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The Nocebo Effect

‘Words can become swords, and cure or kill just like a scalpel.’ Dr Bernie Siegel

Most of us have heard of the word ‘placebo’: it’s a ‘dummy drug’ – usually a sugar pill- used in scientific trials so the real drug can be tested against a control.

In order to get FDA approval, a new drug has to prove more effective than a placebo in at least two trials.

How hard can that be?

Quite difficult, apparently.

Half of all antidepressant drug trials fail against a placebo, according to a review submitted to the FDA in 2008.

Thanks to brain imaging technology we now know that when we take a placebo, the brain releases its own natural chemicals as if we were taking the real thing. ‘At least one third of all healings have …to do with the placebo affect,’ says Bruce Lipton, a renowned cell biologist in The Living Matrix.

The body is a well-stocked pharmacy; ready to dispense natural painkillers, endorphins and antidepressants at any given moment – we just need to deliver the right prescription, or message, to the brain.

So what boosts the placebo effect?

Research shows the effectiveness of placebos varies from as low as 10% to as high as 100%.  Capsules seem to be more effective than tablets; increasing the dose – taking four tablets rather than two – heightens the effect and injections work better than pills.

In a famous case study in the 1950s, one man’s cancer was reversed thanks to an injectable placebo. The patient, with advanced cancer, was led to believe he was receiving an effective new drug, when in reality he was given an injection of water. The result? His tumours vanished– such is the power of belief. To read the full story, click here.

Personality also plays a role in the placebo effect:

‘Optimists are more likely to benefit from something that’s going to make them better, while those who are negative react better to something that’s supposed to make them worse,’ writes Dr. David Hamilton in How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body. ‘Again the key to healing lies within us.’

But it also depends on your doctor. In a Harvard study on Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), the response to a placebo increased from 44 % to 62 % when the doctor treated patients with ‘warmth, attention and confidence.’

If your doctor’s words and demeanor have the power to heal, it’s also true they have the power to harm.

And this is where the nocebo effect comes in. If you’re told a pill might cause nausea – there’s a good chance it will. And if you’re told you’re going to die – you just might.

In Australian aboriginal culture, if an elder points the bone at another tribal member, the man is expected to die. The practice is still common enough in Australia that hospitals and nursing staff are trained to manage illness caused by ‘bad spirits’ and bone pointing ( according to Wikipedia anyway).

So what happens when a doctor says, ‘you have three months to live’? If the patient dies, after three months, was the doctor right or did his words simply become a self-fulfilling prophecy?

‘Those doctors foolish enough to predict death are playing ‘God,’ and my personal belief is that that may be the most reprehensible and unforgivable component of my profession,’ writes Dr Rashid Buttar in The 9 Steps to Keep the Docotor Away. ‘The power of words is tremendous, beyond our comprehension, and we should never forget that the most important thing we can offer those who seek our help in living is to offer them hope.’

Prognoses are based on statistics, but there are always exceptions. ‘Terminal’ cancer  patients – with metastases to the bones, lungs and liver – have been known to fully recover, pancreatic tumours have vanished and those who’ve been sent home to die, have gone on to live. In the last year I’ve had the privilege of speaking to many cancer patients who’ve defied a death sentence and I now firmly believe that where there is hope, there is healing.

So how should you respond if a physician tells you ‘there’s nothing more we can do?’  Dr. Keith Scott Mumby, author of Cancer Research Secrets, suggests the following:

‘ If a doctor ever says such words to you, translate them as follows: ‘I don’t know what I’m talking about and I don’t know what I’m doing. I suggest you find a natural healer and follow a spiritual and lifestyle path to a cure.’

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