Placebos Again – New Research on how they work

Placebos Again – New Research on how they work.

This information might be important to you. An article in NewScientist, Sept, 2012 by Colin Barras broadened my understanding of placebos. I’ve done research on them and how they work; how they make people think their prayers have been answered; how they make you feel better. I have lectured that the placebo effect has never cured a real disease. Maybe there is more to it than I suspected.

The new understanding of placebos comes from biologist Peter Trimmer of the university of Bristol, UK. I’ll paraphrase his theory. He found that hamsters don’t fight off infection very well in simulated winter conditions with short days and long nights. During simulated summer conditions with long days and short nights the hamster’s immune system mounts a full response to better fight off infection. Why?

Before I tell you, I should explain this enhanced immune response is similar to what happens to patients who think they are taking a drug but really are taking placebo sugar pills. Their immune response is estimated to be twice that of patients taking no pills. Placebo treatment tricks the brain into jump-starting the immune system just like simulated summer light tricked hamster brains into jump-starting its immune system.

Now, I’ll tell you why this happens. According to researchers, an immune system functioning full blast all the time takes a lot of energy; it saps the body strength by fighting every foreign microbe that appears, even ones that do not threaten our survival. Immune systems evolved to work overtime even when it did not have to. Again evolution stepped in and put our immune system into low gear some of the time. Why waste fuel when optimal fuel consumption can be lower and still let us arrive at our destination?

Getting back to the hamsters: During the winter and partial hibernation, when nutrition is in short supply and survival is in question, all body systems conserve fuel with a partial shutdown. The immune system functions in low gear. Fighting infection is not top priority, survival is. But, come summer with abundant food and mild temperatures, the hamsters’ immune system can once again afford to be at full strength. There are abundant resources to fuel the immune engine; it can attack invading microbes immediately without threatening the hamster’s long term survival.

What does this have to do with humans? Our immune systems, like the hamsters in winter, have evolved not to function full blast all the time. Our engines are running at idle. A placebo pill, or placebo treatment, or just optimistic words from a respected physician may be just enough to stimulate a human immune system to shift into gear, like a mild summer with plenty of resources stimulates a hamster’s immune system. Microbes are attacked immediately and not given a chance to get a foothold and reproduce. Patients are better able to fight off disease with stimulated immune systems, as long as times are good, and resources are abundant. The battle against invading pathogens gets underway immediately with a strong and alert immune system.

Jumpstarting our immune system appears to be advantages for our health. Placebo therapy seems to help our immune systems function in high gear. Medical science is now considering that Placebo therapy does not just make us feel better; maybe it can actually help cure a disease by stimulating our immune system. At least, that is the way it works in hamsters and the way it is thought to work in humans according to computer studies.

The next question is important and was touched on earlier. What kind of placebo treatment is recommended to create an optimally functioning immune system? How can we acquire an immune system that will vigorously and immediately come to our defense whenever we need it? Are placebo pills the answer? How about a chiropractors treatment? How about family love and support? How about biofeedback? How about prayer? How about meditation?

Theoretically, the above methods have potential to jumpstart our immune systems. Because people are different, have different values, have different ailments, respond differently to treatment, it is difficult to predict the best method to jumpstart every immune system. You, yourself may be the best judge of what kind of therapy will most likely work for you. Maybe this is similar to “the power of positive thinking” or maybe the power of gullibility. The placebo effect can easily be neutralized by the realization that we are allowing our brains to be fooled into thinking we will benefit from believing in placebos. In my opinion, brains are malleable, brains can harbor more than one belief system at once, and our non-conscious body-brain has the ability to control or supersede our conscious brain.

Why do some people die from some diseases and some people recover? What role does the placebo effect play in death and in recovery? Are these outcomes genetics, luck, or placebo effect? We don’t know for sure, but keep yourself informed. New research may have the answer. Until then, it will do no harm to experiment for yourself as long as you do not forego standard medical treatment.


About cgosling

I am a retired medical/scientific illustrator and creator of patient teaching simulators, who has given up illustration to write about science, superstition, and secular humanism. I consider myself all of the following: atheist, agnostic, secular humanist, freethinker, skeptic, and nature lover. I have several published books but the mass of my writing is unpublished. I write children's fiction, poetry, essays, and several plays and radio theater shows, that are available as free downloads to be used on secular podcasts and meetings. They can be heard on Indy Freethought Radio or on YouTube “secularradiotheater”. I hope some of my writings will be of interest to like minded freethinkers who I cordially invite to respond. I am also a Darwin impersonator. I invite readers to listen to and use the Darwin script for secular purposes.
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