The Placebo Effect and Your Brain

By Hana Frenette
NeuLine Health

Picture this: you have a seasonal cold and you take a sip of a time-honored family elixir. Maybe it consists of hot tea, rum, honey or a range of herbal components and juice. As soon as you drink it, you start to feel a little better. 

Is the homemade remedy aiding in your medical recovery on a chemical level or is it just providing a source of comfort that makes you think you’re feeling better? Science shows it might be both— and it’s called the placebo effect. 

What exactly is the placebo effect?

A placebo looks like a real treatment but doesn’t actually contain any medicinal properties. The treatment could be a pill or shot that a person believes contains medicine, but is really just sugar water, saline or coconut oil. 

When a person reports physical effects from treatments with no active medicine components, it’s known as the placebo effect. While a placebo consists of a treatment with no “real” healing components, placebo treatments can still elicit a very real response from your brain.

How do placebos work?

In some cases, just believing that a treatment will work can trigger a response from the brain such as neurotransmitter release, hormone production, and immune response, which can ease symptoms of pain, inflammatory diseases and mood disorders.

This psychological response changes the chemical makeup of your brain and evokes real physical changes. A placebo can cause your brain to release endorphins which might ease certain symptoms that are regulated in the brain, like pain or anxiety, but it cannot cure physical ailments. 

Placebos can alter a person’s perception of their own pain or ailment, and several studies show this can result in reduced anxiety, overall improved mood and occasional accelerated recovery from minor conditions or illness. 

Placebos and clinical trials

Placebos have been an important part of clinical drug trials over the last several decades, and are an important part of researching the effects of a new treatment. 

When participants agree to enter a clinical drug trial, they are usually told that they may receive a placebo during the trial. Typically the participants are not told whether or not they have taken a placebo versus the active drug. Occasionally, even the researchers in a drug trial don’t know which participants have been given the placebo— this is called a double-blind study and eliminates the chance for researchers or participants to develop a biased view of the data collected. 

The effects of a new treatment are then measured by comparing the results from those who took a placebo and those who took the newly developed treatment. 

Research continues around the phenomenon of the placebo effect as scientists explore new ways to utilize its benefits. 

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