If you want to understand the role your brain plays in your health you should begin by reviewing the work of Irving Kirsch, The Director of the Program in Placebo Studies at the Harvard Medical School. A Placebo is a "Dummy Pill" that contains no medication that can create an expectation, in some people, that's so powerful that symptoms are actually alleviated. Kirsch has studied Placebos for 36 years and he says, "sugar pills can work miracles."
My original interest in him dates back to his work on Expectation Theory as it relates to "response." He believes that what people experience is more related to what they expect to experience than was previously thought. His latest book, The Emperor's New Drugs was up for the Mind Book of the year. It has received excellent peer reviews, but it hasn't received good reviews from the Pharmaceutical Industry because it attempts to "Explode the Myths of Antidepressants." His research supports that even physical responses can be altered by changing what you expect them to be. It was through applying this theory to understanding pain, depression, anxiety disorders and addiction, among other things, that led him to analyze the effectiveness of Antidepressants...which was a natural extension of his interest in the Placebo Effect.
It's not difficult to understand that at least some of the 17 million people taking Antidepressants might do just as well with more exercise or other remedies...so most people have no trouble believing Placebos do work, but Kirsch's work goes way beyond that. He contends that the theory that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain is wrong. He doesn't dispute that people get better when they take Antidepressants, he just doesn't believe the chemicals in the drug are making them better unless they are severely depressed. He says, the rest of the time the results stem from the Placebo Effect and his studies, which included a review of some of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's own files, support his opinion to the point that they have turned lots of things upside down. Even the National Health Service in the UK has altered their opinion based upon his research.
In my opinion his work on Antidepressants is important, but his work related to how Placebos affect us physically is the big takeaway for me. Here's a direct quote from a recent 60 Minutes interview he did on how Placebos affect us physically as well:
Kirsch says, "it's not all in your head because placebos can also affect your body. Placebos can decrease pain. And we know that's not all in the mind because we can track that using neuro-imaging in the brain as well. If you take a placebo tranquilizer, you're likely to have a lowering of blood pressure and pulse rate."
Speaking of traumatic knee pain he said, "in this clinical trial some patients with osteoarthritis underwent knee surgery. While others had their knees merely opened and then sewn right back up. And here's what happened. In terms of walking and climbing, the people who got the placebo surgery actually did better."
He strongly recommends seeing your Doctor and following his advice, but he also says don't be surprised if in the future your Doctor gives you a Placebo. He says he can prove that Placebos work even if your Doctor tells you he's giving you a Placebo. Tom LeDuc