• Julie Rowin MD

Harnessing the Power of Placebo

Interesting outcomes appear in clinical trials involving subjects with hard to measure symptoms such as chronic pain, anxiety, fatigue and depression for example. Subjects who receive placebo often improve by a magnitude that can mimic interventions known to be effective. This finding can be baffling to physicians and patients alike. How does a dummy treatment have effects similar to known effective drugs?

A placebo is defined as “an inert substance anticipated to have no pharmacologic or therapeutic effect”. Placebos have typically been used in modern clinical trials to measure and confirm the effect (benefit) of a drug against what is deemed to be “no treatment.”

It is estimated that at least 100 million American adults—more than the number affected by heart disease, diabetes, and cancer combined—live with chronic pain.(1)

The placebo effect

Researchers have shown that under certain conditions, taking a placebo triggers the chemical release your brain produces when given the “active” treatment. For example, if someone is given a placebo for pain, the brain changes it pharmacology to produce its own pain killers, such as endorphins. And, the placebo effect is not only seen in studies of pain or psychological distress, virtually every clinical study that uses a placebo shows a placebo effect to some degree. The placebo effect has even been shown to be robust for some symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. In one landmark study, the placebo matched the drug as far as effectiveness and chemical changes in the brain.(2)

So does the placebo effect work through trickery or deceit? Actually, no. Recent studies have shown that even if the study subjects are told up front that they are receiving placebo (an honest open-label placebo), they can still receive a similar benefit.(1,3)

How does the placebo effect work?

Research is still underway, but the old belief that the placebo is essentially the benefit of positive thinking seems to not hold up. More recently, researchers are looking at theories of a “subconscious” belief system, because it appears that what the conscious mind believes about the placebo, and pain for that matter, doesn’t matter much. Both pain and the placebo effect are driven in large part by the subconscious mind.

And, the placebo effect is like a subconscious push given in the direction of a person’s ability for self-healing.(4)

It is known that subconscious mind patterns can contribute to or perpetuate symptoms and disease. So, it seems to follow that we can look to the subconscious mind for relief and healing.

How can we harness the placebo effect in our daily lives to improve pain and promote self-healing?

Can re-training your neural networks to have a more conscious connection with your subconscious help to promote your own health and healing in your daily life? I believe it can.

As many of my readers understand, we are highly conditioned beings. We are programmed to believe that the power to heal lies outside of ourselves, when in fact, these placebo effect experiments indicate that there is a lot of power within.

I'll be writing more about how to harness the placebo effect in your daily life. It starts by re-training your neural networks to have a more conscious connection with your subconscious mind. Stay tuned for more.

  1. Kaptchuk TJ, Hemond CC, Miller FG. Placebos in chronic pain: evidence, theory, ethics, and use in clinical practice. BMJ (Clinical research ed). 2020;370:m1668.

  2. de la Fuente-Fernandez R, Ruth TJ, Sossi V, Schulzer M, Calne DB, Stoessl AJ. Expectation and dopamine release: mechanism of the placebo effect in Parkinson's disease. Science. 2001;293(5532):1164-1166.

  3. Lembo A, Kelley JM, Nee J, et al. Open-label placebo vs double-blind placebo for irritable bowel syndrome: a randomized clinical trial. Pain. 2021.

  4. Mommaerts JL, Devroey D. The placebo effect: how the subconscious fits in. Perspect Biol Med. 2012;55(1):43-58.