5 Facts About the Placebo Effect That Will Blow Your Mind

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First, a quick definition: The Placebo Effect is an improvement in the condition of a patient that was not a result of the specific treatment used. You hear about it sometimes in health stories. Fifty percent of the people who were given drug X saw disease Y disappear, and 20 percent of the participants who received a sugar pill were also cured. It’s an amazing phenomenon. The more one reads about the Placebo Effect, the more one realizes that much of modern medicine rests tenuously on the notion that the substances we’re prescribed by doctors heal sickness and improve our health. They do. But sometimes they do not. Sometimes it’s the mind and body doing the work.

5 Placebos Can Cure Colds, Treat Depression

The best treatment for the common cold is whatever you think makes you feel better. Seriously. Pick a regimen and believe. Good things will happen. Researchers found that people who thought they were taking cold medication but actually received a placebo fared better than people who received cold-fighting medication but did not think it would work. As for depression: A 2002 study of the six most prescribed antidepressants found that placebos worked just as well about 80 percent of the time. The study said “the pharmacological effects of antidepressants are clinically negligible.”

4 The Placebo Effect Goes Beyond Health

According to research published in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, test-takers who believed they were subliminally exposed to the correct answers on a test—even though they did not actually see any correct answers—scored higher than test-takers who were not primed to think they’d seen correct answers. Researchers said that the test-takers’ belief that they had seen the answers gave them confidence. When you’re confident, “anxieties that have previously taxed cognitive resources…become available for other tasks and processes,” the researchers wrote. Researchers in a different study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that one in three women who took a placebo for low sexual arousal reported they received more stimulation during sexual activity while they participated in the trial.

3 Placebos Work Even When You Know About Them

In yet another study, researchers told patients suffering from irritable bowel syndrome they were being given placebo pills. Participants were told the pills contained no active ingredient but could improve IBS symptoms “through mind-body self-healing processes.” At the end of the trial, 59 percent of the pill takers reported relief and improved quality of life. How is this possible? No one knows for sure. A few guesses: Expecting to feel better can cause people to feel better. Swallowing pills primes the body that relief is on the way, so placebo pills might enact physiological changes. Just talking to a caregiver can be therapeutic. The big takeaway: the study proved deception is not integral to the Placebo Effect.

2 Exercise Is a Placebo

Exercise is widely recognized for its ability to increase happiness and reduce anxiety, feelings of depression and stress. It is a mood and brain booster. Research from Santa Clara University revealed that some of those benefits are the result of suggestion and the placebo effect. Without delving into the study (see “Are Some of the Benefits of Exercise Due to Placebo Effects?” in the links below) researchers found that belief about one’s fitness is a better predictor of the psychological benefits of exercise than actual fitness or physical behavior. Expectations matter. “Your beliefs about exercise and fitness are actually more important than you might think when it comes to many of the psychological benefits of exercise,” writes Thomas G. Plante in “Psychology Today.”

1 Genes Determine Whether Placebos Work

No one knows exactly how placebos work, but research published in the journal Neuroscience said genes play a role. There are two genes that influence the reabsorption and synthesis of serotonin in the brain. They are the serotonin transporter gene and the tryptophan hydroxylase-2 gene. Individuals who had certain variants of these genes exhibited different activity in the section of the brain known as the amygdala. What does this mean? Revelations such as this one could change the way drug makers test drugs, and it could give them the ability to create treatments that are more effective. It could also change the way doctors treat patients in the future. Why give someone a real drug that has negative side effects when a fake one with no side effects that gets the same results will suffice?
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