One of the few magazines I read regularly is Prevention. As the years go by I’m finding news about staying healthy is becoming more and more relevant. Anyone else feel the same? During the last two issues, I’ve noticed a couple of articles pointing out how a missed diagnosis is often a problem, and that getting second opinions for serious issues is always a good idea. Bottom line? Medical care should be a partnership—not a passive surrender to outside authority. And if that’s true, then recognizing the power of placebos, the mind/body connection, and our own body’s inherent healing abilities is crucial. If we want to stay healthy and happy for as long as possible, it’s SMART to remember that our mind just might be a key medicine available to us all.
I have always been a big fan of the idea of placebos. What exactly is a placebo? In these days of “fake news,” it is important to differentiate placebos from fake medicine or remedies—but that is what often happens. To the contrary, placebos offer proof that healing can and does happen often with nothing more than a “sugar pill,” an imaginary surgery, or a sham injection. Whether we see these improvements as all in a person’s mind or a miracle, placebos are actually demonstrating the power of the body to return to homeostasis and “heal.” What triggers that innate ability? From everything I’ve studied, it boils down to the beliefs, expectations, and perceptions in each individual’s mind.
Unfortunately, placebos don’t always get the respect they deserve. Obviously, drug companies refer to them only in contrast to any new drug they hope to put on the market. In order to get FDA approval, drug companies must do clinical studies comparing their new drug to a placebo in order to demonstrate that their drug is better than doing nothing. Yet, not only does a placebo often do better than their new drug, the power of placebos is growing.
For example, research shows that in the 2000s the placebo response in relation to antidepressant drug trials registered twice as strong compared to similar drugs tested in the 1980s. In other words, twice the number people who were taking a placebo rather than the new drug being proposed felt much better and received expected benefits from sugar pills they thought were a new drug. These changing results are costing drug companies increased funds in order to prove the superiority of their drugs, so of course, they are not big fans. What’s behind the change? Speculation says it is because people now widely accept (and believe) that drugs can help with depression—so any pill, placebo or not, often brings relief.
Regrettably, most doctors aren’t fans of placebos either. Dr. Lisa Rankin admits in her book, Mind over Medicine that she was raised and educated in the traditional scientific world. Before doing her own research and writing her book, she confesses that nothing in her medical studies supported the idea of a mind/body connection. However, she eventually came to realize that, “Most doctors, if you get them away from their often critical and judgmental colleagues, will admit this: deep down, they believe that when it comes to the healing process, some crossover between the mystical and the physiological is at play and that the common ground that connects the two is the great and powerful mind.”
Dr. Ellen Langer, who I have written about before, is also a big proponent of the mind/body connection and the power of placebos. Dr. Langer believes that it is essential that we all learn to take control of our own health. A key to that control is recognizing that doctors indeed know more about health in general than most of us do, but individually we know more about ourselves than anyone else. Through all her studies of the mind/body connection, Langer believes, “I have come to believe less and less that biology is destiny. It is not primarily our physical selves that limit us but rather our mindset about our physical limits. Now I accept none of the medical wisdom regarding the courses our diseases must take as necessarily true.”
But where does that leave us? Even those doctors who are currently studying the placebo response are wary. In fact, after reading dozens of articles about the power of placebos, I get the impression that doctors are convinced that if we suddenly start realizing how much power and control we have to influence our own health, we won’t need them anymore. And from what I can tell, much of the current research focuses on how doctors can now learn to specialize in “placebo” prescriptions.
Also, drug companies are attempting to figure out how to make and market a brand of placebos to “use them in conjunction” with traditional procedures. This all points out how conditioned we are to “over-medicalize” our world. What does that mean? According to Langer, over-medicalization means that we label all our experiences and conditions according to a medical condition or syndrome—where every challenge or difficulty becomes a disability, and every sensation becomes a symptom. Instead, many people want to believe that our ability to heal belongs in the hands of an expert. Behind it all is the desire to put the responsibility for our good health, or our bad health, in someone else’s hands rather than our own. And don’t get me started on drug companies trying to figure out how to make money on something we can do for ourselves.
This line of thinking isn’t an attempt to make people feel guilty when they get sick. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t experienced an illness or physical issue at one time or another, so there is no blame here. Instead, by accepting some responsibility for the creation of a condition, we also hold some power to improve and sometimes heal the condition as well.
