Can You Harness the Placebo Effect For Yourself?

Inline_Can_We_Harness_the_Placebo_EffectEvery parent reading this has dealt extensively in placebo: the analgesic effect of the ouchie kiss. When your child bumps his head or skins her knee, the quickest way to ease the pain isn’t a Band-Aid, ice pack, or Tylenol. It’s a kiss. Works every time.

“But your kid only thinks it’s helping. You’re just tricking him.”

Maybe. So what?

In common parlance, “placebo” is a bad thing connoting uselessness, ineffectiveness, and treachery. Placebos are smoke and mirrors. Snake oil. Even the words clinicians use to describe the placebo arm of a trial—sham treatment, dummy pill, sugar pill—suggest placebo effects are nuisances impeding scientific progress. They’re inert. Their complete pharmacologically inactive nature defines them.

But I’m here to argue that the placebo isn’t just a necessary artifact of randomized controlled trials. It describes a very real effect that people can probably use to improve their lives.

First of all, there is no single placebo effect. There are placebo effects. We see them all over the health arena.

Physical pain: Many people assume the analgesic (pain-killing) effects of placebo are a re-interpretation of the pain sensation. The pain isn’t actually going away, they’re just handling it better in some non-corporeal way. That’s certainly part of it, but in 1978, researchers found evidence of a “real” mechanism for this placebo response: blocking the opiate receptors with a drug blocks the ability of a placebo to reduce pain. Later, placebo responders (people who get analgesic effects from placebos) were found to have higher levels of endorphins, the very same endogenous opiates that activate our opiate receptors.

Depression: Placebo seems to work about as well as conventional treatments in mild to moderate depression. The placebo effect may even explain why antidepressants (sometimes) work. In one study, taking a placebo for several weeks before taking an antidepressant made the antidepressant more effective.

IBS: One 2010 study found that placebo treatments can improve symptoms in IBS patients, even if they knew it was a placebo. That is, the researchers told the placebo arm that they were receiving a placebo pill, and it still reduced their symptoms. I have more to say about this later on, but for now, it’s evidence for placebo in IBS intervention.

Parkinson’s disease: Patients who took a placebo pill improved Parkinson’s scores, probably due to dopamine flooding the brain. Another study found that sham surgery (fake vs real implantation of human embryonic dopamine neurons) improved quality of life.

Joint pain: Several years ago, I linked to a study on “sham knee surgery.” That’s right. Patients with meniscus tears who qualified for knee surgery were randomized to either receive a real partial meniscectomy (where they actually cut into the knee) or a fake one (where they just mimicked doing it with real tools). Both groups did identical physical therapy regimens. Across 12 months of followup, both groups experienced significant and equal improvements.

“It’s just in your head.”

Again, so what? Every thought, feeling, emotion, and internal reaction our brains experience have a physical component and deal in biological substrates. Synapses fire, neurons connect, neurotransmitters shift. These are theoretically measurable. They’re real. If there is an ethereal soul somehow wedded to, but separate from, the physical body, we have no good evidence of it. My PubMed trawl came up empty.

So what explains placebos?

There is classical conditioning. The first four weeks of a study, you got an active painkiller in red gel cap form. At week five, they switched to a placebo that looked exactly like the painkiller—a red gel cap. Your body was conditioned to associate taking that red gel cap with pain relief, so it created the analgesic effect by releasing endorphins.

There are expectations. Many placebos are based on subconscious associations, contextual clues, and expectations. If you feel comfortable with a doctor, if you’re confident he/she cares about you, if you expect to be cured or helped, your brain will probably predispose you toward a positive response.

A new wave of research is showing that placebos work better when you give them the real treatment alongside the placebo first. Then you remove or reduce the dose of the active drug while keeping the placebo and retaining the effects.

