02.02.2017 Eastern Healing

The Power of Placebo

Oriental medicine practitioner Olivier Lejus explores the role of placebo in complementary medicine

As a practising acupuncturist, I have often been asked whether the positive outcome of my treatment is due to the placebo effect. Up until recently my self righteous reply has always been, “If that is the case, why is acupuncture so effective with animals?”

Unfortunately, while I would love to believe that my clinical results are entirely a reflection of my professional skills, there is convincing evidence showing that placebo plays a significant part in the recovery process of any medical condition, regardless of the form of treatments undertaken.

According to the dictionary, the placebo effect is:“The tendency of any medication or treatment, even an inert or ineffective one, to exhibit results simply because the recipient believes that it will work.”

Scientists have long known that positive states of mind stimulate the release of “feel good” hormones such as dopamine and endorphin. When we feel good, we don’t seem to be affected by pain as much as when we feel down. Recent CT brain scans of patients at the University of California show that while neurological signals travel from the site of the injury to the brain where they are registered as pain, when there is an expectation of healing, the pre fontal cortex of the brain sends signals to the brain stem to create opioids like painkillers and release them to the spinal cord. In other words, we self medicate by expecting the relief we have been conditioned to receive.

Our brain is influenced on a subconscious level by many visual and sensory factors. When we watch a play or a movie, the costumes, sets and music have a powerful effect so we get drawn into the story until we feel we are watching something real. In a medical setting, all the surroundings - lighting, smells, white coats worn by the medical staff, stethoscopes, even the medical equipment - create an expectation that we will be looked after by professionals who are trained to make us feel better.

Basically, it is very important to look the part. This explains why placebos in brand names are better than generic ones. Also fake injections work better than fake pills because we believe that they have a more powerful effect.

The Power of Belief

The healing power of the mind can be truly staggering. In his bestselling book You Are the Placebo: Making Your Mind Matter American author Dr Joe Dispenza describes numerous documented cases of patients who recovered from cancer, heart disease, depression, crippling arthritis, and even the tremors of Parkinson’s disease by believing in a placebo. There is additional evidence that shows they work even when we know we are taking a placebo.

In a study conducted at the Harvard Medical School in 2010, patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) who had taken a placebo for 21 days felt markedly better that the control group who had received nothing, although that first group had been told beforehand (and been reminded afterward) that they were receiving a placebo.

The power of belief is also the fundamental basis of all religion. Studies have shown that regular attendance at religious services can improve the immune system, decrease blood pressure and add years to our lives.

The stronger the belief, the stronger the effect.

For centuries, hundreds of millions of people around the world have undertaken annual pilgrimages to the French town of Lourdes, Mecca in Saudi Arabia, or once every 12 years to the biggest of all, the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad India. The latest Mela in 2013 was attended by over 70 million people.

No one can deny that miraculous recoveries have happened at these events .Once again, in religious settings, the elaborate costumes, incense, colourful decorations and the emotional impact of the crowds are integral to success.

Unfortunately, this power of expectation can also be very harmful.

In contrast to the placebo effect, there is “the Nocebo effect” which occurs when patients expect to get worse, no matter the reality.

In extreme cases, people have become very sick, or even died when victims of a voodoo curse, or after being misdiagnosed with a fatal illness.

In a study conducted at the University of Munich, the drug Finasteride was administered to help relieve symptoms of prostate disease. Half the male participants were told that it could cause erectile dysfunction (ED), while the other half was kept in the dark. At the end of the trial, 44% of the first group reported that they’d experienced ED, compared with just 15% of the uninformed group.


Even animals are susceptible to placebo.

Scientist have been able to train the immune system of rats by pairing sweet liquids with a drug that stops immune cells from rejecting transplanted organs. After a few times, the sweet drink is enough to shut down the immune response, and the drug injection becomes unnecessary.

Next month we will investigate how modern medicine is now using the placebo effect to make its treatments more successful.

Olivier Lejus

Olivier Lejus BHSc.MHSc. is a registered acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist practising in Sydney. A former casual university lecturer and tutor in Oriental medicine with over 15 years experience in clinical practice, Olivier specialises in Japanese- style acupuncture for the treatment of male and female infertility, migraine, pain, and insomnia.www.olejusacupuncture.com


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