Of course, in order for that to happen, we must be deeply aware that our mind, body, and emotions are all connected. And while most of us recognize that our bodies don’t feel that good whenever we are upset, fearful, angry or stressed out—we somehow disassociate that awareness with how it affects our long-term health. But we should. As Dr. Rankin says, “It’s not enough to focus solely on the body without taking the time to account the health of the mind. Promoting health of the body without encouraging health of the mind is an exercise in futility.”
Where do placebos fit in all this? I could literally fill dozens of more blog posts with studies showing the power of placebos. Documentation ranges from simple things like a person who believes they are touching poison ivy breaking out in hives, blood glucose normalizing after receiving sugar pills, and a young man with debilitating migraines who was dramatically healed by putting on his doctor’s homemade helmet. But all of those stories sound fabricated unless we are willing to accept how placebos work.
Just about everyone who studies placebos sees the power coming from a combination of belief, perception, and expectation. Dr. Bruce Lipton takes that a bit further by saying that the brain registers perception, but it is the mind that determines and interprets belief. Then, according to Rankin, “It all kept coming back to the hormones and neurotransmitters the brain spits out, depending on whether the mind interprets something as positive (as it does with the placebo effect) or negative (as it does with the nocebo effect).”
As you have probably guessed, the nocebo response is when a person takes something or does something expecting it to be harmful. In many cases, the body then proves the mind correct. For example, if you eat something you believe will give you a stomachache, a headache or any other symptom, your body will do its best to give you those sensations.
Dr. Rankin explains the foundation behind placebos by saying, “When our beliefs are hopeful and optimistic, the mind releases chemicals that put the body in a state of physiological rest, primarily controlled by the parasympathetic nervous system, and in this state of rest, the body’s natural self-repair mechanisms are free to get to work fixing what’s broken in the body. “
In other words, the reasons that placebos work is because when we have hope and optimistically believe that we are feeling relief and getting better (whether it comes from a doctor, a surgery or our own ministrations), our body’s produce the chemicals needed to either reduce pain or help us to get into a relaxed state where our body can then begin to return to a normal healthy state.
However, if a person doesn’t believe there is hope, trust in the procedure, or is thinking other negative thoughts about their condition, their body perceives any actions or remedies we undergo as a threat. This elicits a “stress response.” Rankin says about this state, “When the body’s stress responses are activated, the body isn’t concerned with long-term issues like cellular rejuvenations, self-repair, and fighting the effects of aging.” In the stress response state of mind, we stay keyed into a fight or flight mode and that does not aid a healing or healthy body.
Obviously knowing all this is very beneficial but if you are like me you forget about the mind/body connection and the power of placebos all the time. Fortunately, according to Rankin, there are things we can do. She suggests:
- Consciously program yourself (and those you love) to remember that your body knows how to stay healthy and most of the time will return to that state if you let it. Of course, you should never deny adequate medical care when necessary—but see medical staff as partners, not the solution.
- Be mindful of medical hexing. If a doctor gives you a negative diagnosis, run (not walk) to the nearest exit. Trust and appreciation of your medical team and their recommendations are vital to your healing. Oh, and getting a second or third opinion is always SMART!
- What your doctor believes is nearly as important as what you believe about your healing. According to a study quoted by Rankin, “If the doctor doesn’t believe a certain treatment will work, the treatment may actually be less effective.”
- Be open to alternative medicine treatments because most of them will help trigger your relaxation response and reduce stress in the body. Remember, anything that can help your body heal itself can be beneficial.
- Never believe that you can separate your health from the health of your mind or your life experiences. When sick, ask yourself, “What do you think might be at the root of your illness? Then ask, “What does your body need in order to heal?”
- Regardless of the way you do it, quieting and calming the mind puts our minds and bodies in the relaxation response—which leads to better healing.
- Find ways to regularly activate your parasympathetic nervous system. Rankin suggests anything that feeds your soul like laughter, playing with pets, journaling, prayer, napping, yoga, spending time in nature and more.
I realize I’ve covered a lot of ground in this post but more than anything I think it is SMART for all of us to remember the connection and power of our mind and bodies when it comes to maintaining good health. As Rankin says, “The body is a miracle waiting to happen, if only we optimize its ability to do what it’s made to do naturally.” Ultimately, the secret to good health isn’t really a secret at all because the best solution is available within us all the time.
“It’s supposed to be a professional secret, but I’ll tell you anyway. We doctors do nothing. We only help and encourage the doctor within.” ~Albert Schweitzer, M.D.