Some researchers have even used this type of placebo conditioning to reduce the dosage of toxic drugs while maintaining the positive effects. A kidney transplant patient might take the active, highly toxic immunosuppressant alongside a very distinctive placebo (in one case, cod liver oil with essential oils). Each time she takes the drug, she sips the cod liver drink. The body figures out how to replicate or emulate the effect of the drug, by itself or at a lower dose.

If you can pull it off, the advantages of a placebo are obvious:

They’re less risky. Most “active” therapies confer some degree of risk, however small. “Inert” placebos have a much lower risk of causing unwanted side effects. They can facilitate lower doses of harmful treatments.

They’re getting stronger. All signs point to the placebo effect gaining strength in the population, with placebo controls performing better than ever against drugs. Yeah, it’s weird, but it could be a powerful ally if you can harness it.

Everything benefits from the placebo effect. If a doctor gives you an active drug, you’re getting both the placebo effect (the expectation that it will work) and the biological effect (whatever the drug’s designed to do).

But can you harness the placebo effect for yourself in your own life?

One wrinkle is that placebos work best when you don’t know it’s actually a placebo. I know, I know: everyone cites that IBS study where patients knowingly took “inert placebos” and still saw subjective improvements. They weren’t quite inert, though, because researchers told subjects the placebos might induce powerful “mind-body” effects that could improve their condition. A suggestion like that from a health authority figure can be very compelling. Telling a person “I’m giving you a sugar pill” without mentioning the mind-body potential likely wouldn’t have the same effects.

Another more recent “placebos work even when they know it’s a placebo!” study fell a bit short of the promise in the headline. Subjects were given a fake treatment, told it had no medical value whatsoever, and it still provided pain relief. However, they had to spend four weeks being convinced that it was biologically active, after which the ruse was revealed, for it to work as a placebo. That’s a placebo in that it doesn’t contain a biologically active pharmacological agent, but it’s also powered by the researchers’ conditioning.

Besides, it’s still another person—an authority—giving you the placebo. You can’t “give yourself” a placebo and hope for the same results.

Placebos don’t always work for every situation. They don’t seem to accelerate wound healing, for example. Placebos can help against cancer-related nausea and pain, but I wouldn’t trust one to shrink tumors.

Interestingly, your response to placebo has a genetic component. Certain variants of the COMT gene, which codes for dopamine metabolism, increase the effect of placebos. Other variants reduce or abolish it. Variants in genes involved with serotonin metabolism can predict a person’s placebo-induced anxiety relief. It’s possible (and likely probable) that other genetic variants affect other aspects of the placebo response, too.

But just because dosing yourself with sugar pills probably won’t improve IBS, anxiety, depression, or Parkinson’s without the right genes and a white coat conditioning you to believe doesn’t mean the placebo effect is useless.

What’s important is the expectation that something will happen. The belief that thought can alter matter. Not telekinesis or magic, but the simple acknowledgement that mental processes are biological.

Belief is the key here.

Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) credits, or at least closely correlates major career milestones to the use of daily written affirmations. He’s not quite sure why (or even if) they work. He just knows they appear to for him. Maybe your subconscious opens itself up to opportunities that were always there. Maybe after writing them you just pay closer attention to anything that might help you reach your goal. Maybe the placebo-ish effect of belief in the power of whatever enables the affirmations to work makes you a better, more effective person.

Ultimately, believing in a cause greater than yourself might provide the biggest placebo effect of all. It could be a deity, a concept like honor/chivalry/bushido, your family, your business, your art. Anything at all should work, so long as it deserves your true loyalty and dedication. Don’t expect this kind of “placebo” to fix your bum knee. But it may create movement for a whole lot else that’s wrong in your life.

I’ll be frank. I’m not all that convinced an individual can revolutionize his or her life by “harnessing the power of the placebo.” Learning the placebo mechanism and trying to apply it to your life reminds me of explaining the joke: you ruin what made it work.

You know what could work?

Giving everyone else a little placebo love.

You already know, and you may have compromised your ability to placebo yourself. But they don’t have to know. They can still believe.

