A Place for Placebos?


Placebos have been around for centuries. They’re these chemical substances that have no pharmaceutical component (think sugar pills) yet mysteriously reduce the discomfort and symptoms of a particular malady. (During this election year, we could probably all use a few of these harmless yet puzzlingly beneficial medications to take our minds off the entire lengthy, and at times, sordid process.)

Placebos are most commonly found in clinical drug trials, playing a red herring role, thrown up against a new drug being developed. But a surprising number of physicians prescribe placebos for patients because no suitable, effective remedy is available. The big surprise is that they work. Why? Apparently when we think we are supposed to get relief, our brains respond by releasing endorphins that take the pain away. It’s more than just making up your mind to feel better – your brain actually sends out a biological messenger to relieve the pain.

And now research appears to take this placebo effect one step farther: if your brain perceives you are using a high quality product, such as wearing a name brand tennis shoe or using a superior golf putter or set of high class ear plugs, you’ll perform better. You’ll actually run faster or sink more holes in one or solve the complicated math problem more accurately because you are free of noisy distractions.

So maybe that’s the reason we are happier when we see our daily astrology prediction is positive? Or we live more at ease in a home enlivened with the positive energy emitted by Feng shui? And each of us can take credit for that enhanced performance, not because of the product, but because we are a more accomplished person. Now don’t your feel better about checking that box on your ballot?

Drugs - 'Placebos' and 'Ex-strength placebos'.

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