On the Brain: When believing is healing
June 1st, 2011
04:54 PM ET

On the Brain: When believing is healing

If you're sick, it doesn't hurt to believe that you're getting better - in fact, it may actually help. And when it comes to many alternative medicines, such as herbal remedies and acupuncture, belief alone may be the reason that you feel a sense of comfort and healing.

The Economist has an overview of the truth behind alternative medicine and the power of the placebo effect. A placebo is basically a sham medical treatment that isn't supposed to have any effect on health. But if a doctor tells you that a particular pill is going to make you feel happier, it may not matter if the pill is made of flour; your belief in it alone may heighten your emotions.

Harvard professor Irving Kirsch says the placebo effect works best on conditions that are emotional and subjective. A recent study, reported by WebMD, suggested that the placebo effect is at work in many headache treatments. But it can also change your perception of pain as well as your heartbeat, blood pressure, digestion and other factors that you don't control, according to Karin Meissner of Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, Germany.

And it appears that more involved fake procedures are more convincing than simple ones in healing your body and mind. Studies have found that people respond better to phony injections than pills, and a convincing pretend surgery is even better. Surprisingly, you might even see improvement from a placebo even if your doctor tells you that it's not real medicine, a 2010 study in PLoS ONE found.

Rigorous analyses of scientific studies have shown that much of what is known as alternative medicine is bunk, with a few exceptions such as St. John's wort for mild depression (Here's the low-down on this and other remedies for depression from Health.com). But the simple belief in a remedy carries a lot of weight, according to experts. And when you go to a practitioner of alternative medicine, you're likely to get someone who offers you more face time and greater sense of reassurance about a therapy than a regular doctor. The positive relationship you form with him or her may have a placebo effect in itself.

This is a point emphasized recently by CNNhealth.com's own mind and body columnist Dr. Charles Raison.  He wrote that a patient's strong emotional connection to a doctor seems to be a big factor in recovery. A recent study showed this effect in depression, and suggested that the doctor-patient bond was perhaps even a more important determinant of recovery than whether the patient received a placebo or a real drug.

Interestingly, although we have all kinds of fancy names for alternative therapies that probably act as placebos, many doctors shy away from the idea of prescribing good old fashioned sugar pills. But in some places, that may be changing. Dr. Raison mentioned also that the German Medical Association started advising doctors to give out placebos, which may make sense given the benefits described here.

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