The placebo response is the therapeutic benefit that many patients experience after taking a placebo (something that looks like a drug but doesn’t contain medicine).
In drug studies, approximately one-third of patients who take placebos report an improvement in symptoms. Sometimes placebos work even better than that. A study of patients with acute sinusitis, published in Archives of Internal Medicine, found that patients taking placebos did just as well after one week as patients taking the active drug already proven to be effective.
I have found in my research that we can harness the placebo response to make real medications work even better. I call this “medication enhancement.” For patients taking medications, it can be used to improve the effects of these drugs. In some cases, medications can even be reduced or stopped (so it is important to be monitored by your doctor).
It’s not entirely clear why or how placebos work. We used to think that placebos were mainly effective for subjective symptoms that aren’t easily measured, such as pain. It’s become clear, however, that placebos can affect virtually every bodily function, including respiration, heart rate and even the movement of immune cells to the sites of injuries.
Also, patients who reduce stress, think positively about getting well and take an active role in their recovery can experience a very strong enhancement of their body’s natural healing factors. Patients who do these things and take medication usually respond better than those who merely take a pill a few times a day.
Patients who think positively about a treatment can alter their internal chemistry so that it mimics the effects of some drugs. Consider antihistamines, which work by blocking a chemical that causes nasal congestion. A patient with allergies who takes antihistamines — and who believes that the treatment is working — will produce higher levels of histamine-blocking chemicals than a patient who just takes the drugs.
To make all of your medications more effective…
Know how the drug works
I spend a lot of time explaining to patients exactly what their medications do — how they work, what body systems they affect, how quickly they work and how different symptoms will respond. Once a patient understands how a drug works, the brain amplifies this information and produces additional positive effects.
Example: I might give the same prescription antihistamine to two patients. The patient who takes the time to understand how the drug works will almost always get better results than the patient who tunes out the discussion and just takes the pills. This is difficult to prove scientifically, but every doctor I know reports the same thing.
Visualize it working
A technique known as visualization therapy, in which patients create soothing mental images, commonly is used to reduce stress. It also can enhance the effects of medication by changing how the body functions.
Example: Someone who takes medication for hypertension can achieve further reductions in blood pressure by imagining that the medication is expanding blood vessels… reducing arterial contractions… and causing blood to flow more smoothly.
Studies have shown that visualization exercises can change heart rate, respiration, blood pressure and the perception of pain. They also can reduce inflammation and swelling. I advise patients who take sinus medications, for example, to spend a minute or two every day thinking about how the drug is causing the swollen tissues to shrink and allowing more air to move through the nose into the lungs.
Imagine yourself healed
Every serious athlete is trained to visualize success — winning the race, making the free throw, hitting the ball.
Reason: Thinking about failure increases the odds that you will fail, because negative thoughts raise levels of hormones that impair performance. Positive thoughts do the opposite.
The same is true when you’re taking medications. People who tell themselves that a drug is working and imagine being completely healed tend to have better physiological responses than those who are skeptical.
The so-called stress hormones, such as cortisol, make just about every symptom worse. People who are highly stressed recover more slowly after surgery, experience more pain and respond less effectively to medications.
Stress control is such an important part of healing that most medical centers use biofeedback machines to promote relaxation and relieve pain. These machines give patients feedback on how much muscle tension they have.
Try this: Use a mirror as a biofeedback machine. Once or twice a day, stand in front of a mirror and look at your face for a few minutes. Unclench your jaw. Let your lips relax and hang slightly apart. Feel the tension drain away from your cheeks and eyes. It’s almost impossible to feel anxiety when your muscles are relaxed.
While you’re doing the mirror exercise, pay attention to your breathing. Breathe in deeply for a count of four, then relax as you exhale for a count of six. Do this several times. This type of breathing and muscle relaxation shifts the limbic system (the part of the brain associated with stress) into a more relaxed mode.