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Placebos Work -- Even Without Deception

Placebo PillIt has long been believed that the placebo effect works only because people believe they are taking a real drug. But a new study casts doubt on this assumption. Placebos may work even when they are administered without deception.

Even though placebos contain no active ingredients, patients often respond to them. In fact, many American physicians -- perhaps as many as 50 percent -- secretly give placebos to their patients.

Since this practice is ethically questionable, a group of researchers decided to explore whether or not the power of placebos can be used without the secrecy.

Science Daily reports:

"... 80 patients suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) were divided into two groups: one group, the controls, received no treatment, while the other group received a regimen of placebos -- honestly described as 'like sugar pills' .

.. By the end of the trial, nearly twice as many patients treated with the placebo reported adequate symptom relief ... Also, on other outcome measures, patients taking the placebo doubled their rates of improvement to a degree roughly equivalent to the effects of the most powerful IBS medications."

Dr. Mercola's Comments:

It's long been noted that placebo treatments -- sugar pills, sham surgeries, etc. -- often work as well as, or even better than, actual medical treatments involving drugs and surgery. But it has been assumed that the placebo effect worked because patients believed they were actually being treated with a drug or medical procedure.

Now it's been revealed that the placebo effect may work just as well if you know the treatment is a sham.

The Placebo Effect Works Even When You Know it's a Fake

The placebo effect is so strong that it's estimated up to 50 percent of U.S. physicians actually "prescribe" placebos to their patients, under the guise that they're an actual treatment. Although likely far less harmful in many cases than the drugs that would ordinarily be prescribed, this is, nonetheless, a deceptive tactic.

So Harvard researchers decided to look into the placebo effect further, this time to determine if the beneficial effects still exist when a patient knows they're receiving a placebo (and therefore physicians could feel free to prescribe placebos and tell their patients that that's exactly what they're receiving).

To their surprise, nearly 60 percent of patients given a placebo pill (and, again, told they were receiving a placebo) reported adequate relief from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms, compared to only 35 percent of those who received no treatment.

Even more astonishing, those taking the placebo reported improvements that were virtually the same as those reported from people taking the strongest IBS medications.

Many illnesses, from Parkinson's disease to irritable bowel syndrome, have been proven to improve after placebo pills and treatments.

The jury is still out on whether the practice of taking a sugar pill or simply going through the ritual of treatment is what's causing the beneficial responses … but either way now studies show that if you think you're receiving a treatment, and you expect that treatment to work, it often does -- and even if you know you're receiving a placebo, the beneficial effects still hold strong.

In the Harvard study noted above, the researchers even mentioned that the volunteers did not have to believe in the placebo effect, just asked them to take the pills anyway, and the sham pills still worked!

Two Glaring Examples of the Power of Placebo

Antidepressants, which are one of the most prescribed drugs in the United States. have been proven to be no more effective than sugar pills. Some studies have even found that placebo pills may produce better results than antidepressants!

Another example of the power of the placebo effect was published in the classic New England Journal of Medicine knee surgery study.

This was, without question, one of the most amazing studies I have ever seen published, as it definitely proves the power of your mind in healing.

This double-blind, placebo-controlled, multi-center trial performed at some of the top U.S. hospitals found that a popular operation for arthritis of the knee (arthroscopic surgery for osteoarthritis) worked no better than a sham procedure in which patients were sedated while surgeons pretended to operate.

So it was not actually the surgery itself that was responsible for the improvement, but rather was the placebo effect. More precisely, it's the ability of your brain to produce healing when you believe it should be happening (such as after you receive knee surgery or even go through the ritual of taking a pill).

When "Placebos" are Not Really Placebos

The "double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized clinical trial" is regarded as the gold standard of medical research. But if placebos can exert healing effects in their own right, it calls this research dogma into question.

Further, oftentimes placebos used in research studies are not the inert substances they're supposed to be, and researchers often don't disclose what ingredients are used in their placebo pills and injections. 

In a study of 176 trials published in reputable medical journals, only 8 percent of those using pills for placebos disclosed the ingredients. Studies using placebo injections and other forms fared slightly better, with over 26 percent disclosing what the placebo was made of, but most still kept their placebos a secret.

This is a major omission in these studies, as ingredients in placebos can and do skew study results, such as the case where a study on omega-3 fats got terribly skewed results after using margarine as a placebo.

So unless a study discloses its placebo ingredients, and those ingredients are truly inert, a placebo-controlled study really can't be trusted. And even then, you've got to take the placebo effect itself into account, which often results in better outcomes than the drug treatments (again probably because patients taking placebos don't have to deal with drug side effects).

What's the take-home message here?

It's important to embrace your body's own innate ability to heal without interventions like drugs and surgeries. As the power of the placebo effect shows, it's often possible to feel better just because your mind subconsciously believes it's time, or your subconscious alters body processes in response to the placebo pills without you even being aware of it.

As often as possible, always try to use the placebo option first. This is a new way of thinking about healing for most people, but can be extremely powerful, especially when combined with a healthy outlook and disease-preventive lifestyle.