Mind Over Sports

Placebos, Beliefs & Our Health

Posted on: March 12, 2007

Much has been written about the mind-body connection. Even the sages of India, thousands of years ago, acknowledged that what goes on in the mind reveals itself in the body. The medical field has long acknowledged the power of the mind to turn sugar pills into effective medicine, and the so-called placebo effect is no longer viewed as a pitfall, but rather as a resource.

In his book The Silent Pulse, George Leonard states that the placebo effect is not a product of the potion but of the process, which is one of authorization. The more severe the pain and the greater the perception of the authorizer, the more powerful the effect of the placebo. Leonard writes:

The placebo effect works best when both the patient and healer are convinced of the power of the treatment . . . the healer simply authorizes the patient to do what he or she is already easily capable of: that is, to control even the most esoteric bodily functions, to grow or destroy tissue, to produce sickness or health.

One study, reported in a national news magazine, found the “placebo effect” plays a larger role in the success of medical treatments — even in back surgery — than doctors had previously thought. Researcher Judith Turner of the University of Washington in Seattle found that the placebo effect has a natural healing ability triggered by belief in a treatment, doctor or institution. It can make ineffective treatments look successful. “The placebo effect,” she says, “influences patient outcomes after any medical treatment (including surgery) that the clinician and patient believe is effective.” Two examples: studies show that when asthma patients are given an inhaler filled with water, their airways will expand if they’re told it contains a potent new drug. Another study of 2,054 back surgeries, for lumbar disc disease, showed that even when no problem was found, and patients were just stitched up, 43% had relief of pain anyway.

Bryant C. Freeman, Professor of African-American Studies at the University of Kansas, has made an extensive study of Haitian voodoo medicine, having lived in Haiti for a number of years. In a conversation I had with him about voodoo deaths, he said:

If faith can heal, fear can kill. Victims die because they believe they are bound to die as a result of a hex. It’s an example of the fatal power of imagination working through unmitigated terror.

Buster John Kidney, an Indian medicine man living in Montana, uses plant cures, and works with patients in a hospital in Billings when patients request his services. He recommends the chamomile plant for soothing skin, peppermint for settling stomachs, and “sleepy-time” tea to relax patients and help them fall asleep.

In most cases, where beliefs play an important role in the recovery process, they work in harmony with an authorized or prescribed drug or medicinal plant; one that may, in fact, have some degree of curing power. But belief in the plant’s power to cure, working in harmony with the actual plant, makes the cure more powerful.

There have been documented cases where a macrobiotic diet has had considerable positive impact on the cure of cancer, and I’ve personally worked with cancer patients who believed that watching a video tape of T-cells attacking cancer cells would help put their illnesses into remission, and I’m convinced it did. (I would like to point out again that any work with cancer patients is always supplemental to what their physician prescribes.)

Placebos work because you believe they work. If you believe a shaman’s chant or a potion of lizard’s blood will cure you of an illness, there’s a good chance it will. A famous professional tennis player in this country was experiencing severe pain in his knee. He visited a “medicine man” in Australia who rubbed some oil on his knee and waved a lizard’s tail over it. The pain went away.

The more extravagant and powerful the ritual, the more powerful the belief. A good example is when you are introduced to Transcendental Meditation. There is a specific ritual you are exposed to and a ritualistic way in which your mantra is given to you. This process reinforces the power of the mantra and works to insure its success (another reinforcement is the considerable amount of money you pay for the privilege of using the TM system of meditation). I don’t intend those observations as criticism; TM is an excellent program for total relaxation, and I highly recommend the introductory course.

Beliefs we have about preventive health measures can sometimes devastate our bodies. Some women have chosen to have healthy breasts removed, and some their ovaries and uterus, because of presumed hereditary disease in the family. Scientists are convinced that some women are born with a greater risk of getting breast cancer than other women. What they don’t know is why. But much of the research is focusing on particular growth-enhancing genes. This is an excellent example of what Robert Merton refers to as the self-fulfilling prophecy.

If a woman has her healthy breasts, ovary and uterus removed surgically, then, based on her belief system, there is a strong possibility she will never have to deal with cancer. But perhaps she could have achieved this same result by improving her own self-image (or self-esteem) in an attempt to reduce the stress in her life that impacts her immune system. Low self-esteem is transferable from generation to generation, just as genes are transferable. But one process is measurable, the other is not.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Harvard researchers found that genetics appears to play a smaller role in the development of breast cancer than had been thought. The reason for this is, just because we carry certain genes in our bodies does not mean we are predestined to have a certain illness. We are only “genetically pre-disposed” toward that illness and we can take preventive measures.

Research has also indicated a possible relationship between genes and obesity. This could very well be true, but the research fails to mention that if you carry the gene, you are only genetically pre-disposed to being obese. The findings have yet to be tested on human beings, but I feel confident they will find that not everyone possessing the gene is obese. In many instances the media coverage of research findings is misleading and, in this case, very likely provides obese people with a justification for their obesity — even establishing negative expectations about their weight. As far as losing weight is concerned, severely limiting your intake of carbohydrates (bread, potatoes, desserts) is a safe and sane way of burning up body fat.

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