The Placebo Effect - The Benefits and the Risks to the "Sugar Pill"
What is the placebo effect? - It is when you get an effect from something that shouldn’t have that particular effect based on chemical or physical reactions. For example, the most common effect is when inert medications are given (typically a sugar or starch pill) to compare the effect vs. the actual medication, and this is used to separate actual chemical effects from mind based effects.
Medications, supplements, and other treatments should be based on the placebo controlled trial, preferably double blinded, meaning that the researchers and the patients have no idea who is getting a real or fake treatment. It is important because placebos can have real biological effects based on change that is created with your mind - so if you believe an effect will happen, it multiplies the chances that it will take place, and the opposite also holds true - if you believe something won’t happen, it’s more likely that you won’t experience it.
It was first described by Henry K Beecher in a 1955 paper where he discussed how and why the placebo effect happens, and it an important part of medicine ever since.
The placebo effect actually does work
It tends to work more for people who believe that they are receiving something beneficial and are educated on the effects of their so called treatment.
Why is this important? If someone gives you an ineffective treatment which has little to no risk associated with it, but it gives you benefit, it can be better than taking something potentially dangerous. Take for instance a false headache medication - you take a fake pain reliever and believe it will relieve pain. Your pain subsides and you think you received a real treatment. This type of action is arguably better considering that many pain medications come with side effects like intestinal bleeding, liver damage and addictive potential. However, it can be detrimental obviously to those in severe pain who actually need real pain relievers.
The placebo effect extends to many different areas and can be applied in a lot of ways - fake surgeries (i.e. psychic surgery, or even just conducting a fake knee replacement where those receiving no surgery still have benefits because they think they got a surgery). It demonstrates the power of our minds when it comes to helping to heal the body, and belief has been known to accelerate healing to a degree.
It sounds very woo woo and new age, but practically everyone has experienced the placebo effect in some way or another whether you believed that a treatment would work when realistically it wouldn’t do anything, superstitions are an extension of this, or even if you experienced false side effects from something that shouldn’t have had any side effects (nocebo).
Placebo effects actually explain hypochondriasis - people who believe they have illnesses that they don’t actually have. Their minds make the symptoms appear and so the false illness may present with very real symptoms. What is easy about this is you can give a hypochondriac a fake medicine and they may be more likely to get better from it since their illness is fabricated in the first place.
It is somewhat common for doctors to prescribe vitamins, aspirin, or other treatments for patients who have difficult or impossible to cure conditions. One of the most notable examples is when people are given antibiotics for colds and flu - antibiotics don’t kill viruses, but people seek them out because they believe they will work. This can have a negative effect too, as it can increase risk of antibiotic resistant bacteria, or the “placebo” medication may have other negative effects associated with the particular drug.
However, it does not work for everyone
It can be as low as 15% to up to 72% cure rate, depending on the condition. It has a lot to do with the length and intensity of the treatment as well, number of doctor visits, interactions with practitioners, amount of money spent and time invested, etc. Those who are generally skeptical may experience lower cure rates from the placebo effect.
Many health scams are actually based on the placebo effect for their “effectiveness.” We like to use homeopathy as an example. Many proponents of this branch of “medicine” state the benefits of the treatments as if they are real, though studies are limited and often find no effectiveness greater than placebo without extensive statistical manipulation (or poorly conducted studies in general). There is actually no real reason for homeopathy to work, since it is based upon strange dilution ratios, magical thinking, and the fact that most homeopathic medicines are literally sugar pills or water with maybe a single molecule of a plant compound which is supposed to carry an imprint or energy - complete BS if you ask me!
Other treatments that are chalked up to placebo effects include acupuncture, energy healing, faith healing, psychic surgery, and more.
The dangers and ethical downsides of placebos
Obviously, giving someone fake treatments for real ailments can be dangerous and unethical to a degree. Researchers get around this by having their participants sign consent forms which acknowledge that they may receive a placebo treatment.
However, when people with serious conditions do not derive ENOUGH benefit from the placebo effect, we run into issues. For example, a cancer patient receiving sugar pills instead of actual cancer treatment, or seeking out alternative medicine which has zero evidence for effectiveness and denying all traditional treatments.
People who push zero evidence treatments and only espouse the dangers of conventional medicine are doing more harm than good and preying on people who are desperate for a cure. These types of treatments should be seen as complementary, where the placebo effect may be able to assist an effective treatment in becoming more effective. This is commonly seen in some diseases which require long treatments.
Many oncologists and specialists will actually encourage patients to seek complementary treatments even if they know them to be ineffective in the traditional sense because belief that you will get better using an adjunct often helps the prognosis.
How to use the placebo effect to your advantage
It really takes belief that something will work, however, having doubt about the effectiveness will reduce or eliminate the placebo effect entirely. If you can convince yourself and get other people to convince you, then you may see benefits.
Unfortunately, our podcast and blog aims to dispel supplement myths as we look into the science and see whether or not supplements actually have their claimed effects, but sometimes you just won’t shake a belief despite evidence to the contrary.
As long as you aren’t using something harmful as a placebo and aren’t completely ignoring when you need real treatment, there’s nothing inherently wrong with using it to your advantage.