Although placebos have long been considered nuisances in clinical research, today they represent an active field of research — serving to encourage new concepts and ideas for neuroscience, notably the significant revelation of the power of the mind in healing the body.
What is the placebo effect?
The placebo effect is defined as a beneficial effect produced by a placebo drug or treatment that cannot be attributed to the properties of the placebo itself, and must therefore be due to the patient’s belief in that treatment. I’d like to emphasize the word belief in this definition, as many people tend to associate the placebo effect with merely positive thinking. This belief entails creating an incredibly strong connection between the body and the brain, a connection that causes “as many changes in the brain as does medication.”
How does a placebo actually work?
Although not fully understood, the placebo effect involves a complex neurobiological reaction that includes increasing neurotransmitters such as endorphins and dopamine. These neurotransmitters lead to increased activity in certain brain regions that are linked to emotions, self-awareness, and moods. Each of these areas has a significant therapeutic effect. They have been proven to change the brain itself, particularly as the mechanisms that are activated are the “same as those activated by drugs, which suggests a cognitive/affective interference with drug action.”
Examples of placebo effects in clinical research
The contribution of placebos to clinical improvement is substantial across the board. In fact, recent research has shown the potential benefits of self-healing through the placebo effect. Below are some notable ones I came across:
- Depression – In antidepressant clinical trials, it has been shown that spontaneous remission of depression accounts for 23.87% of the overall effect, the real placebo effect for 50.97%, and the drug effect for 25.16% only In short, this means that approximately one-half of of patients with depression were cured by the placebo effect.
- High blood pressure – The placebo effect on diastolic blood pressure accounted for 47% of the drug effect, while their effects on systolic blood pressure accounted for 34% of the drug effect.
- Cancer-related fatigue – More than half of advanced cancer patients enrolled in cancer-related fatigue trials had a placebo response. The trials failed to demonstrate a significant difference between the drugs targeted at treating fatigue (psychostimulant methlyphenidate and an anticholinesterase inhibitor) and the placebo.
- Parkinsons – Improvement in motor scores of 20-30% in patients assigned in a placebo group were observed in a 2002 study. Specifically, euroimaging studies have demonstrated that placebos stimulate the “release of dopamine in the striatum of patients with Parkinson’s disease and can alter the activity of dopamine neurons using single-cell recording.”
- Pain relief – A 1981 study revealed that postoperative patients who received a 6-8 mg dose of morphine vs those who received a saline solution (who believed they were receiving a powerful painkiller) reported the same degree of pain relief. Taking a placebo painkiller resulted in the release of pain-relieving endorphins in the brain, highlighting the fact that our mental state plays a critical role in the experience of pain.
Neuroplasticity and placebos
If you’ve read about the concept of neuroplasticity, you understand that the brain is able to change its structure and function by responding to actions from the body, signals from the external world, and mental experiences. Similar to the concept of neuroplasticity, the placebo effect is driven by thought, and “centers on the self-release of non-addictive endogenous opiods.” These opiods have a variety of neural-related functions and often act as neuro-immunomodulators. This shouldn’t be a surprise, particularly as the mind can affect physiological functions such as digestion, circulation, as well as the immune system. Although these processes are not under conscious control, there are certainly indirect methods we can use to help influence them (e.g. reducing our stress which in turn reduces the body’s inflammatory response).
So, what does this mean for you?
Just through understanding the power of the placebo effect, you are already equipped with the knowledge that your brain holds significant power in being able to evoke positive responses in the body – without medications. Given that pharmaceutical companies fund a majority of clinical trials, the current medical system has evolved into one that prioritizes the prescription of drugs; drugs that often are not aligned with the patient’s best interests. Understanding areas where we can substitute the placebo effect in lieu of medications could significantly reduce drug-related toxicity and other associated side effects. I’m not advocating that you should completely reject all prescription medications, but rather challenging you to question whether or not you really need them.
Harness the power of your mind, and see what it will do for your body.