Patient, Heal Thyself

In a shocking finding, researchers at Harvard Medical School’s (HMS) Osher Research Center and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) have found that the placebo effect works even when subjects know they are taking a placebo. We’ve all heard the cliche, physician, heal thyself. With some conditions, evidently, it’s apt to implore the patient to heal thyself too.

placebo-effectPlacebos (dummy pills) are inert substances that are used to create controls in medical and scientific studies. Patients are typically told that they’re receiving active drugs and report on the results in order to get accurate data. In this study however, subjects with Irritable Bowel Syndrome were told they were taking, “placebo pills made of an inert substance, like sugar pills, that have been shown in clinical studies to produce significant improvement in IBS symptoms through mind-body self-healing processes.”

The results of the study were dramatic and will have a profound effect on the efficacy of double-blind medical tests and, more importantly, on the stature of belief in medicine and general physiology:

For a three-week period, the patients were monitored. By the end of the trial, nearly twice as many patients treated with the placebo reported adequate symptom relief as compared with the control group (59 percent vs. 35 percent).  Also, on other outcome measures, patients taking the placebo doubled their rates of improvement to a degree roughly equivalent to the effects of the most powerful IBS medications.

Simply the belief that the pill would work had a positive impact on nearly two-thirds of the subjects.

One of the researchers, Anthony Lembo, HMS associate professor of medicine at BIDMC and an expert on IBS, didn’t think it would work. “I felt awkward asking patients to literally take a placebo. But to my surprise, it seemed to work for many of them.”

The point of the Harvard study was to determine if deception was necessary to achieve the well-known placebo effect, but the implications are much broader. What this study shows is that people don’t even need to think they’re taking an active drug in order for it to work, they just need to believe it will.

I explored this concept in my novel Now and at the Hour of Our Death [SPOILER ALERT] in which a writer pens an entire book under the influence of a powerful drug, Amelior, which turns out to be a placebo. The character must come to grips with the fact that the drug worked because he believed it would work.

But the placebo effect doesn’t just make for good fiction, it has a dramatic effect in real life. Placebo has been shown to have dramatic affect on migraine sufferers, depression, and knee pain. The reason is that our beliefs have a direct effect on how we perceive the condition of our bodies.

Journalist Jo Merchant, who as written extensively on the subject, sums it up:

It is well accepted that negative thoughts and anxiety can make us ill. Stress — the belief that we are at risk — triggers physiological pathways such as the “fight-or-flight” response, mediated by the sympathetic nervous system. These have evolved to protect us from danger, but if switched on long-term they increase the risk of conditions such as diabetes and dementia.

What researchers are now realizing is that positive beliefs don’t just work by quelling stress. They have a positive effect too — feeling safe and secure, or believing things will turn out fine, seems to help the body maintain and repair itself…

Optimism seems to reduce stress-induced inflammation and levels of stress hormones such as cortisol. It may also reduce susceptibility to disease by dampening sympathetic nervous system activity and stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. The latter governs what’s called the “rest-and-digest” response — the opposite of fight-or-flight.

In Hour, I wrote that it seems the more we know, the less we believe, and as the Harvard study shows, that could be a dangerous prospect. Belief alone can determine whether you have IBS symptoms or not; it can lead to extreme creativity or not; and it can lead to a persistent fight-or-flight or rest-and-digest mentality. Belief is integral in the direction our life takes and the best part about it is that it’s completely up to you.