A few weeks ago I heard a fascinating interview with Ted Kaptchuk, a faculty member at Harvard Medical School, who has a degree in Chinese Medicine, and who, for the last 15 years, has been studying the biological changes associated with placebos.
In a nutshell, from a 2010 study he did with people suffering from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, it was found that even when patients were told that they were getting a placebo, the placebo affect [healing] still happened. Here's a quote from an article in Harvard Magazine in 2013
Kaptchul asked himself, "What if he [I] simply told people they were taking placebos? The question ultimately inspired a pilot study, published by the peer-reviewed science and medicine journal PLOS ONE in 2010, that yielded his most famous findings to date. His team again compared two groups of IBS sufferers. One group received no treatment. The other patients were told they’d be taking fake, inert drugs (delivered in bottles labeled “placebo pills”) and told also that placebos often have healing effects.
The study’s results shocked the investigators themselves: even patients who knew they were taking placebos described real improvement, reporting twice as much symptom relief as the no-treatment group. That’s a difference so significant, says Kaptchuk, it’s comparable to the improvement seen in trials for the best real IBS drugs."
This is startling! Read the article for more in depth info on this and other studies Kaptchuck has been involved with. To summarize: "researchers have found that placebo treatments—interventions with no active drug ingredients—can stimulate real physiological responses, from changes in heart rate and blood pressure to chemical activity in the brain, in cases involving pain, depression, anxiety, fatigue."
To quote Ted Kaptchuck,
“We have to transform the art of medicine into the science of care.”
I love this quote. It resonates with my belief that health and good science go together. If the placebo affect is so powerful we should look at it...work out ways of working with it to harness the body's powerful healing mechanisms, rather than to dismiss it and eliminate it.