Fear of a scary diagnosis or medical procedure can feel daunting. We can feel powerless. Wouldn’t it be great to know that you have the power to improve your health? Recent studies show how we can use our brain power to achieve positive health outcomes.
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Health anxiety is on the rise, according to surveys by the American Psychological Association. Many of us are concerned about the health of a family member or are struggling with our own health issues. COVID remains a mutating virus that spreads rapidly, infecting and re-infecting the population.
Scientists have been confused as to why some people exposed to a virus get sick and why others stay healthy. Some patients respond well to drugs and vaccines, while others do not.
placebo and nocebo
Doctors and medical researchers know from published studies that some patients do better on a placebo (a fake pill or treatment). To determine if a drug really works, it has to perform better than a placebo. About 30 percent of people will improve from a placebo. Just believing that you are doing something helpful can help you feel better about yourself.
In contrast, about 25 percent of patients given placebos in drug trials report negative symptoms such as headaches, pain and nausea. Something very different seems to be happening in the brains of those experiencing pain from a placebo compared to those experiencing relief. Those who envision negative consequences seem to suffer even when they have not received treatment. These are known as “nocebo effects”. Placebo comes from Latin and means “I will please”. The word nocebo means “I will do harm”.
Ted Kaptchuk, research professor at Harvard Medical School, co-founded the Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter. He and his collaborators created an interesting placebo study in patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). They compared a group of patients on a waiting list to a group receiving fake acupuncture (not real needles or skin punctures). A third group received sham acupuncture from a warm and caring practitioner.
Results showed that 28 percent of patients on the waitlist reported improvement in symptoms, 44 percent of patients receiving only sham acupuncture reported improvement, and a whopping 62 percent of patients receiving sham acupuncture from a warm and caring provider reported improvement reported a significant improvement.
The researchers were surprised that combining a caring provider with placebo treatment resulted in patients improving as much as the group receiving actual IBS medications in clinical trials (Kaptchuk, TJ et al. 2008).
Mindset and placebo effects
Is there a way to help yourself heal faster or protect yourself by using your brain power?
New research suggests that our thoughts and beliefs affect us at the cellular level. Consider the milkshake study. dr Alia Crum and colleagues at Stanford University tested the same group of people on two separate occasions. Both times, subjects were given a 380-calorie milkshake to drink. At the first opportunity, subjects were told they were drinking a 620-calorie “treat” milkshake. The milkshake had a fake label with incorrect nutritional information.
The second time, the same subjects were told the milkshake was a “reasonable” shake with 140 calories and a different false nutrition label. The experimenters measured levels of the hormone ghrelin before, during and after drinking the shake. Ghrelin is a hormone that increases when we are hungry and decreases when we are full.
Something extraordinary has happened. Subjects who thought they had been given a high-calorie shake had a huge drop in ghrelin, indicating they were feeling full. When subjects thought they were getting the equivalent of a low-calorie snack, their ghrelin levels remained unchanged (Crum, A. et al. 2011).
The test subject’s hormones followed their beliefs, not the reality of the calories they were consuming.
If our thoughts and beliefs can alter our hormones, what else can they influence?
A recent study examined the effects of mindset on oral immunotherapy for peanut allergy in children. Groups of children (with their parents) received treatment to prevent the life-threatening consequences of peanut allergy. One group was told that non-life-threatening side effects could occur with the treatment. The other group were told that the non-life-threatening side effects meant the drug was working by desensitizing them to the allergic reaction.
The results of the study were quite profound. The group that believed the side effects were a sign that treatment was working responded significantly better to medical treatment. Their positive beliefs about the drug and its side effects reduced their anxiety and improved their physiological response to therapy (Howe, LC et al. 2019).
Create your own placebo effect
If our beliefs and ways of thinking can produce significant changes in our physiology, it suggests that we can use our brain power to improve our health. We can create our own placebo effects. It helps to start with the story you tell yourself about your health. It helps create an inner story that has a happy, desirable outcome. Here’s how:
- Imagine and visualize healing: Imagine that your medication will help you. Visualize the best outcomes for your surgery, treatment, or health issue.
- Choose Warm and Caring Vendors: Show gratitude to your vendors. Warmth, caring, and gratitude help calm nervous system arousal and reduce anxiety and stress.
- Cultivate positive emotions: Positive emotions like awe and wonder are known to lower inflammation. Engage in acts of kindness, love, and gratitude to mitigate your response to stress (Stellar, JE et al. 2015).
I hope you feel inspired and empowered by your amazing brain. Challenge your negative mindset and create your own placebo effect. It can help you feel more hopeful. hope is healthy