research

All about placebos

The placebo effect: It’s both an everyday fact and a giant question mark for medical science. Placebo effects happen whenever people benefit from medical “treatments” that don’t actually target the problematic condition. Think of someone experiencing relief from illness after swallowing a pill-shaped candy.

Such cases point to the importance of people’s mental states — like their expectations — in determining their health outcomes. But no one knows how all of this works. And that presents a problem for physicians trying to figure out why carefully developed pharmacological drugs are sometimes no better than fake pills or sham surgeries.

Though the placebo effect refers to unexplained recoveries, the term has become associated with any striking effects on physical health that seem to be controlled by mental states. In my view, these effects make up some of the most intriguing mysteries of the mind. Check out these five facts to see why:

1) Placebos can work even when patients are told they are receiving fake medication.

2) Culture and location matter. A paper published in 2000 reported that in Germany, placebos worked great for treating ulcers but were lackluster on anxiety and just plain bad for high blood pressure. Whereas in Brazil, it looked like placebos were less effective all around.

3) Placebos aren’t just fake pills or surgeries. In treating winter seasonal affective disorder — depression brought on by the winter — researchers found that for up to three weeks, exposing people to negative ion generators worked just as well as exposing them to light. At least initially, sticking people in a room with a device that (invisibly) charges air molecules improved their moods as much as giving them the light they crave throughout dark winter months.

4) The word “placebo” hasn’t always meant “fake medicine.” In fact, it’s a Latin word first documented in the 14th century to refer to hired mourners at funerals. That same century, Geoffrey Chaucer penned a character in his Canterbury Tales named Placebo. And by 1785, a medical dictionary published in London defined placebo as “a commonplace method or medicine.” Check out a cool (and brief!) history of placebos here. 

5) This point has less to do with the placebo effect and more to do with what’s called its ‘evil twin’: the nocebo effect, or the experience of illness symptoms in healthy people. Within this world of research, broken-heart syndrome looks pretty real. More specifically, surges of emotion (usually negative ones) can severely weaken the heart. The causes here aren’t placebo-level mysterious and appear to be mediated by stress. Still, it’s a compelling demonstration that emotions and psychological states can pack a punch to your body, beyond typical symptoms like a racing heart or cold sweats.

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