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The Reassurance of Placebos

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A while back, I posted about how homeopathic remedies are pure distilled water, and a waste of money. However, one reader pointed out that their surgeon had recommended it.

Now, far be it from me to be cynical and point out a possible conflict of interest (companies touting homeopathic remedies pay medically qualified professionals to put in a good word), because it’s possible that there’s something else at play here- the wonderful world of the placebo effect.

Everyone and their aunt knows about the placebo effect. Take an inert substance such as sugar pills or a saline injection, and somehow, you feel better. It will affect the strength of every remedy you take- you get better faster when you know you’ve had your medicine.

Big pills work better than small pills. Coloured pills work better than white ones. Injections work better than pills, and sham surgery is even better. Taking placebos decreases heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and releases chemicals in the brain.

Two separate studies, one on sufferers of migraines and another on IBS, showed that patients self-reported an improvement in symptoms even when fully aware that the pills they were taking were functionless placebos. It should be noted, however, that these self-reported improvements may not actually reflect physiological differences.

On the other side of the coin, we have the nocebo effect- a pill or injection causes harm to a patient, simply because they believe it will. So, if you’re of a pessimistic nature, reading the list of possible side-effects might actually cause you to experience them.

Either way, the capacity of the human brain is absolutely staggering.

In the UK, the prescribing of placebos is seen as irresponsible, as it relies on deception. However, food supplements and complementary therapies rely on this deception to shift stock.

Remember what I said about colours? How many of you have seen food supplements in colour-coded bottles? Red for men’s health, yellow for women’s- it’s all calculated to have the maximum psychological impact. These colour associations also differ from culture to culture.

I know how much we crave that panacea, that one pill that will make us healthy, happy and great in the sack, but the sad truth is it probably isn’t out there. Coconut oil will not fix everything. Acai will not fix everything. Aloe vera will not fix everything.

Maybe, just maybe, we had it within us all along. Maybe we can harness the power of the placebo to do whatever we dream of. Maybe not invisibility or flight, but maybe the strength of mind to forgive someone? The willpower to save a little money for the end of the month? The energy to make lunch the night before work?

It’s worth a try for the little things, I think. Downing a multivitamin pill every morning with a glass of water and a wish- today will be just that little bit better than yesterday.

Weather permitting, of course.

About Big Rook

Chess coaching and events in the north-west of England

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