monk with red dress with hands placebo effect

In 1994, a groundbreaking article about a new drug that would cure ulcers was published by Lanza et al. at this fancy AF medicine journal. People were like, gimme it.

Besides the people given the actual drug, 44 patients got a placebo that looked like the real thing. Same diagnosis, tested after 2 and 4 weeks, they too were cured like the patients who got Prevacid (shoutout to Prevacid btw).

Placebo is inert, meaning it’s not supposed to do anything, but placebo is a rebel and breaks the rules.

A long time ago, if a monk died, at 4 pm* the other monks would gather around and read Psalm 116: “Placebo domino in regione vivorum.”, roughly translated “I shall be pleasing to the Lord in the land of the living”.

Physicians started using the term “placebo” to refer to times when there wasn’t anything left to do and prescribed medication to calm patients rather than cure them. Then, placebo got the meaning it has today, actual inert substances instead of no-good drugs.

Including a wide range of mental and physical symptoms and disorders, without any other known external factors affecting them, patients get better.

Mind-body

The placebo response rate in depression consistently falls between 30 and 40%¹.

Now that’s something, right?! Placebo relies heavily on the mind-body relationship. The main theory claims the placebo effect depends on the patient’s expectations.

If the patient expects medication to create change, bodily chemical reactions work in such a way that they produce a similar effect to the actual drug.

There was no significant difference between patients with asthma that used a placebo inhaler and the ones using the real thing (I love saying the real thing). Even when asked about perceptions, they reported the same feeling of liberation as the other group of patients.²

IBS is a disease related to a problem with a part of the body, with no physical abnormality present per se.

Patients received placebo treatment in the form of acupuncture, however, the needles used didn’t pierce through the skin.

  • 44% of them reported symptom relief
  • 62% if the acupuncturist was caring, engaging and empathetic.³

Even though we have powerful resources to handle the challenges life throws at us, we can’t use them deliberately all the time.

Our brains on placebo

Weger asked 40 college freshmen to complete a general knowledge test. Each question had 4 alternatives. Half of the students were told the right answer would appear on the screen for a fleeting moment. Even though it’d be too quick to process consciously, their brain would register it. Hint: that was a lie.

If you guessed the placebo students scored higher than the control group, you’re right.

Feeling safe within the knowledge that your brain already knows the answer reduces your anxiety, making what you already know more accessible.

To quote Daft Punk,  your brain works “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”.

Ethical concerns

As you might’ve figured by now, placebo practitioners have to use deception as a tool, which brings forth some ethical concerns.

In 2010, Kaptchuk, a researcher and enthusiast of the placebo effect, had enough. He was like, “Let’s just tell them they’re getting placebo.” Just like that.

He informed patients about the effect though, and how a huge amount of people get better after placebo treatment.

If you guessed they still got better, you’re right, (hopefully) again.

Opium-like power

Human brains just want you to get better. It seems like they’re all in, even if you’re not giving them much to work with, in the first place.

To misquote The Weeknd, “just trynna put you in the best mood”.

Studies have shown that blocking endorphins release would also stop the placebo effect, suggesting that it’s similar to that of an active ingredient (API).

Apparently, a lot of the present neurotransmitters follow the same neural pathways as marijuana or opium. Our brains are that mighty powerful!

Skeptics

Skeptics claim that people suffering from chronic illnesses don’t go to the doctor right away, so there is a chance they get better naturally, over a short period.

Many doctors have been among the skeptics, not sure what to do with this relatively new information.

Correlation doesn’t mean causation, so they can’t know for sure yet, but time (well, studies) will tell, hopefully soon enough.


There are two main takeaways from this.

Being supportive and providing psychological and emotional care, besides medical, could be objectively helpful.

If there’s the slightest chance you telling them they’re badasses means they get 0.001% better? I’d say those odds look pretty good to me.

Reminder: kind words cost nothing, but they’re invaluable.

Lastly, our brains, ladies and gents and non binary friends!

You find snippets of the placebo effect in lots of self-help books, with good reason.

Isn’t it magical how our brains know no scientific boundaries when it comes to serving us?

Today, I feel grateful for my brain and my body and every little organism inside me working non-stop to keep me here.

Here’s my new all-time favorite quote from Thích Nhất Hạnh:

Because you are alive, everything is possible.


*I don’t know why exactly then, #justmonkthings ?

¹ L. Johnston, Sebastian. Asthma: Critical Debates. John Wiley & Sons,2008.
² Brown, Walter A. “Placebo As A Treatment For Depression”, Neuropsychopharmacology 10.4 (1994): 265-269. Web.
³Kaptchuk, T. J et al. “Components Of Placebo Effect: Randomised Controlled Trial In Patients With Irritable Bowel Syndrome”. N.p., 2017.

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