. For that moment it is real and we feel joyful as the characters fall in love, or we cry with great sadness when they suffer. Likewise, our bodies can have a physical response to a placebo drug even when we know it’s not real!
Here are a few of Ted’s studies to illustrate the power of Honest Placebo.
Linda had suffered with Irritable Bowel Syndrome for over 20 years. In 2009 she took part in a trial led by Ted Kaptchuk.
During the 3 week trial Linda was to receive a Placebo Pill for her IBS. As part of the trial, she was told that she would be receiving a placebo - an inert pill. Initially Linda was very upset that she would only be receiving the placebo pill, yet despite knowing this, her symptoms did in fact disappear for the 3 week trial!
After the trial her symptoms returned in full force. Believing the Placebo Pill to be so beneficial she began seeing Ted in the capacity of a Case Study. At 71 years old, She drives 45 minutes every 6 weeks to meet him and collect her bottle of Placebo Pills, and remains symptom free.
In 2018 Ted Kaptchuk led a study in “pain”. 83 people with Chronic Low Back Pain were randomly assigned into two groups.
The first group was to continue receiving pain medication, the second group was to use a Placebo with their typical treatment. The second group were openly told that they would be receiving a placebo pill and the medication bottles were labelled as such.
On average after 3 weeks:
Group 1 (continued to receive pain medication) reported: 9% reduction in usual pain, 16% reduction in maximum pain, and 0% reduction in disability.
Group 2 (openly received placebo pills) reported: 30% reduction in usual pain, 30% reduction in maximum pain, and 29% reduction in disability!
The Placebo group reported significant pain improvement even knowing they were taking an inert placebo pill!
What's the Nocebo Effect?
While the belief that healing will occur is considered responsible for the “Placebo Effect”, the belief that negative effects will occur is considered responsible for the “Nocebo Effect”.
It is documented that when patients in a placebo group were told to expect certain side effects, they actually materialised these side effects despite receiving nothing other than a sugar pill. This is the power of our beliefs on our body.
The mind can not only heal the body, it can harm the body – what we call the Nocebo Effect.
Dr Lissa Rankin
Both of these effects demonstrate the influence of the mind on the body’s natural ability to heal itself. We can help or hinder our natural healing process by the beliefs that we hold, and with this knowledge we are empowered to take responsibility for our minds. We are our own healers!
With love and gratitude,