There is truth to that old saying “If you believe you’re sick, you’re sick; if you believe you’re healthy, you’re healthy.”
New research on placebos reinforces recent theories that our thoughts and expectations can be influential in affecting our health and in healing our body. Researchers studying the potential of placebos are also just beginning to understand why placebos seem to work better for some people, such as those with Parkinson’s disease, pain, depression and irritable bowel syndrome.
Neurologists have discovered measurable brain events that show how placebos — hence only our thoughts and expectations — can reduce (or increase!) pain. Their studies indicate that placebos are a type of brain training that, in the future, they hope to use for long-term physical change. But before that happens, they have to do further research to determine which techniques work, how long a person has to practice them to achieve long-term health improvements, why the techniques work and who would benefit the most.
While working on her doctorate in neurology at the University of British Columbia, Sarah Lidstone witnessed an older, stooped patient with Parkinson’s walk away and climb a flight of stairs because he thought he had been given his usual dose of medication. When this patient had arrived earlier in his wheelchair, he had been told he would receive either his usual dose of medication or a placebo. When told afterwards he had received a placebo, he was in disbelief.
“I think the idea of patients being able to heal themselves is very powerful.”
Sarah Lidstone (Discover Magazine, “Why Nothing Works,” July/August 2014)
As far back as 2002, placebo studies using brain imaging discovered that brain activity in groups who received placebos were the same as those who received a drug. This activity occurred in the middle of the brain in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a brain structure responsible for processing emotion, anticipating rewards and registering pain.
Two years later, researchers noticed that when patients anticipated pain relief, brain activity increased in the prefrontal cortex, a region in the front of the brain central to developing expectations, and in the midbrain that releases opioids. The more activity there was in the prefrontal cortex as the patient anticipated pain relief, the busier the midbrain was in generating that relief in the form of opioids. Our brain responds to our expectations around pain by attempting to achieve them.
Another “shocking” study in 2006 found that parts of our brain do indeed work to please us. Participants in that study learned to anticipate mild electric shocks when shown a green screen and moderate shocks for a red screen. What they did not anticipate was that in the third and last round of shocks, when shown the green screen for mild shocks, they actually received the highest degree of shocks — yet participants reported barely feeling any pain.
The participants’ brain had become trained in the first two rounds to anticipate a mild shock. When the third round came and the shocks were much stronger, their brain quickly released opioids to block the additional pain of those shocks so that participants felt only the mild shocks the green screen had always promised.
Luana Colloca, the researcher who conducted this study, pointed out that the results mean that people are good learners. Colloca found that this type of learning stayed with a person for days and her hope is that, with more “brain training” the effect could last for years.
But why do placebos work so well in some people and so dismally in others? Molecular geneticist Kathryn Hall and her colleagues suspected that an enzyme, COMT, that devours dopamine in the brain, might be responsible since it might affect how a person perceives pain. Every person has a COMT “recipe” made with various amounts of two amino acids: valine and methionine. In a 2011 study with patients with irritable bowel syndrome, Hall found overwhelmingly that patients with only methionine responded exceedingly well to placebos. Those with only valine responded worse than patients who got no treatment. The COMT “recipe” is probably not the only factor affecting people’s response to placebos, but it is an excellent start in establishing a link between placebos and our physiology.
What I found most interesting about these studies is:
- the link between expectation and pain relief;
- that we can train our brain to create a reality based on our expectations; and,
- that placebos seem to work best on people with depression and irritable bowel syndrome (who often suffer from anxiety and depression).
The self healing strategies I developed are based on the concept of training your body and your brain to create a reality based on your expectations. I developed these strategies to deal with anxiety and depression that were hampering my movement forward and my enjoyment of life.
The key is in believing that you can make a difference, that you can heal yourself and that you will heal. And in working a little bit every day to make it happen.
Source: Vance, Erik. “Why Nothing Works.” Discover Magazine (print edition). July/August 2014. http://discovermagazine.com/2014/julyaug/14-why-nothing-works (sorry, a subscription is required to read full text or you can check your local library)