The Placebo Effect

Every morning, I take a multi-vitamin. To me, it counteracts all my other bad habits that I occasionally partake in: the junk food, the wine, limited exercise, and so forth. No that my lifestyle is completely unhealthy, but at times I just don’t have the will power to choose health over convenience. So, that’s where my little multi-vitamin comes in. Although it is actually filled with vitamins, I wonder how much it physically helps my body.

That got me thinking about placebo drugs.  Do these actually work? Would a placebo multi-vitamin or any other medication suffice just as well as the real thing?

The placebo effect is a patient’s response to an inert substance which they believe will have beneficial influences. For example, a doctor administers to his patient a sugar pill which he claims will help stop migraines.`From this suggestion, the patient believes that the pill has a curable effect, and so the desired result (cessation of migraines) is achieved. The placebo effect helps sick people feel better although they have been given no actual treatment with medical value.

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The next question probably comes to mind- What is the rate of effectiveness ? H.K Beecher first discovered the placebo effect in 1955 and published his paper “The Powerful Placebo”. In his paper, he found an average of about 35% of the patients who received placebo drugs saw positive benefits from it.  Later research and studies have claimed even higher numbers of 50-60%. This does not necessarily mean that we should all rejoice and that the best cure of all is no cure. There have been subsequent studies as well that claim the placebo effect does not exist but rather the data arrives from poor research methodology.

Despite that, the placebo effect has been partially explained through brain chemistry. When we experience pain, our brain releases endorphins (think of this as our body’s own morphine to help ease the pain). Through brain scans, scientists have found that after a patient takes a placebo pill, our brain releases these endorphins. Therefore, it’s like the patient has taken an actual drug. The opposite effect is true as well. If a patient is told a pill can cause negative side effects, they can experience negative outcomes. This is known as the nocebo effect.

It seems as well that placebo effects have been increasing every year. This could be due to the better advertising of drug benefits as well as our growing perception that drugs are good for us and we need them (or at least think we do). I’m not sure if my multi-vitamins fall in this category, so I plan to keep taking mine.  But if it were come to a day where I was seeking some kind of psychiatric medication, I think the power of the mind could hold a lot more in helping than medicine.