It’s about time we cover the placebo effect. This is a fascinating topic that few people seem to grasp. Yet if you can harness the placebo effect for yourself, you can do some amazing things.
For those who are not familiar with placebos, this will serve as a comprehensive introduction. And for those that are familiar with placebos, I’m sure you’ll still learn something new.
I really started to dive into the placebo effect as I did my NLP training (neurolinguistic programming). That was my introduction to the psychological realm. Later on, I first wrote about it inside of my book Mental Muscle.
The word placebo comes from the Latin meaning, “I shall please.” The placebo effect has to do with the belief in some sort of treatment to bring about results.
In the early days people thought it was purely psychological, it is abundantly clear that placebos can cause real, physiological changes in the body. Things such as endorphins, blood count, hormones, neurotransmitters and more can all change based on some form of placebo.
Generally, when good science is done, there is a placebo group who are fed sugar pills, instead of the herb, drug, or whatever is tested. This is to control because any treatment tends to deliver results, based on the expectation it’ll work (the expectancy effect).
With the placebo effect, many times it is found that “nothing” works as well or better than “something.”
But it is not just about sugar pills. The placebo effect extends further…
I love to point out that placebo surgeries tend to perform as well as many real surgeries as most people think it’s all about the sugar pill, but it’s not.
Here are just a few of the many, many examples available:
- Arthroscopic knee surgeries
- Vertebroplasty to reconstruct vertebrae
- Artery ligation
- Laser surgery to improve cardiac blood flow
In fact, here’s a systematic review of placebo surgeries with a whopping 86 references on the topic.
This raises ethical concerns for some. Can you just make incisions but perform no surgery when you swear to do no harm?
On the flip side, can you perform an expensive yet worthless surgery when it will not fix anything?
Lest you think I’m only poking fun at Western medicine (which I do enjoy doing as it needs to be brought down a peg or two in the collective authority it holds) this is true of other treatments as well.
In one study, sham acupuncture reduced migraine headaches as much as real acupuncture.
Some surgeries do beat placebo but not all of them. Thus it is important to recognize the difference between what is technological vs. what is scientific. Read the study here.
More Fun Facts about the Placebo Effects
Furthermore, the administration of the placebo matters to a big degree.
- Two pills outperform one.
- Needles works better than pills.
- Certain color pills will outperform others. (Such as red being good for stimulation, yellow for depression, green for anxiety, etc.)
- More expensive placebos outperform cheap ones. A $1500 treatment beat out a $100 treatment for Parkinson’s in this study.
A lot of this makes sense when you understand a few things about beliefs and expectations. If you have more “skin in the game,” to use the phrase from Nassim Nicholas Taleb than you’d desire it, you’d expect it to work more…and so it does.
All of this is further complicated by the fact that different people respond differently to different placebos. In fact, there has been some work to see if people can be divided into placebo responders and placebo non-responders.
This makes sense too when you realize that different people are wired differently. You and I may have different associations to colors…which can then affect how they perform.
For some reason, placebos seem to be getting more effective over time, at least in the USA. One hypothesis for this is the prevalent drug advertising which has people believing medicine will be more powerful. (After all, most medical testing vs. placebos has to do with drugs.) Read more here.
And this one may blow some people’s minds. Placebos can work even if you know it’s just a placebo! At least this is what occurred in this treatment of irritable bowel syndrome.
If it works when you know it’s placebo, can’t we all just take charge and get great results? Perhaps because of this, you can go buy your own Placebo pill, the Xpill, which seeks to harness this power. (Interestingly enough, the founders of NLP sought to market placebo pills earlier too.)
Lastly, most people think placebo only has to do with humans because of our psychology and consciousness. But this doesn’t seem to be the case. Humans aren’t the only ones that can experience the placebo effect. While it was a small study, dogs treated for epilepsy (and those not treated in the placebo control group) both had fewer seizures.
PBS NewsHour went so far as to say that The placebo effect influences all types of healing.”
The placebo effect isn’t the only effect that “nothing” can bring. While placebo comes from the Latin for “I shall please,” nocebo means “I shall harm.”
The nocebo effect usually refers to when people get the side effects of a drug…one that they are not taking. So it’s not just benefits that come, but also possible side effects too.
This is why in many placebo-controlled trials they look at not only the positive effects but any side effects amongst both groups. The researchers seek to find if the active groups have more, less or the same side effects as those that are in the placebo-control.
