Think positive: Placebo effect can have real results

a handsome chap“There’s a sucker born every minute!” Rip-off artists chant this phrase like a mantra. I don’t think victims of crime and scandals are suckers: many people think others are innocent and good. Look at Hitler, Bernie Madoff, and OJ Simpson.

One friend said to me, “I trust my friends 100 percent, but I also realize they’re 100 percent human.”

People make mistakes. People sometimes are deceiving. “People, who need people, are the luckiest people... in the world.” Even Barbra Streisand has her faults.

Is the placebo effect meant for suckers only?                               

A placebo is a fake pill. Well, let me clarify. A placebo is a real pill in that it exists and you swallow it. Placebos are used in placebo-controlled clinical trials to show if a “real” treatment works. The difference is that a placebo doesn’t contain a medicine; it’s a sugar pill. Yes, you might as well swallow an M&M, and it will melt in your mouth and not in your hands.

However, there is something to placebos. For many people, the idea of getting a miracle pill can indeed effect a cure. This is called “the placebo effect.”

I was listening to a podcast by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich on WNYC’s Radiolab about the placebo effect. They discussed how “mind over matter” can affect a person’s health. For some folks, the mere suggestion of a side effect of a medicine can make them call 911 after taking something as benign as Vitamin B12.

On the flip side, in double-blind placebo-controlled drug trials, some folks randomized to get the placebos (so they don’t know if the pill is real or fake) will experience “side effects” or experience improvement!

When you get a medicine, you also get a rice paper-thin piece of paper (with font so small it looks like mildew) listing all the side effects experienced by patients including those who got the placebo. Yes, folks who think they’re taking a real medicine can report dizziness, nausea, diarrhea, headache, and so forth. (Doesn’t life give us all these symptoms without pills?)

For others, the placebo effect results in positive benefits such as smoking cessation, better sleep, reduced anxiety, and weight loss. Sometimes, all you need is a cheerleader to propel you to success, or a shoulder to cry on to help you cope with bad times. That in itself can be healing. It might not be a cure, but it can steer a person in the right direction.

Though I think most “faith healers” are about as authentic as Playboy bunnies’ bra sizes, some folks initially do better after getting some holy spirit. However, we don’t get to see the man who got out of his wheelchair and walked on the stage crumpled in misery later that night.

In the podcast about the placebo effect, a doctor asked a medical center to document how he used hypnotism to treat a teenager with an “irreversible” skin condition. I was very skeptical. Indeed, my skepticism was somewhat correct, because this doctor could not cure anyone else after his one great success. Perhaps it was because this boy believed enough in this cure, and perhaps his particular condition was susceptible to the power of the mind.

I do think positive thinking is beneficial to good health. And while positive thinking might not be a cure-all, it can help to steer a person in a better direction– and away from being a “pill.”
Dr. Hook cracks a joke or two, but he's a renowned physician with an interesting website, Email him with your questions.