Life's Little Mysteries

Is the Placebo Effect Real?

The placebo effect when people taking so-called "dummy pills" begin to experience the side effects expected for the real pills is a controversial phenomenon that seems to show that when it comes to some things, it really is mind over matter.

(Image credit: Dreamstime)

A placebo, also known as a sugar pill, is a treatment that is often given to study participants as a control to compare the effects of "nothing" to the effects of an actual treatment. But studies in the past have shown that, inexplicably, placebos can have positive effects.

Scientists have found that when people experience a decrease in pain from a placebo, certain compounds, called endorphins, are released in their brains. In fact, patients experience a positive reaction to a treatment even when they know that they're taking a placebo, according to a Dec. 2010 Harvard Medical School study.

The researchers gave 80 patients with irritable bowel syndrome two treatments. One group, the control group, received only consultations with doctors and nurses. The second group received the same consultations and pills clearly labeled as "placebos," and were told to take them twice a day. Among patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), 59 percent of those who knowingly took a placebo pill said their symptoms were adequately relieved after three weeks, while just 35 percent of patients who took no pills reported such relief, the study showed.

Some scientists theorize that the routine of taking any pill for one's health has positive effects. A 2006 study conducted by researchers at the University of Alberta showed that people who take their medicine regularly, even if it's a placebo, have a lower risk of death than those who don't. The researchers theorized that the reason for these findings may be that people who are good about taking their medicine are better overall at maintaining healthy behavior.

It's also possible that people who fail to take their medicine, no matter how effective it is, have some other underlying condition such as depression, which can affect overall health.

Healing may lie not in the treatment but rather in patients' emotional and cognitive processes of feeling cared for and caring for oneself, according to a commentary on the findings by U.S. researcher Betty Chewning University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison.

Originally published on Live Science.