Natural Alternatives | Health Blog

Success with Placebos

Pla-ce-bo: A substance having no pharmacological effect but given merely to satisfy a patient who supposes it to be a medicine. (

We may have to rethink the above dictionary definition of the word placebo since it now appears that these pills can improve symptoms even when the patient knows they contain no medicine.

A recent study conducted by scientists at Harvard University proves that placebos can be effective treatment tools without having to deceive patients.  The researchers split the 80 volunteers — all of whom suffered from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) — into two groups.  The first group acted as a control and was given no treatment of any kind.  The second group was provided with pills to take twice a day, but the researchers explained that these were similar to sugar pills.  The subjects were never led to believe that there was any active medication in the pills, and the bottle was even marked placebo.

At the end of the three-week study, around 35 percent of those receiving no treatment reported improvement in their symptoms. Stunningly though, a whopping 59 percent of the subjects taking the placebos reported an improvement in their symptoms.  And, perhaps even more importantly, the placebo takers rated their physical improvement similar to the amount of improvement typically reported by those taking standard IBS drugs!

IBS is a chronic condition that is characterized by abdominal pain and bloating, diarrhea, and/or constipation.  There is no known cause, so doctors typically treat the symptoms as they appear with suggested lifestyle changes and medication.  Two drugs have been FDA approved for IBS, but they are both last resort sorts of treatments, used only if nothing else has worked due to rather unpleasant side effects.  Lubiprostone, or Amitiza, may help women with IBS who suffer from constipation, but it frequently causes nausea, diarrhea, and abdominal pain, which leaves users no more comfortable than they were before.  The other option is Alosetron, or Lotronex, which was actually banned for a time because of the serious complications it caused, but now is available again only for those in specific protocols.  It may cause severe constipation, bloody diarrhea, worsening of abdominal pain, fever, dizziness, and a host of other problems.

Needless to say, if a harmless placebo can do the trick — whether it’s because of the power of positive thinking or the reassurance of carrying out a medical routine endorsed by a health care provider — that is a better option than taking a prescription drug that may have you feeling worse than the original illness.  Numerous earlier studies have shown that between 30 and 40 percent of patients taking placebos report improvements to their conditions, but that was when they were deceived, when they were not aware they were not being medicated. But remember, the latest study showed that you can almost double that rate of improvement if you tell patients that they are taking a placebo!

And the findings, perhaps not surprisingly in an often over-medicated American society, are not just pertinent for IBS sufferers.  Research last year published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that placebos have essentially the same effect as commonly prescribed antidepressants on people with mild to moderate cases of depression.  Instead of always reaching for that trusty prescription pad, physicians may need to take another look at placebos as a treatment option, especially now that they seem to be working well without any form of deception to create an ethical dilemma…and in fact, working even better when no deception is used.

But obviously an even better option would be to stay away from medicines, real or fake, when possible, because in either case, you’re only dealing with symptoms — not actually eliminating the underlying problem.  When it comes to dealing with IBS, for example, check out Jon Barron’s newsletter on Crohn’s, IBS, and Ulcerative Colitis.

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