Many of you are coming from a place of authority in your immediate circle. You’re the person who everyone comes to for help with diet and exercise. When a buddy’s trying to decide between CrossFit and powerlifting, he asks your opinion. If your coworker wants to drop 15 pounds for her wedding, she asks you for advice. You’re the health person.

Own it. Give them confidence. Give them good advice and convince them it’ll work. That’s the placebo effect + active treatment effect.

Make them believe in themselves and what they’re doing.

That’s it for me today, folks. Let’s hear down below in the comment section:

What did I miss? Have you ever used the placebo effect on yourself—knowingly?

I know I have some brilliant readers. Let’s get some ideas flowing.

Take care.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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37 thoughts on “Can You Harness the Placebo Effect For Yourself?”

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  1. It seems like you are really just getting into the power of the mind over your life, both physically and emotionally. It is amazing to me how a positive attitude can really turn things around! How do we use the “placebo” though to be the most effective? Is it just the daily affirmations as described by Adams?

  2. Placebos are underrated. They can demonstrate rather well that the power of the mind is not separate from the body, and that the brain tells the body what to feel, how to respond, and how to function. Interesting that many people scoff at placebos as not being a “real” cure. But how “real” does it have to be if it serves the intended purpose? Are drugs more “real”, or is it just that we’ve all been brainwashed into believing they are? Actually, the only thing that can heal the body is the body itself. Often it’s just a matter of jumpstarting the process through one method or another. There are all sorts of non-allopathic, logic-defying modalities out there that can effectively do this, including placebos.

    1. I was going to comment, but after reading this post no need!
      Agree 100%, leaning to 110%

      1. Total agreement, wildgrok. Shary’s observation is spot on.

  3. I have absolutely seen the powerful effects placebos and positive mental thinking can have on my patients in physical therapy. If I can get the patient to believe they will get better with treatment, regardless of prognosis or diagnosis, they always get better. Now if I could just convince myself that eating a whole cheesecake won’t wreak havoc on my body, I’ll be on to something.

  4. It was common practice in the past for doctors to “witch away” warts in children. Wear a special pair of socks/wash with a certain rag for 1 or 2 or however many days, then bury said socks/rag in the backyard under a full moon. More often than not, it worked.

    I think ritual is a large part of healing. A real/sham surgery, daily pill-taking, making tea twice daily, they are all basically rituals with the intention to heal. Repetitive acts on your own behalf reinforce that intention. Having someone ELSE repeatedly engage in the ritual on your behalf is even better. They perform the surgery, they give you the pills, they make your tea for you. It’s the connection that matters.

  5. I believe I read in one of John Sarno’s books about an orthopedic surgeon who cure many patients by performing knee surgery on them over the course of many years. When it was suggested that the patients got well in spite of the surgery —not because of it, he experimented by performing the actual surgery on some patients but only making incisions in the skin of other patients. Amazingly, the patients with the faux surgery not only recovered, they recovered faster than the patients who had the actual surgery. Of course the surgeon was not happy about this—-he proved that the placebo surgery was a better treatment than the actual surgery!

    1. Maybe something else is at play like physiotherapy. The people with the real surgery had to recover from surgery first. Also the surgery could have done some damage.

  6. Here’s why placebos work. Einstein proved that all things are energy. Energy can’t be created nor destroyed only transformed. Thoughts are energy and it gets transformed into sound, action, or stored within our energy field. aka Aura. This also explains how prayer works.

    Quantum physics proves that space and time are irrelevant in terms of manipulating molecules. This is also how remote energy healing works.

    So, when we think positive thoughts we’re generating positive energy/molecules literally. That positive energy gets stored or transmuted somewhere. Placebos are not really placebos. They are real. Again, thoughts are energy and they can and do heal us or make us sick.

    1. I’m not a physicist. But I’ll say that thoughts are not energy as physicists use the term. I think that we humans will make stuff up despite not being able to be critically analyzed. From ancient Buddhists to modern linguists, it’s known that words (from thoughts, obviously) can only point in a direction, but are never the item itself.

