Yep, phony meds may be more effective in fooling your brain than previously thought.
Dropsy got you down? Colonic bursitis acting up? Maybe you’ve got the vapors brought on by a recent black lung diagnosis? Whatever the affliction, there’s one surefire way to improve your vitality and that’s with 19th-century patent medicine. Nothing fixes you up like Dr. Arbuckle’s Curative Tincture of Heroin in Suspension of Cocaine or a good belt of Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp Root: Fortified with Compound Oxygen. Even though many of these “treatments” (slickly promoted by quacks) contained narcotics that had a tendency to distract one from their suffering, many contained nothing more than herbs and root extracts with no medical benefit (or means of getting high) at all. Yet, surprisingly, these bottles of ground-up weeds still made some patients feel better, and sometimes (though not often) could actually help improve their underlying disease. This is all thanks to the placebo effect, a poorly understood but well-known phenomenon used extensively today by the medical community and charlatans alike.
Placebos are used all the time in double-blind medical trials, and though debated ethically, are often used by primary care physicians to pacify their patients. Most of the supplements, cold prevention products and homeopathic remedies at your local drug store are nothing but placebos with no proven benefit, yet some people swear by them. Many studies have shown that when one of these products is replaced with a sugar pill, unknown to the person taking it, the placebo effect causes a nearly identical, subjective response.
This highlights one hallmark of the placebo effect — that it’s mostly psychological and subjective. You feel better because you think you’ve been given something that will make you feel better. But there are some cases where the placebo effect can result in the actual improvement of an underlying illness. Those suffering from chronic, low-level infections will sometimes have the same response to an antibiotic or a sugar pill. We know that antibiotics work, so how could a placebo have the same effect? This also shows that these patients could have healed themselves all along, yet their bodies waited until they were “treated.”
Dr. Peter Trimmer, a biologist at the University of Bristol, U.K., has found evidence through computer modeling that our immune systems may have an on-off switch controlled by the mind. The research is based on the fact that animals can have a response similar to the placebo effect in humans. Siberian hamsters will do very little to fight an infection short of keeping themselves alive when the lights above their cage mimic the long nights and short days of winter. As soon as the lighting patterns simulate the arrival of summer, the hamster’s immune system mounts a full-on attack. Similarly, humans who receive a placebo (and think they’re taking a drug) can have twice the immune response as those who get nothing.
Trimmer says there is a simple explanation for this phenomenon. The immune system uses an enormous amount of energy and is very costly to run at full throttle, especially during the winter when food is scarce. A strong immune response could dangerously drain an animal’s energy reserves. So if the infection isn’t fatal, better to just maintain the status quo for now. When lighting conditions indicate that summer is near, food should be plentiful and the hamster subconsciously instructs its immune system to take care of business. The human response is similar in that the patient subconsciously believes that the infection will be weakened by the medication, allowing them to overcome the infection quickly without overtaxing the body’s resources.
Dr. Nicholas Humphrey, a retired psychologist formerly at the London School of Economics, first proposed this idea 10 years ago. It’s only now that evidence to support his idea is available through the computer model designed by Trimmer and his colleagues. “I’m pleased to see that my theory stands up to computational modeling,” Humphrey says. “It means we have misunderstood the nature of placebos. Farming and other innovations in the past 10,000 years mean that many people have a stable food supply and can mount a full immune response at any time — but our subconscious switch has not yet adapted to this. A placebo tricks the mind into thinking it’s an ideal time to switch on an immune response.”
This work is all preliminary, and there are many different types of placebo responses, so even if it’s correct, this theory certainly can’t explain everything. The relationship between mind and body is enormously complex and may never be fully understood. Besides, everyone knows that laughter is the best medicine, along with a handful of Grandma Atkin’s Opium Cough Drops for Children.