Mainstream medicine finally embracing the placebo effect as “real medicine”
11/15/2018 // Ethan Huff // Views

Long denounced as "snake oil" woo by the medical establishment, placebo medicine hasn't exactly been taken seriously in the West, despite plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that many patients over the years have benefited from it. But this status quo position with regards to the role of placebo in modern medicine appears to be changing.

A series of gatherings that recently took place in The Netherlands highlighted some of the emerging science that unequivocally supports the use of placebo in healing. Open-minded scientists and researchers who've dedicated their lives to studying the placebo effect had a lot to say on the other side of the pond about what they've learned, which stands to dramatically change public perception about this unusual form of medicine.

"... after a quarter-century of hard work, they have abundant evidence to prove it," wrote Gary Greenberg for the The New York Times Magazine recently about the success of placebo medicine, and the growing body of evidence to support it.

"Give people a sugar pill, they have shown, and those patients – especially if they have one of the chronic, stress-related conditions that register the strongest placebo effects and if the treatment is delivered by someone in whom they have confidence – will improve."

The art of placebo medicine

It's not about just handing out sugar pills and sending patients on their way, though. Placebo medicine is an art that needs to be administered by doctors who understand the unique makeup of an individual patient, including to what he or she will best respond.


"Tell someone a normal milkshake is a diet beverage, and his gut will respond as if the drink were low fat," Greenberg explains, in illustration of this point.

"Take athletes to the top of the Alps, put them on exercise machines and hook them to an oxygen tank, and they will perform better than when they are breathing room air – even if room air is all that's in the tank. Wake a patient from surgery and tell him you've done an arthroscopic repair, and his knee gets better even if all you did was knock him out and put a couple of incisions in his skin."

Advanced fMRI shows that placebos do, in fact, induce biochemical changes that lead to healing

Research suggests that all sorts of health conditions, including everything from depression and back-pain to "chemo brain" and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) all respond to placebo – in some cases better than FDA-approved drugs that Western medicine would contend are the only remedies that have legitimate scientific backing.

Harvard University actually has a "Program of Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter" as part of its Medical School, its curriculum backed by a growing body of science to support the benefits of placebo.

According to Ted Kaptchuk, the head of this program at Harvard, expectancy, or a mindset that anticipates a placebo working, plays a significant role in its efficacy. Kaptchuk also maintains that placebos work because of "complex conscious and nonconscious processes embedded in the practitioner-patient relationship" – meaning placebo administrators have to deliver their treatments in a proper patient context in order for them to work.

"... their emergence may reveal fundamental flaws in the way we understand the body's healing mechanisms, and the way we evaluate whether more standard medical interventions in those processes work, or don't," Greenberg explains.

"Long a useful foil for medical science, the placebo effect might soon represent a more fundamental challenge to it."

Kaptchuk and his colleagues are actually now using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or f.M.R.I., to show using accepted scientific methods that placebo does, indeed, induce certain biochemical processes associated with healing. Such imagery not only provides a molecular backing to placebo efficacy, but also the "teeth" it needs to gain mainstream acceptance as a viable form of medical treatment.

To learn more about why this type of research into "alternative" healing remedies is critical for health freedom, be sure to check out

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