Home Mind & Brain Harnessing the Placebo Effect to Improve Your Well-Being

Harnessing the Placebo Effect to Improve Your Well-Being

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Placebos have no active ingredient, yet even when people know that fact and take them, they can still work.

How is that possible? Even more amazing is this: some placebos are more effective than real medicines. Yes, you read correctly. 

If you understand more about how the placebo effect works, you can harness its effects to improve your well-being. This article could be the best sugar pill you will ever take and can keep taking.

Imagine taking a pill devoid of any active ingredient, yet your pain lessens or your mood brightens. Unbelievable as it sounds, that is the power of the placebo effect. Understanding the placebo effect and its mechanisms can empower you to harness its benefits and boost your own well-being. 

How does it work?

In one word: belief. 

When a person believes, consciously or unconsciously, that a placebo will help them, that belief seems to muster the resources of their body and mind to make changes that help. 

Placebos come in many forms: pills, injections, procedures, human connection, and persuasion, to name only a few. 

It seems that all of the body’s systems are interconnected and can “communicate” with each other, either directly or indirectly. For example, what happens in the mind can impact the immune system. What happens in the immune system can impact the endocrine system. What happens in the endocrine system can impact the nervous system, and so on. With all systems interconnected, people can and have, literally, thought themselves better. 

While we still do not fully understand the precise biochemistry of the connections between all the systems, they most definitely influence each other. It is entirely possible that an effective placebo has a systemically global effect; it directly or indirectly influences all body and brain systems and the interactions between them.

The key ingredient of any placebo is not in whatever inert “treatment” is administered, but in the recipient’s expectations and beliefs. 

When someone experiences the placebo effect, their brain triggers a cascade of physiological responses that lead to genuine changes and improvements. 

How is that biochemically possible?

Here is an overview of what we know about just four of the chemicals that are involved in the workings of the placebo, (there are many more). 

  • Endorphins. Anticipation of a treatment’s benefits stimulates the release of endorphins, our body’s natural painkillers. This can alleviate pain and create feelings of well-being.
  • Dopamine. The belief in a treatment’s effectiveness can trigger the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with reward and motivation. This can enhance mood and thus positively reinforce taking the placebo.
  • Oxytocin. Known as the “love hormone,” it seems to mediate the placebo effect in some cases. When someone feels valued, appreciated, respected, and cared for, their body releases oxytocin, which seems, like growth hormone, to have globally curative properties.
  • Growth hormone. This has been shown to be released in greater volume when placebos have been successfully provided. That is hugely significant, because growth hormone is widely used in the body’s repair processes.
  • Perception and interpretation. The expectation of improvement can influence how the mind perceives and interprets the body’s symptoms. Multiple studies have shown that placebos have a measurable impact on macro-scale physiological markers such as blood pressure and heart rate. Perception has also been shown to impact a wide array of other hormones, such as insulin and corticosterone.

Is the placebo effect a single phenomenon?

So far, we have talked about the placebo effect as if it were just one phenomenon. It seems there are either several placebo effects or several ways the same effect can be induced or manifested. That is true for its opposite, the nocebo effect. The same principles, applied negatively, can make people ill. Curses and voodoo are the most widely known examples of the nocebo effect. There are many others. For instance, when a person is repeatedly told by people around them, that they don’t look well, they are much more likely to start feeling ill.

Focusing on the placebo, why do some placebos outperform genuinely therapeutic medicines? Frankly, because our bodies have evolved over millions of years to be great at self-healing. 

Understanding the placebo and self-healing

We have only just begun to scratch the surface of understanding the complexities of the workings of our self-healing systems. For instance, we are hugely ignorant of the role that our gut biome plays in our immune system. We do know it is massively important, but how it all functions is still a mystery.

Our lack of understanding of how the body and mind work to heal themselves is something that several researchers are trying to address. The more we can learn about how to switch on the self-healing process, the less we have to depend on external treatments (with all the risks and side-effects they carry). The more potent we can make our self-healing, the better for our health and safety. 

What factors contribute to the potency of placebo effects?

The healer-patient relationship

The biggest single predictor of successful healing outcomes is the depth and quality of relationship between the healer and healed. 

A positive and trusting relationship with a healthcare professional builds belief in the effectiveness of the treatment. That is true even when the proposed treatment has no intrinsic efficacy, as is the case with placebos. 

