What Are Placebos and How Do They Work?

“The placebo effect is the single greatest indicator that your capacity to heal starts in your mind.”

Do you remember that time in your childhood when all you wanted to do was ride around town on a bike with your friends? Riding swiftly through the wind and trying out cool new stunts, you would occasionally fall off and get a good scrape.

Every time you fell off and ran home crying, your mother would simply wash the wound and send you off with a kiss? Even so, that magic trick somehow always made you feel strong again, because you believed that it would.

That’s basically the concept of the placebo effect.

Active nerve cells, 3d rendering(Giovanni Cancemi)s

(Photo Credit : Giovanni Cancemi/Shutterstock)

What is a placebo?

By definition, a placebo can be anything that appears to be a cure, but isn’t. It can be a pill, an injection, or any sort of medical treatment that looks exactly like the original treatment, but is not authentic or effective. Meaning, instead of the actual components, the medicine will be sugar or distilled water.

A placebo was first used in clinical trials to test the effectiveness of treatments. One group of people got the real drug, while the other one got the placebo, and the responses of the two groups were compared.

The doctors found that, in some cases, participants on the placebo control pill showed improvements in their condition. The placebo, it seemed, tricked one’s brain into stimulating actual physiological processes, such as hormone production, or releasing certain neurotransmitters in the brain.

Your mind can be a powerful tool for healing when given the chance. It has the capacity to believe a drug is working, and show positive symptoms, even when it is only a placebo that has been administered.

What is the placebo effect?

A placebo is only the drug or treatment itself. The placebo effect is the change one sees due to the placebo. It is the stimulation of the patients’ brain based on their expectations from the treatment, as they believe they are on the real drug.

This is an active process occurring in a patient’s mind.

Placebos won’t reduce your cholesterol or shrink any tumors, but it can affect the symptoms modulated by the brain, such as pain. There have been records of placebos having an effect on blood pressure and even combating depression.

For many years, doctors believed the placebo effect was only psychological, meaning that patients only thought they were getting better. However, recent studies show that taking a placebo can have a measurable physical effect as well.

For example, when we take a placebo, our brains release endorphins—chemicals that act as natural painkillers. This is the reason for a reduced sensation of pain in patients, which adds to the power of a placebo. (Source)

Here’s a question though. What if a patient knows they are getting a placebo? How does that affect the treatment?

Curiously enough, the placebo works even when a person knows they’re getting one. The reason for this might be that the brain gets stimulated into thinking that the pill is actually healing the body. It’s founded in the belief and practice of taking a pill every time the body is sick. (Source)

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Brain stimulation by placebo (Photo Credit : Phonlamai Photo/Shutterstock)

Do animals experience the Placebo Effect?

Based on the arguments stated above, the question seems far-fetched. The placebo effect is built on an individual’s belief that they are receiving something to make them feel well.

Animals don’t have that sort of broad-level understanding to make this belief possible. A dog, for instance, has no idea that he’s getting a shot from the same doctor who’s giving him a snack. Yet, some research studies have shown that the format of recovery observed in animal trials is similar to those seen in human trials.

In a treatment test for epilepsy in dogs, it was discovered that dogs in the placebo group were having fewer seizures than when they entered the trial. The reason for this doesn’t necessarily have to be the behavior of the dog in the trial. This reaction can be associated with the response of the pet parents to their dog’s treatment. The parent’s expectations of the drug may keep them on their heels, so they monitor their pet, helping them get better!

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The dark side of placebo (Photo Credit : FrankHH/Shutterstock)

The Nocebo Effect

The nocebo effect, the inverse of the placebo effect, is also an important phenomenon, but even more under-appreciated. It is when a negative outcome occurs due to a patient’s belief that the treatment will cause harm.

It basically refers to the terrible side effects one might anticipate while undergoing a medical procedure. A person undergoing treatment always weighs the odds of something bad happening in the course of treatment.

If the person expects a side effect or a negative symptom, either due to a lack of proper communication or because of their beliefs, those effects are much more likely to occur.

The process of action of a placebo in the body is through its influence on the mind. Be it sugar or water, the drug causes a reaction in the brain that in turn affects your reaction to the treatment. That’s the basis of the placebo effect!

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About the Author

Sachith Ashok is currently pursuing a bachelor of science degree in Microbiology and Chemistry at Vijaya College, Bangalore. Whenever he isn’t netflixing his life away or has his head buried in a book, he goes on long evening walks with his dog. He has a deep love for biology and the continuous cycle of life around him.

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