The placebo effect has fascinated me for years. As a believer in controlling our minds, I wonder how our minds can hinder our thoughts and limit our thinking. I approach this subject with skepticism since I am a trained scientist.
Many studies have proven that positive beliefs can alter the immune system. People who experienced the placebo effect had a boost in immune function causing the stress response to switch to the relaxation response. In a study done in lab rats, the rats were fed a drug mixed with saccharin water. When the drug was removed and only saccharin water (a placebo) was given, the immune system of the rat stayed suppressed (due to the drug effect) indicating that rats can respond to false beliefs. In humans, the placebo effect has been found to be correlated to an increase in the amount of dopamine in the brain (the reward center). The mind and body communicate using hormones and neurotransmitters stimulated by the brain (triggered by the placebo effect) to travel to other parts of the body.
Almost all diseases exhibit sensitivity to the placebo effect. In other words, the effect of a disease can be altered by using the placebo effect. But certain diseases can be measured more easily than others. Dr. Lissa Rankin pointed out in her book that the placebo effect was found to be effective in allergies, diabetes, colitis, anxiety, depression, Parkinson’s, insomnia, angina, asthma, and coughing. However, the placebo effect was hard to measure in cancer treatment, heart attacks, strokes, liver failure, and kidney disease. In part, because of the severity of these conditions, it would be unethical to experiment with a placebo.
An online database, called Spontaneous Remission Project, has documented 3,500 references from more than 800 journals in 20 different languages. The database is populated with unexplained spontaneous disease remission triggered by an unknown effect. The definition of remission in this database is “the disappearance, complete or incomplete, of disease or cancer without medical treatment or treatment that is considered inadequate to produce the resulting disappearance of disease symptoms or tumor.” The database points out this might be related to a placebo effect.
Some of these examples Dr. Rankin mentioned in her book Mind Over Medicine included a woman with metastatic breast cancer who had breast, lung, and femur tumors that resolved. Another patient had plaques blocking the coronary arteries that disappeared without any treatment. Another person had his brain aneurysm disappear. The enumeration of what might even be called miraculous remissions reveals the major weakness of the database — the absence of any kind of explanation as to how the remission happened. The database only documents the physical evidence of the disappearance of the disease due to an unexplained placebo effect which mostly resulted from the patient’s belief that they would be cured. Reading this, one can’t help but wonder if this apparent healing or disappearance of the disease was long-lasting. The database does not answer these questions.
Sometimes the placebo effect might occur in the opposite direction. In a study on Chinese Americans in San Francisco, it was found that Chinese Americans born in what is called “astrology misalignment” died at a younger age than normal compared with randomly selected white people. This means that the belief in astrology misalignment had in actuality “jinxed” them; their negative beliefs helped to produce a shorter life. The more we focus our attention on illness and increase our knowledge about what can go wrong with the body, the more it can actually harm us causing us to experience more physical symptoms.
Scientists have a name for this belief. It is called the nocebo effect. While the placebo effect establishes the power of positive thinking, the nocebo effect proves the power of negative beliefs. For example, if you tell patients in a clinical trial that they are most likely to develop some side effect from a medication, they will most likely develop the symptoms although the pill was sugar. Dr. Bernie Siegel mentioned in his book Love, Medicine & Miracles that although patients in a control group for treatment with a chemotherapy drug were given salty water, 30% of the patients lost their hair after being told of the possible side effect of losing their hair. In a different study with a patient who is asthmatic, the patient inhaled harmless salt water. After he was told that the salt water contained an irritating allergen, he started to wheeze and feel short of breath.
The placebo and the nocebo effect are real phenomena. If you understand them, you really can help yourself tremendously.
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