by Kalee Brown
When I was really young, whenever I felt sick, my grandmother used to make me cinnamon sugar toast. I felt like I could taste her love with every bite, and by the time I had finished my toast, my stomachache would have magically disappeared. In hindsight, I recognize that the dairy in the butter and the refined sugar in the cinnamon blend probably weren’t helping my digestive issues, yet somehow this meal always made me feel better. How does this make any sense? Herein lies the mystery of the placebo effect.
No, science cannot prove that when my grandmother delivered me cinnamon toast with a loving smile and a giant hug, I instantly felt better, but as a five-year-old child I certainly experienced that. Though my grandmother may not have realized it, she was likely harnessing the power of the placebo effect.
What Is the Placebo Effect?
The placebo effect is essentially the idea that your brain can convince your body that a fake treatment, because it (your brain) thinks it’s real, can provide real solutions and stimulate healing in the body. In essence, the placebo effect shows us how powerful our minds, how powerful our consciousness is, in that we can change our biology using our beliefs.
Many of you may have played around with the concept “You become what you think about most of the time,” meaning your thoughts literally become your reality. Businessmen like Kevin Trudeau have used it to make billions of dollars, and many people including myself enjoy witnessing the law of attraction in our everyday lives. However, how does this work when it comes to our health?
Well, science is starting to realize that, in some cases, a placebo can be equally as effective as the original treatments themselves.
“The placebo effect is more than positive thinking — believing a treatment or procedure will work. It’s about creating a stronger connection between the brain and body and how they work together,” says Professor Ted Kaptchuk of Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, who has studied the placebo effect extensively.
However, Kaptchuk believes that the placebo effect can only go so far. “Placebos may make you feel better, but they will not cure you,” says Kaptchuk. “They have been shown to be most effective for conditions like pain management, stress-related insomnia, and cancer treatment side effects like fatigue and nausea.”
It’s people like Kaptchuk who are challenging the way the scientific community typically looks at the placebo effect. In the past, placebos have been used in clinical trials, most often in drug tests, and were typically associated with failure. The mentality was that if you weren’t one of the participants who got the drug, you didn’t receive the benefits. Alternatively, if both groups of participants — those who received placebo pills and those who actually took the drug — experienced similar effects, then the drug was deemed ineffective.
However, scientists are now starting to realize that similar reactions may not mean a drug doesn’t work, but rather that the placebo is actually working in a similar fashion. What if these participants believed they were taking the drug, and thus experienced health benefits as a result? Experts have concluded that reacting to a placebo doesn’t mean a certain treatment doesn’t work, but rather that an alternative, non-pharmacological treatment may be present.