The Nutrition Detective Part 3

Part III : The Paradox of perception

Anyone witnessing the alternative health care field in the last 30 years could not help but notice that literally thousands of miracle cures have come and gone.  This remarkable fact prompts a number of important questions. For example, does it all come down to PT Barnum’s cynical observation that there’s a fool born every minute? Obviously not. Extremely intelligent individuals fall prey to hype and folly just as easily as the “fools” that Barnum took pride in fleecing. So, you may be wondering,  if these people are so intelligent, and science is so powerful, why is there virtually an endless stream of unscientific or pseudoscientific products on the market?

The answer to that question lies in what is known as the Placebo Effect.

Will the REAL pain reliever please stand up?

The placebo effect reveals a very special relationship between the body and  mind, in which the mind is able to produce profound physiological effects, based entirely on one’s expectations or desires. For example, if 100 people with headaches are given a sugar pill (placebo) and told it is morphine, approximately 30 of them will experience a

significant reduction in pain.[i] This is because people know that morphine is a powerful pain killer.

If the person administering this make-believe “morphine”  is wearing a white jacket, and is called “Doctor”, the expectation level will increase, and about 40% of the group will experience relief.

The placebo experience is powerful but confusing. It is real, in the sense that it produces an actual sensation of change, but the change does not result from “real”, that is, objectively determined causes. Now you may ask, “should I care?”and I will answer “yes” because placebo effects are temporary. The mind can only “trick” the body for so long. In the headache example, studies show that after a week, only 15% of the people will respond to placebo, and sooner or later the percentage drops to 0. Unfortunately, when placebos “wear off”, most people don’t get it. Instead of saying, “Product X must be bogus, and I was only experiencing a placebo effect,” most people blame themselves, or fate, and end up feeling more depressed and discouraged than when they started.

I have watched products come and go, and I am convinced that the cycle matches what I call the placebo clearance rate. In other words, Company A puts out a vitamin that’s electromagnetically charged, and promotes it with slick, scientific sounding ads. People buy the Electro-Vites, and swear they feel better. A month later, they no longer feel energized, but typically, they will continue to buy ElectroVites until something better comes along. Three months later, they see an ad for an herbal product from the Amazon; one that’s been used thousands of years, and the cycle begins all over.

Placebo effects can involve people as well as products. If someone we respect (eg. a person referred to as “Doctor”) gives us a remedy, our expectation is very high that it will help. We even use the phrase “just what the doctor ordered” to describe something which is perfect. All health professionals use this aspect of the placebo effect to augment the actual and proven effects of their therapies. (Thus the 10 diplomas on the wall.)  But even though it is an important and useful tool of the healing profession, one who relies entirely on the placebo effect, utilizing substances with no real scientific merit, cannot be considered an ethical practitioner.

It is important to understand the difference between placebo effect and positive thinking, or what is often referred to as “mind over matter.” Let us not forget that the mind influences the body in profoundly positive ways. In fact, there is an entire branch of medical science called psychoneuroimmunology (sy-ko-nu-ro-im-mew-NOL-oh-gee) which deals with the positive and powerful effects that our mental attitudes have in health and wellness.

We know, for example, that the experience of love, and the benefits of a balanced and peaceful state of mind can bring about healing. Unlike the placebo effect, however, these influences do not fade, and true science acknowledges, supports and strengthens this body/mind connection.

[i]  Deltito JA: Suggestibility and placebo effect (editorial). Clin Exp Rheumatol 1985; 3(2):97.

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