When it comes to our health, mind matters.
This was the inescapable conclusion from Monday’s BBC Horizon special on research into the effectiveness of treatments that have no active medical ingredients.
“The placebo effect is real, quantifiable and in fact you’re doing quite well with an active therapy if you can get as good a response as the placebo response,” said Professor Jon Stoessl, director of the Pacific Parkinson’s Research Centre at the University of British Columbia.
His words summed up the many experiments featured in the programme.
They included someone who’d fallen on her back being helped twice by what seemed to be the same surgery, even though no actual procedure took place the second time. In addition, a woman with irritable bowel syndrome – who’d just finished a medical course at college – transitioned from incredulity at being told she’d be taking “sugar pills” to feeling so helped by them that she searched for further placebos online and in pharmacies, hoping to continue the “treatment” once the experiment had been completed.
Perhaps the most impressive case was that of Parkinson’s sufferer, Paul Pattison, who was surprised to find a placebo brought him similar symptom relief as his drugs.
His case is one of dozens that convinced Professor Stoessl that some Parkinson’s patients can experience significant benefit from placebos.
“What we found is that in somebody with Parkinson’s disease, a placebo can release as much dopamine as amphetamine or speed can in somebody with a healthy dopamine system. So it’s a very dramatic response,” said Stoessl.
This suggests the “how” of a placebo’s physiological impact. Yet the commentary stressed the why remains a mystery. One thing shines through, though: the mind is involved. In particular, “expectancy” was pinpointed by Horizon as key to the placebo’s efficacy.
But could other mental factors benefit people like Pattison? Researchers feel they can.
“Our discussion of Parkinson’s care usually focuses on the physical body and its treatment. Yet healing and spirituality are of critical importance for progressive illnesses such as Parkinson’s disease since it connects personal suffering and personal meaning. To heal, then, means to achieve a sense of wholeness beyond the physical self by embracing and supporting our spiritual self,” said Monique Giroux, MD, medical director and founder of Colorado’s Movement & Neuroperformance Center.
Indeed, Dr Giroux takes it further, saying that healing does occur “even with physical body changes associated with illness”.
This is what happened to one man after brain scans determined he had the disease and his doctors told him there was no cure.
Rather than resigning himself to the prognosis he decided to revert to a spiritual practice he’d once briefly known – Christian Science. He “focused on being in the presence of God”, studied Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures by Mary Baker Eddy and added the spiritual practice of grateful thinking to his daily walk. To his delight he eventually found himself getting beyond symptom relief.
“On Valentine’s Day in 2012, I received the greatest gift ever. My neurologist told me the Parkinson’s disease had vanished,” he said.
Referring to a scriptural passage about “perfect peace”, he concluded: “I am in that peace. I feel reborn. May everyone be touched by God as I have been!”
If the power behind the placebo is indeed expectation, then it’s logical that faith in a healing Deity could have as positive a placebo effect as belief in a physician or medical procedures.
However, if leaning on that divine power can outperform even the most successful placebo it suggests a rather intriguing possibility – when you’re applying spiritual understanding to your case there actually is an active ingredient at work.