When a treatment has only marginal efficacy, if it is coupled with a great healer-patient relationship, the healing outcomes are measurably better – much better than the medication can deliver on its own. 

You may have heard that the most effective physicians are those with the “best bedside manner.” It is true; their rapport formation skills are instrumental in the healing outcomes of their patients.

In the field of psychotherapy, the most effective therapists are those with the best relationships with their clients. That is true regardless of which of the hundreds of different psychotherapeutic approaches the therapist practices. That means that the “therapeutic” methods used are insignificant, even irrelevant, compared to the relationship-induced placebo effect. 

We know that a meaningful chat with a trusted friend is as effective as psychotherapy for about a third of people facing a life challenge. Strong rapport, with another person seems to trigger the body and mind to self-heal. Rapport may be the most important element in the placebo effect.

If rapport were that powerful as a healer, what would we expect to see? That those who have the best relationships, are, as a group, healthier than the rest of the population. And yes, that is exactly what we see. Good rapport and quality relationships seem to have both healing and health-protective properties. 

The power of ritual

The act of taking a medication or following a specific regimen, can trigger positive expectations of its efficacy, and thus enhance the power of the placebo effect. 

When we look at the most effective placebos, they seem to involve the patient having to follow a ritual prescribed by the healer. It may be that compliance with the ritual strengthens the belief that the healing will work. Ritual compliance may also build faith in the healer, by way of cognitive dissonance. Belief in the healer and the therapy ritual seem to trigger the body to self-healing. 

The solace of sacrifice

In a study of placebos, it seems that the more a person has to sacrifice or endure to get access to the treatment, the more effective the placebo effect is.

Again, the phenomenon at work seems to be akin to cognitive dissonance. Perhaps the patient’s thinking is something along the lines of: “If I am prepared to put up with this, it must be worth it.” Being willing to tolerate or sacrifice seems to strengthen the belief in the healer and healing “treatment.”

Condition-Specific Factors: For conditions like pain, depression, or anxiety, where the mind plays a significant role, the placebo effect can be particularly powerful. It seems reasonable think that the more a health problem has a perception component, the more it can benefit from perception-based treatments (aka, placebos).

Harnessing the placebo effect

Now that you have an overview of what is behind the placebo effect, here’s how you can use it to boost your well-being.

  • Positive affirmations. Repeatedly making positive statements about your health and ability to improve can create powerful expectations, promoting healing. Here is one: Every day and in every way, I am healthier and healthier.
  • Visualisation techniques. Mentally picture yourself being healthy. Put yourself in the emotional state that you will experience when you reach your health goals.
  • Self-conditioning using rituals. Create a routine surrounding your self-care practices, like taking a daily meditation break, doing stretching or other form of exercise. The daily ritual convinces you that you are doing what is good for your health.
  • Focus on the benefits. If you have to take any medication or engage in your self-care practice, focus on the potential benefits it can bring. By focusing your mind on positive outcomes, you can maximise the placebo effect.

“Placebo” or the safest form of treatment?

Is getting the mind to switch on, or boost, the body’s self-healing systems something that should be thought of as a ‘placebo’? Calling the mental processes that trigger self-healing “placebo” seems to diminish what could be the safest, and most effective method of healing ever discovered. 

Physicians all over the world are discouraged, by regulation, from using placebos. Really? Yes. 

How ethical or reasonable is it to deprive patients of one of the most effective and definitely the safest methods to trigger self-healing? In my view, it is neither ethical nor reasonable. 

If there is no effective treatment for a condition (as is the case for many people), the risks of side-effects are too great, or the only effective treatment is contra-indicated for a patient, there is no viable treatment, other than the placebo effect.

In those circumstances, it seems right and proper that a physician would provide some kind of placebo to maximise the chances of self-healing. 

Despite the regulations, that is exactly what many physicians do: they prescribe a placebo in some form. Why? Because they know that self-healing, induced by the placebo effect, is hugely powerful.

Cultivating a positive mindset

By harnessing the power of belief, expectation, and self-care rituals, you can unlock the natural pharmacy within your mind and body. 

The most effective placebo seems to be our own optimism, a commitment to acting to preserve our well-being, and a belief in our own ability to heal. 

What are you going to do today to harness what you now know about the placebo effect?

Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.


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