      It’s OK for thoughts to not be energy as in classic physics. It’s OK to not understand, nor to be able to label the power that comes with thought.

      Ain’t it all so amazing?

      1. I concur. The idea that thoughts create “positive” energy ( as opposed to what, negative energy?) and somehow this “positive” energy is universal and immutable enough that it can be transmitted through objects, distance or through time and space itself and that the receiving organism can objectively realize this is “positive” energy and use it accordingly just doesn’t hold up to the slightest scrutiny.

        The universe and everything in it is pretty darn amazing already without having to make stuff up.

  7. Years ago I read a story of a boy who was taught visualization techniques and, cured his brain tumors by, imagining he was playing the game Asteroids in his skull and zapping the tumors with a tiny space ship. After a few months he was completely tumor free. It work by the same principle I feel. The mind is a terrible thing to waste.

  8. Many years ago, I read an article about a boy who was taught visualization techniques and, cured his brain tumors by imagining he was playing the game Asteroids in his skull and, zapping the tumors with a tiny space ship. Within a few months, he was totally free of tumors. It works by the same principle as placebos, I feel. The mind is a terrible thing to waste.

  9. There are a few great studies cited in the book “holographic universe”, one that sticks out is of a man who was found to have grapefruit sized tumors throughout his body. His doctor told him that he had days to weeks left. The patient told his doctor he had read about a new drug that seemed promising. The doctor told him it was of no use in his advanced state and even if he gave it to him it would take weeks to begin working and he didn’t have that kind of time.
    The patient persisted and out of “pity”, the doctor relented and gave him the drug. The doctor commented that within days the tumors literally “melted” like snowballs on a hot stove and the patient made a full recovery and resumed his daily life.
    A few months later however, the patient read a follow up that said that the drug was indeed not effective. His tumors came right back and he was again on death’s door.
    The doctor now realizing there was something else at play here actually lied to the man and told him that the drug was in fact effective and that he had a new more powerful version of it that he was going to give him. Again, the man’s tumors immediately “melted away” and he began normal function again.
    All was great until several months later when the patient read the final results on the drug study proving the drug completely ineffective, he relapsed and died.

  10. In Australia, the original aborigines used “pointing the bone” as punishment and the recipient was dead within a week or so. I am a great believer in “the body believes what the mind conceives” and I am also the mother of three children (now all adults) who all had a few warts on the hands, the youngest only had one very small one but I told them that if I counted them they would go away. So, they let me count them and then we all forgot about it until a week later every one had disappeared.

  11. Agree completely on the kid placebo effect. Add a ‘band aid’ or a kiss from mom = fixed. Your mind can really affect the way your body feels, love the article, thx!

  12. Charles Duhigg, in the “Power of Habit” has a great discussion about the power of belief in making significant life changes. He uses the example of AA in which belief plays a significant role, in talking about alcoholism and recidivism. He also discusses it in the context of commitment to weight loss and exercise.

  13. The mind body connection is very powerful. I too had heard the story Korey555 told about the man with the grapefruit sized tumors. I completely believe that there is power in positive affirmations, and especially in writing them down. On a much smaller scale than the guy with the tumors, I always say that I never get sick. I can be around someone with something pretty contagious, and I always say “It’s fine…I never get sick.” And I don’t. I certainly have a healthy lifestyle, but I know that declaration is helping too.

  14. I have a friend who has long suffered from chronic depression. When it gets bad she does some kind of “woo” tapping exercises. She’s said, “I know you don’t believe in things like that.” My response is, “It works for you. I’m a believer.”

    As I’ve gotten older, I no longer insist on logic in everything. Having a masters degree in theology, I love to discuss and argue religious issues. And see Leonard Cohen as a prophet. For instance, traditional trinitarian Christianity is perhaps the most illogical major faith to me. But a lot of people find it of value in their lives, some even live better lives because of it. My loving response is, “If it works for you, I’m a believer.”

