We often don’t realize there are many placebo effects depending on what we think a treatment is going to do for us. Examples:
- Fake painkillers cause the release of natural painkillers in the brain called endorphins and work through the same biochemical pathway that an opiod painkiller would work through.
- A Parkinson’s patient takes a placebo that they think is their Parkinson’s drug, they get a flood of dopamine in the brain, which is exactly what you would see with the real drug.
- Altitude sickness – someone at altitude takes fake oxygen, there’s a reduction in prostaglandins which actually work to dilate blood vessels that cause many of the symptoms of altitude sickness.
Placebo is NOT imaginary but creates biological changes in the brain that actually ease our symptoms and are very similar to the biological changes when we take drugs.
Some explanations for the placebo effect
Stress and anxiety — if we feel that we are in danger or under threat, the brain raises its sensitivity to symptoms like pain. Whereas, if we feel safe and cared for and things are going to get better soon, we relax and are not so alert to symptoms.
Physiological mechanisms like conditioning*. We can all be conditioned to have physiological responses to a stimulus, even immune responses. For example, take a pill that suppresses your immune system and on another occasion take a similar looking placebo pill, with no active drug, your body will mimic same immune response. Astonishingly, it doesn’t even matter if you know it’s a placebo.
Stress can rewire the brain — and create more stress
Like a muscle, the more you exercise any part the stronger it gets.
Brains are shaped by our thoughts and behaviors. Research shows your brain structure, neurochemical and electrical activity responds to and reflects how you think throughout your life. For example: If you play a musical instrument, speak a second language, train for athletics for eight hours a day – the parts of your brain responsible for performing those activities gets more active and larger.
If you’re thinking stressful thoughts for the whole day parts of the brain involved in the stress response get larger and other parts of the brain actually deteriorate. Consequently, the very brain circuits we need to counter stress no longer work as well as they should.
It’s not as simple as saying, “I’m going to change how I think now. I’m not feeling stressed.” It takes a long time to change your brain.
In the middle of your face – your personal placebo “pill”
When stressed, the brain influences your body AND the body influences your brain. The stress response speeds up your breathing to pump more oxygen when your brain perceives danger, either real or imaginary. If you deliberately speed up your breathing when not stressed you’ll start to feel more aroused and on edge. The opposite is true: Slow your breathing down, forcing your body into a more relaxed state. Your brain responds with more calming thoughts and feelings.
Condition your own calming response using your breath . . . salivating optional.
* Ivan Pavlov, a physiologist, conditioned dogs so that whenever he gave them food he made a noise, like ring a bell. Eventually the dogs associated the bell with their food and they would salivate just to the sound of the bell.
A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body by Jo Marchant, PhD. in genetics and medical microbiology