The Power of Placebo
“Oh it’s just a placebo effect…”
I hear this a lot in the world of science and nutrition. Placebo in the context of a drug trial (and not the 90s alt rock band) is the administering of a ‘sham’ pill or injection (or even surgery) to a control group of a similar size and nature as the group receiving the real pill or injection. The idea is to account for the placebo effect, whereby a person can feel they are experiencing a benefit, even though they’ve only necked a sugar pill.
Wait…what? Yes. A person can actually feel better from taking something non-active simply because they believe they took the real drug! When I first heard about this years ago, it stuck in my head because I’m utterly fascinated with the power of the mind and how it affects our health. As a student nutritional therapist, no one ever told me how much emotional work I’d be doing with clients. In fact, I often feel I’d benefit from a degree in psychotherapy!
The problem is, people often consider the mind and the body as two separate entities. Well they’re not! Your thoughts and feelings have a direct physical effect on your body and the placebo effect perfectly demonstrates this. Clinicians are now starting to view the placebo effect as a valid series of biological reactions which can enhance patient care. Some people start to heal just from experiencing attention from a clinician. How great is that? These people have such a strong mind/body connection that they can ditch the drugs in favour of a kind smile and a listening ear from their healthcare provider.
It turns out (with no surprise whatsoever from me) that genetics play a part in all this. Some people with a certain gene polymorphism, Catechol-o-methyltransferase otherwise known as COMT, are more likely to be placebo responders. This is great because perhaps one day, just by knowing someone’s genetic makeup, a clinician could opt to administer a sham treatment, if considered safe, and leave the healing to the patient’s incredible mind!
There are other gene variants thought to be involved in the placebo effect and together these are referred to as the placebome. As always, once we find out something that’s been under our noses all along is actually amazing, we add an -ome [see microbiome, genome, metabolome and all the other delicious -omes]. So now placebo has been given its own -ome, we know we definitely have to sit up and take notice.
Can I Use Placebo?
Yes! Get this: you can have a placebo sleep. Let me type that again because it’s so unbelievably great:
A few years back, 164 unsuspecting souls participated in a study whereby they were hooked up to a machine for a night and told they either had a good sleep or a bad sleep. The machine was a sham. The participants were split into various groups, some had good sleep (e.g. appropriate REM time and sleep phases) and were told it was bad and others were told the opposite. The results showed that a significant number of participants felt either rested or tired based purely on the results of the fake machine. Ok, so this is basically lying but let’s not get caught up in that...
How can you lie to yourself? Easy, just tell yourself you had a great sleep! This is basic Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP). If you wake up feeling tired and spend all day telling yourself and anyone who’ll listen how tired you are, you’ll feel rubbish - and you'll have no friends. If however, you wake up bleary eyed but tell yourself you feel super rested, you may well start to feel better and behave accordingly. With NLP you just have to keep saying positive things (to yourself and others) and even if at first you don’t believe them, eventually your body will start to respond.
You can try it with food too; the University of Exeter (UoE) developed a free app called Food Trainer (FoodT for short) which reportedly helps with cravings. The app is a simple computer game that trains your brain to stop when confronted with certain unhealthy foods or drinks. UoE found that repeatedly playing this game builds up associations between certain foods (such as chocolate) and the act of stopping in response to these foods, effectively putting the brakes on your eating behaviour. This is basically placebo effect at its finest, the body’s cravings can be changed from chocolate to broccoli but this time by the mind and body using repetition, rather than receiving a sham treatment.
My mind is officially blown so I’m off to have a placebo nap…
We hope this inspires some of you to tell yourself some (good) lies! If you have any questions, just drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org