    Thanks, Mark. As always.

  15. Check out the book…The Biology of Belief…by Bruce Lipton…a fascinating and very uplifting read in the same vein.

  16. I lived in Africa for many years. Tribal people really believe in the power of a witch-doctor. If the witch-doctor were to tell someone that he would die in two days he would be dead by the end of the second day. Belief is an immensly powerful tool.

  17. I’ve always recognized the power of intention, as when I take my fish oil I am simultaneously telling myself I want to be well and take action toward that end. Ritual and prayer are built into our lives more than we know, and it can be negative as well as positive, in that we may give our selves negative messages by cussing every morning when we arrive at work, or the like. Whatever is in your head is real, that’s where we experience the world. I strive, though it’s difficult, to be kind and encouraging toward myself and others. It matters.

  18. The common saying, “Perception is reality” applies here. As many have commented, the mind is an extraordinarily powerful tool. Anecdote: I learned this early, as a child, from my father who was a brilliant physician/surgeon. He treated his patients conservatively, and with love and kindness. His most frequent prescribed treatment? “Time and God will best heal you” His patients, and his 5 children, were many times healed using this “prescription.” Yes, it came from a white coat, but he helped people harness the power of belief.

  19. I completely believe you can harness the placebo effect for yourself. I see it as a combination of the power of belief coupled with the law of attraction and visualization. When you believe something to be true your reticular activating system is primed to look for evidence around it. The more evidence you find, the stronger you believe it. The stronger you believe, the more you visualize things that support your belief. And your unconscious mind doesn’t know the difference between what is real or imagined. This is happening no matter WHAT we believe in, good or bad. Changing beliefs to harness the power of the placebo effect isn’t as hard as it sounds. There are so many techniques out there now to choose from. I use FasterEFT on a daily basis to change the beliefs that hold me back. There’s Hypnosis. DNRS. Pysch-K. Matrix Re-imprinting. EFT. The Emotion Code. And even more.

  20. Interesting. I find most pain medication does nothing for me. Even the two times I I’ve been prescribed Tylenol 3 , it didn’t dull the pain at all (if I took a dangerous amount, it dulled my wit’s enough to fall asleep, but the pain was still at 100%). I wonder if this is an inverse placebo effect, ie I think they don’t work for me, therefore they don’t? Or if I actually do have a high tolerance for drugs.

    1. With some people drugs can have an effect that is opposite of what’s intended. It’s called a “paradoxical reaction or effect.” You might fall into this category.

      1. I had my wisdom teeth pulled as a teenager. My friend told me his mouth hurt for 12 hours. Mine did for the same 12 hours. Wish he had said 6!

  21. I absolutely love your conclusion. Gives me the chills. Thank you.

  22. Does the placebo effect actually work on something you give yourself? I always thought (as I remember from my college psychology classes) that it only worked if you thought you were getting the real thing. Sure, we can try to pretend, but I don’t think that’s how it works. If we know we are not getting the real thing, then what’s the placebo & how can this really work?

  23. This is interesting and I’m a true believer of the placebo effect because I’ve used it myself. Years ago, I had crippling anxiety. I would have severe panic attacks that would go on for hours, and they felt like I was truly having a heart attack. Sometimes they would get weird and manifest as intense, sudden headaches. They were terrifying for me. I discovered that if I got in my car, and started driving toward the ER, they would go completely away almost instantly. There was something about telling myself that I was minutes away from life-saving help that just switched it all off for me. Over time, all I would have to do was commit to the idea of going to the ER and that would be enough to stop the panic attack.
    It wasn’t until I quit being a vegan that these ended – practically overnight. I think it was probably a deficiency causing them, but no doctor considered that because I was eating “so healthy”.

  24. I agree with encouraging others and building their confidence, yet I don’t consider it a placebo because it really is the simple reality that confidence can restore forward movement. Thanks for reminding me!