There was a very interesting Horizon documentary about the power of the placebo last week. A placebo is usually a non-active pill (often containing sugar or cornflower) that is given in randomised trials of new medications to a proportion of the study participants. The medication on trial has to perform better that the placebo to be deemed to be successful. This is because just believing that we are taking an effective medicine usually produces a positive change: a phenomenon referred to as the placebo effect.
The Horizon program indicated that the placebo effect doesn’t just refer to taking a pill. In one trial a similar effect was achieved by duping patients into believing that they had experienced a surgical procedure when in fact they had not. And in a high altitude experiment subjects benefited from thinking that they were receiving extra oxygen when really their tanks were empty.
Recent studies into the placebo effect are revealing that it causes real bio-physiological changes. Basically, if we think that something is going to benefit our health, that expectation has the power to produce the desired changes to our bodies’ chemistry, at least in the short term. One Harvard study even showed that we don’t even have to be deceived for the placebo effect to work. One group of participants were told that they were given a placebo but also told that it might work because of the body’s own healing powers… and it did! 62% of this group experienced adequate symptom relief even though they knew their pill had no active ingredient. For me the really important implication of this research is that we can choose to harness this power of expectation. We can choose to tap into our internal natural pharmacy and produce positive changes to our body chemistry.
Supplements seem an ideal place to start with this. I’m not saying supplements don’t work, I’m sure many do, but there is rarely enough evidence of sufficient benefit to convince the medical profession as a whole. However many of us choose to take them anyway. I believe that we could add to their effectiveness by paying more attention to the benefits we expect to gain from them. We can employ the placebo effect to our advantage. To get the most out of a supplement all we have to do is maximise our expectation. E.g.
- Thoroughly research all its potential benefits for our condition, be clear about what we expect from it and choose to believe.
- Start any new supplements one at a time so that its potential benefits have our full attention.
- Each time we take our supplements we could remind ourselves of why we are taking each one as we swallow it.
- Take a break from time to time, if we notice a worsening of our symptoms we can refresh the benefits by starting again with renewed expectation.
The horizon program also suggested a similarity between the placebo affect and hypnosis. They showed someone having his wisdom tooth removed under the influence of hypnosis without any anaesthetic. Basically the hypnosis changed the subject’s chemistry in a similar way to a placebo, causing the release of the body’s natural pain killers. This is why I practise self-healing meditations. Basically they are a form of self-hypnosis. I trust that in a relaxed state I am able to influence my body’s ability to heal itself, using the power of my expectation.
The final part of this program explored the effect of practitioner interaction on the placebo effect. It seems that an empathic, caring practitioner who uses appropriate reassuring touch and convinces their client of the benefits of the treatment can dramatically improve the effectiveness of a placebo. This implies that if we enlist the help of a complimentary or alternative health practitioner, who demonstrates the above qualities we could create a placebo effect and improve our health. Again I am not claiming that these therapies have no value in themselves, I’m sure many of them do. However that value can be increased by the caring qualities of the practitioner, our belief and our expectation of results.
These improvements may not amount to an immediate cure, but they are steps. Each step we take towards better health provides us with a little extra energy, some of which can then be used to take the next step! How will you choose to harness the power of the placebo? How can you make the power of expectation work for you?