For instance, men that were given finasteride after being diagnosed with BPH were split into two groups. One group was told that erectile dysfunction was a common side effect (because indeed it is as many of our customers can attest to). Another group was not told this. While both groups had ED, those told about the side effect experienced it more. Read more here.
This causes another ethical dilemma. A doctor is supposed to inform their patients about the possible side effects. But if this makes them more likely to have them, are they worse off doing so?
Another example. If you’re a hypochondriac and think you have intolerances to all kinds of food and are told some food you just ate had one of those, you’re likely to get symptoms. Just like people drinking alcohol-free beverages they think are alcohol will get drunk.
This is the nocebo effect. Sometimes that term is also used, though mistakenly it seems, to refer to the following…
Reverse Placebo Effect
If you believe that something works, and it does, for good or ill, then doesn’t that mean that the exact opposite is true?
What I mean is that if you believe that something does NOT work, can your mind make it so that your body is not affected?
Absolutely. In fact, this too has been studied. Patients taking pain medication were told that they were going to no longer get the drug they’d been on…even though they still did…and then they had more pain. Read more here.
What this means is that if you don’t believe that something will work, you can stop it from doing so. You can cancel out a real effect that exists.
And, if that is true, that leads to…
Can You Have Placebo + Real Effects Simultaneously?
What I am saying is that you can have a placebo effect on top of a real effect. If you “believe” that the drugs/herbs/surgery/acupuncture/whatever will work for you, you may be able to supercharge that normal effect.
Or you may be able to mitigate negative effects.
In short, real effects and placebo effects are not mutually exclusive.
And this brings us to our herbs here at Lost Empire.
People that don’t “believe” in herbs will often just say it’s all placebo. We occasionally get comments to this effect. Clearly, they have never felt the really real effects of herbs (like the instant stress relief of Blue Vervain or the morning wood from Pine Pollen) and are blind to the immense amount of research available, even if it is far from enough especially around some herbs.
If you’re new to herbs you should be skeptical about them, right? That is what an intelligent, rational person would do, isn’t it?
Skepticism actually implies an openness to the results. But it tends to get confused with disbelief, as many “skeptics” tend to be trapped in a materialist paradigm that doesn’t allow for things that don’t fit into their model of how the universe works.
Rupert Sheldrake pointed this out in his book, Science Set Free. Want to know which branches of science tend to have the tightest controls? It’s actually psychic research, or the paranormal because these scientists know that they’re under immense scrutiny. When the fact is that ALL research should be placebo controlled as the expectancy effect seems to be in play in just about everything including physics, chemistry and more.
When it comes to herbs, we are talking about your health and your performance. I don’t know about you, but personally, I think it is more important to get results than to “prove” an idea as of right or wrong.
I like science and all, but I’m only ever engaging in personal experiments (aka n=1 experiments). Having a hypothesis and data towards that is good…but ultimately, I want the results for myself. As long as the effect is reliable I don’t care too much whether it is “real” or “placebo”.
Skepticism certainly has its place. But what if it is stopping you from getting effects that are otherwise real?
You have to understand the placebo and nocebo effects. By all means, looks at the research to help you make your selections. But then I would recommend having positive expectations for the herbs. If it helps your body to work better, then isn’t that worth doing?
Ideally, we could simply use our minds to affect our bodies in any way we wanted. And we certainly can to some degree. But until you have full control, it is worth using some “tools” such as herbs to help you get what you want. Because you can combine expectancy, this will work well for many.
As a performing strongman he once pulled an 8,800 lb. firetruck by his hair, juggled a kettlebell that was lit on fire, supported half a ton on top of himself in a wrestler’s bridge position, and routinely bends horseshoes and rips decks of cards in half.
Acclaimed as both a visionary and breakthrough author, Logan has written countless works on natural living, culminating in his self-proclaimed magnum opus, "Powered By Nature - How Nature Improves Our Happiness, Health and Performance.” Says longevity guru Peter Ragnar of the work "His passion is contagious! His words fire one's spirit to reconnect with nature's intelligence."
He is Co-Founder and CEO of Lost Empire Herbs, which aims to bring performance herbalism into everyday people’s lives.
When Logan isn't working to save the planet and transform modern herbalism, he busies himself as a consultant to the space program. In his spare time he enjoys memorizing the Fibonacci sequence and bowling perfect games.