The concept of placebos goes back centuries. During the late 1700’s the word placebo was referred to as an inert substance falsely presented as a real drug in order to improve a person’s health. Fast-forward to 2010, a Harvard Medical School study found that patients with irritable bowel syndrome taking a sugar pill experienced double the relief symptoms compared to those who took nothing. Participants knew the pills they were given contained no active medication, however they were told that placebo pills had been shown in the past to produce significant mind-body healing effects. Lead author of the study, Ted Kaptchuk said, “we got a huge placebo in the pill-taking group. The results were as good as those of the most effective drugs ever tested.”

So, can the placebo effect help us as we deal with the outbreak of colds and flu this winter season? Some researchers think so. Bruce Barrett, M.D., a leading cold researcher at the University of Wisconsin – Madison believes a person’s belief in a remedy’s helpfulness can produce stronger results. Last year Barrett and his colleagues studied patients who had taken the herbal cold remedy echinacea. They found that the patients who had faith in echinacea’s ability to fight off an upper-respiratory infection had a 26% drop in the severity of their symptoms – over those who had no faith in the supplement.  “If you think it works,” Barrett says, “it does.” The director of the Common Cold Centre at Cardiff University, Ronald Eccles, Ph.D., says that believing in your inner ability to fight off colds and the flu, and taking your favorite remedy can help. For Eccles, reaching for vitamin C helps relieve symptoms as well as telling himself he knows it will help. That way, he says, “I’m not relapsing into helplessness and stress.”

For many people, recalling the remedies and comfort measures they grew up with have become part of their adult first-aid kits. Josephine Briggs, M.D., director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland says a person’s belief in the remedies used by parents and grandparents can have an impact on cold symptoms – in her family it was honey and lemon juice in warm water. Since these positive memories are built during childhood, and are probably partly subconscious, it doesn’t matter if grandma is there to dispense it. Says Briggs, “pills might help, but mind-body approaches are a critical tool in symptom management.”      Whole Living    December 2012

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