The ‘Placebo Effect’ Might Be the Cure You’ve Been Looking For

Chances are, you’ve heard the term “placebo effect” thrown around, but the way we dismiss the placebo effect does it a disservice. It’s incredibly powerful, and we can harness its power, even when we know that we’re using it.

Check out this quick clip from Adam Ruins Everything, which touches on how the placebo effect worked as well as drugs in one clinical trial:

He gets more into the placebo effect in the full episode, which you can watch online. You can also read on for more information on the fascinating power of the placebo effect.


In the episode, Adam calls the placebo effect “one of the strangest mind-control forces on Earth.” And he may be right! There’s some really interesting research showing that in some cases, the placebo effect is as effective as drugs for relieving pain and other symptoms of illness.

The asthma study above is one example where the placebo effect helped alleviate patients’ symptoms. The participants in that small study who took the placebo still had asthma, but their minds convinced them that they felt better. The patients who were given the drug saw a 50 percent improvement in symptoms. People given a placebo inhaler saw a 45 percent improvement.

Does that mean that you can toss your asthma inhaler? Probably not. People who used the real inhaler had a 20 percent improvement in lung function, while the placebo inhaler only improved lung function by seven percent. What this study does show is that we need to look more closely at how the placebo effect can help asthma sufferers.

The placebo effect can go beyond just drugs, though. We can use it to harness our mind’s power. In one sleep study, doctors basically lied to patients about how well they had slept. They randomly told half of the participants that they’d slept well and the other half that they’d slept poorly. Then, they had them take a series of tests to look at cognitive function.

The patients in the “above average” sleep group performed better on two of the tests than the “below average” sleep group, regardless of how they actually slept. On two other tests, their group assignments made no difference. Maybe we need a sleep appthat tells us we got a great night’s sleep, no matter how we actually slept!

But what’s most fascinating about the placebo effect is that it can sometimes work even when we know we’re taking a placebo. A study on migraine sufferers found that people taking a placebo pill that was labeled as a placebo still got symptom relief. The placebo was 50 percent as effective as the actual drug!

Why the Placebo Effect Doesn't Always Work


Just like a drug, placebos aren’t going to work all the time for everyone. Every body and brain is different, and there’s actually evidence that our genes play a role in how susceptible we are to the placebo effect.

Its effectiveness also depends on what we’re trying to treat. Anna Nowogrodzki explained it well in an article for Neo.Life: “The placebo effect isn’t magic. Cancerous tumors are indifferent to placebos. Essentially, the placebo effect seems to work only in situations that the brain creates or modulates.”

Symptoms like pain and nausea are good examples of where placebos can be incredibly beneficial.


So, how can we make the placebo effect work for us? The good news is that you don’t need a doctor to hand you a sugar pill or bunk inhaler.

In a Harvard Medical School article, Professor Ted Kaptchuk said that you can harness the placebo effect on your own. “Engaging in the ritual of healthy living — eating right, exercising, yoga, quality social time, meditating — probably provides some of the key ingredients of a placebo effect.”


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