The Role of Belief in Health and Healing
Belief is a powerful thing. In a 2001 study, researchers told a group of Parkinson’s patients that they were receiving a highly effective new drug that would improve their motor symptoms. However, the patients only received an injection of saline. Half of the patients experienced improvement in their motor systems because the damaged nigrostriatal dopamine system in their brains actually started producing more dopamine—up to 200% more in some cases—simply because they believed they were receiving an effective medication.
In a study of 180 patients with osteoarthritis of the knee, sham surgery proved to be equally as effective at relieving pain as two different types of real knee surgery (debridement and arthroscopic lavage). Over the course of the two years following the surgeries, the three groups of patients reported the same levels of pain relief. This outcome led the researchers to wonder if the money spent on these types of surgeries could be better spent elsewhere.
In 2016, researchers did a meta-analysis of studies that tested the efficacy of beta-blockers for treating high blood pressure. After analyzing 23 studies that included 11,067 participants, they found that “blood pressure was lowered in placebo groups with significant and robust effect sizes.” While hypertension is often treated with medication, the researchers concluded that “in light of these strong placebo responses, placebo mechanisms need to be considered in order to improve antihypertensive treatment.”
The placebo effect is often dismissed as being irrelevant to health and healing. How often have we ourselves said “It’s just the placebo effect?”
But, the results of the placebo effect—more accurately called the perception or belief effect, according to Dr. Bruce Lipton—are quite real, and that’s why some clinical trials compare treatments to placebos. Belief is such a powerful healer that pharmaceutical companies must prove that their medication works better than placebo in order to receive FDA approval.
Much of medical history is based on the placebo effect. Before the mid-20th century, medicine was not tightly regulated and few treatments were tested in clinical trials. The most important aspect of many treatments was that they gave the patient something to believe in. So, treatments that seem odd to us today became widely used for certain ailments, and whether or not the actual treatment was effective was fairly irrelevant; people believed that it was going to work, so it often did.
Back then, scientists didn’t understand on a cellular level why belief healed people. Now they do, and this knowledge is allowing us to understand why people with positive attitudes live longer, have better overall health, and can even heal from “incurable” diseases.
Yale University surgeon Bernie Siegel analyzed why some of his cancer patients with poor prognoses survived, while others with better prognoses died. He concluded that there are no incurable diseases, only incurable patients. This idea puts a tremendous amount of responsibility in patients’ hands—especially in a world in which we’ve been raised to trust doctors to make decisions about our health, rather than to trust ourselves.
As Dr. Joe Dispenza writes in his book You Are the Placebo, a doctor’s diagnosis is a modern-day voodoo curse. When a doctor tells a patient that their condition is incurable, the patients whose health tends to decline are the ones who accept their prognoses as fact. But the people who end up healing themselves and recovering from their incurable condition are the ones who do not accept their prognoses. They expect to get better, so they often do.
Unfortunately, the nocebo effect—believing that an outcome will be bad—is just as powerful. There is the much-cited case of Sam Londe, a retired shoe salesman who was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He passed away soon after his diagnosis, but his autopsy revealed no trace of esophageal cancer. There were just a few small spots of cancer on his liver and lung, but not nearly enough to have killed him. His doctor, Clifton Meador, worried that his diagnosis had removed hope, and the case haunted him for decades afterward.
Many clinical trials find that people who receive the placebo experience some of the same side effects as the participants who receive the actual drug. A meta-analysis of 12 trials of the COVID vaccine, which included 45,000 people, found that up to three-quarters of the negative side effects of the vaccine can be attributed to the nocebo effect. Researchers told the participants that they might experience certain side effects like fever, headache, and fatigue, and so they did. More than 35% of participants who received a placebo reported these negative side effects, compared to just 46% of those in active vaccine groups.
In this post, I’ll discuss:
- Taking control of our genetics
- How belief affects our health at the cellular level
- How we reprogram our DNA and our cell’s receptors
- How we reprogram our neural circuitry
- How belief affects the immune system