How the placebo effect may help you

When you were a child, your mother or grandmother might have used a home remedy that made you feel better, especially when it was delivered with a soothing hand on the forehead or a kiss on the cheek. Perhaps she assured you that a cup of warm milk would help you fall asleep, and you found that it did.

Unbeknownst to you — or her — she was probably harnessing the placebo effect, loosely defined as a favorable response to a medical intervention that doesn’t have a direct physiological effect. Although you may have learned later in life that there isn’t much scientific evidence to support the practice, you may still sleep better after a cup of warm milk at bedtime.

What is the placebo effect?

The placebo effect doesn’t just explain the success of unproven remedies. “It’s at work in every kind of medicine,” says Ted Kaptchuk, professor of medicine and director of the Program of Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter at Harvard Medical School. Although placebos are often called “sham therapies” or “dummy drugs,” they aren’t inert. In Latin, “placebo” means “I will please.” According to Kaptchuk, the placebo effect is a way of quantifying everything around a treatment, including the empathy of the people on the medical team, the patient’s trust in them, and all the symbols and rituals surrounding clinical care.

Scientists long believed the placebo effect was based solely on a person’s expectation that he or she is getting a treatment that will help. But Kaptchuk’s research has demonstrated that people may still find relief in taking a pill they know is a placebo. In one study of people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a condition characterized by cramping and diarrhea or constipation, half of the volunteers were told they were getting a placebo and the others got nothing at all. Kaptchuk found that there was a dramatic and significant improvement in the placebo group’s IBS symptoms, but not in those of the group that wasn’t treated.

Another of Kaptchuk’s studies demonstrated that people may perceive placebos to be effective even when there is no real physical improvement. Researchers assigned 39 people with asthma to one of three treatments — an inhaler containing the asthma drug albuterol, a placebo inhaler, and sham acupuncture (a procedure in which needles retract into the shaft instead of piercing the skin). When the researchers tested the people’s lung function following treatment, they found that albuterol was much more effective in improving breathing than either the placebo inhaler or sham acupuncture. However, the people in all three groups reported the same level of relief. In that study and others, the placebos appeared to alter brain chemistry.

Placebos won’t shrink tumors, kill viruses, or bring your cholesterol down. But if you’re using a remedy for a minor condition that seems to be working for no perceptible reason — like sleeping with a bar of soap under the sheets to ward off leg cramps — you may have found a placebo that works for you.

What you can do

We’re a long way from fully understanding the placebo effect. But there are some things that you can do based on what researchers have discovered so far:

Find the right doctor. Research has shown that the doctor-patient relationship is a significant factor in the success of any treatment. If you aren’t getting the support and attention you feel you need, consider switching doctors.

Trust your perceptions. If you feel better, you’re probably doing better. Behind the subjective experience of feeling better are objective changes in brain chemistry that medical researchers are only starting to understand.

Find treatments that you can believe in. Expectations that an intervention will have some benefit may increase the chance that it will. Ask your medical team to explain the benefits that you can expect.

Don’t neglect evidence-based medicine. Check with your physician to see whether you are taking advantage of all the proven therapies for your condition. Don’t be taken in by claims for unproven remedies for serious conditions like cancer or immune disorders.

Below are spiritual recipe for health and wellness: Matthew E. McLaren

Ecclesiastes 3:12-13   I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.

Psalm 1:1-6   Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; …

John 14:1   “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.

John 16:24  Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.

Psalm 34:8  Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!

Isaiah 26:3-4  You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. Trust in the LORD forever, for the LORD GOD is an everlasting rock.

Galatians 5:22-23  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.

Jeremiah 29:11  For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.

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