The Placebo Effect


One of the best proofs that beliefs have a powerful impact on our health has existed for years right under the noses of every physician in the world: the placebo effect, “a change in a patient’s illness attributable to the symbolic import of a treatment rather than a specific pharmacologic or physiological property.”  In other words, it is your natural healing ability triggered by belief in a treatment, doctor, or institution.

Every new drug is tested for safety and efficacy before it is put on the market. Part of all testing involves giving the drug to human subjects to determine if it is effective in dealing with the condition it’s intended to alleviate. At the same time, a pill containing an inert substance, sometimes sugar, is given to other subjects with the same illness. The drug is approved for distribution if it is determined to be safe and significantly more effective than the placebo.

As Deepak Chopra points out: “By giving a placebo, or dummy pill, thirty percent of patients will experience the same pain relief as if a real painkiller had been administered. But the mind-body effect is much more holistic. The same dummy pill can be used to kill pain, to stop excessive gastric secretions in ulcer patients, to lower blood pressure, or to fight tumors. (All the side effects of chemotherapy, including hair loss and nausea, can be induced by giving cancer patients a sugar pill while assuring them that it is a powerful anticancer drug, and there have been instances where injections of sterile saline solution have actually led to remissions of advanced malignancy.)”

Chopra and many others explain the placebo effect as an example of the power of suggestion.  I don’t think it is the suggestion as such; it is the belief that results from the suggestion that affects the body.


An excellent example of the mind-body connection is cancer. The old saying, “Many a truth has been spoken in jest” was never more true than when Woody Allen said in the film Manhattan, “I don’t get mad, I grow tumors.”

Cancer is a disease caused by a failure of the immune system. What causes the immune system to fail in some people and not in others? Increasingly, scientists and cancer specialists are reaching the same conclusion Norman Cousins wrote about in Head First.


Cousins summarized research showing that “depression is a demonstrated cause of physical ill health, including deleterious effects on the immune system. Equally striking is the fact that liberation from depression produces an almost automatic boost in the number of disease-fighting immune cells.” Cousins concluded, “If you can reduce the depression that almost invariably affects cancer patients, you can increase the body’s own capacity for combating malignancies.”

Depression is experienced as an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and helplessness. Those attitudes are the result of such beliefs as I’m not good enough, I don’t matter, I’ll never get what I want, I’m powerless, I’m alone in the world, I’m worthless, Life is difficult, and I’m unlovable. By eliminating beliefs such as these, depression can be eliminated and the immune system can be strengthened.

Dr. Sandra Levy of the Pittsburg Cancer Institute conducted research that led her to conclude: “Perhaps the course of cancer can in part be altered by changing the emotions associated with depression, helplessness, and the failure to cope.” (Emphasis added.)

There are many additional studies showing the impact of the mind on cancer other than the impact of depression.

Heart Disease

Another example of the mind-body connection is heart disease. Scientists have long been puzzled by the fact that, although the “risk factors” for heart disease (like high blood cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure, and cigarette smoking) are well known, more than half the new cases of heart disease occur when none of these risk factors is present. Something else is going on.

Scientists have also learned that the most reliable factor in determining survival rates for patients with heart disease are job satisfaction and a sense of “overall happiness.” Those who were alone and depressed had the poorest survival rates.

Lynda H. Powell, an assistant professor at the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at the Yale University School of Medicine, has done extensive research on the relationship between mental states and heart attacks.

Dr. Powell points out:  “Hostility and cynical mistrust are consistently associated with coronary artery disease. The constant ongoing vigilance associated with being mistrustful appears to promote coronary heart disease by speeding up the disposition of the atherosclerotic plaques on the walls of the arteries. How we think this happens is that the hormones which enter the bloodstream during times of stress act to keep the sticky LDL cholesterol, which is considered the bad type of cholesterol, circulating in the bloodstream longer, and this increases the rate of blockage on the coronary arteries.”

The role of beliefs

In a well-researched book, The Health of Nations: True Causes of Sickness and Well-Being, Dr. Leonard Sagan concluded: “The data reviewed in this book demonstrate that those who are competent and have confidence in themselves and in their ability to control their own lives will experience better health outcomes than those who do not. … Another dimension that must be incorporated into our notion of health is an understanding and appreciation for the preeminent role of early childhood informing the attitudes and values that are fundamental in the formation of a healthy personality.

“… Our current biomedical paradigm focuses narrowly on adult behavior, on diet and particularly on physical fitness as the primary determinant of health, and largely ignores the fundamental role of our self-esteem, and our ability to form affectionate relationships with others, and finally, to feel ourselves in charge our of own lives.  It is in these qualities that true health lies.” (Emphasis added.)

Please share below your thoughts and questions on the relationship between our beliefs and our illnesses.

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copyright © 2010 Morty Lefkoe