The Real Healing Effects of Placebos on Diseases Are Obscured by Drugs


We all have a remarkable ability to heal from disease. Our internal and external beliefs can have a profound impact, as seen with the placebo effect.

Health Viewpoints

Can a placebo alleviate symptoms?

Pharmaceutical researchers test new drugs by comparing them to a placebo, a pill that looks like the drug but has no effect. The objective is to determine if the drug is more effective than the placebo. Interestingly, people who take the placebo often experience positive effects. If these effects are equal to those taking the actual drug, the drug is considered unsuccessful.

This effect is known as the “placebo effect.” Placebo in Latin means “I shall please.” It usually represents a type of psychological effect compared to the “real” pharmacological effect of a medication.

The first time a placebo was used as a medical term can be traced back more than 200 years when Scottish physician William Cullen (1710–1790) introduced it in 1772 to comfort patients who requested medication they didn’t need by giving them something to satisfy their demands and expectations.

A book published in 1801 by British physician John Haygarth reported that patients with “rheumatism” reduced their pain with a placebo treatment.

In 1937, a placebo-controlled study published in JAMA reported the the effect of a placebo on cardiac pain in ambulant patients was as good as tested drugs, such as xanthines (theobromine and aminophylline).

The placebo effect is a complex phenomenon with profound underlying truths that have not been adequately explained to the public.


In 2009, researchers conducted a small but insightful clinical trial that uncovered the first component of the placebo effect.

Patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) were randomly assigned into two groups. Group A was given no treatment, whereas group B was given a placebo clearly labeled as:

“Placebo pills made of an inert substance, like sugar pills, that have been shown in clinical studies to produce significant improvement in IBS symptoms through mind-body self-healing processes.”

After three weeks, 30 percent of group A patients reported adequate relief, compared to 60 percent of group B.

The disease alleviation rate in group A revealed the first key factor of the placebo effect: Time heals. Or let’s use a more accurate term highlighted in the note received by group B: Our bodies have “self-healing” abilities.

Most people ignore it, and the legacy media have not emphasized it enough. However, it is one of the essential components of healing from a disease and is the core concept of natural therapeutics.

Self-healing is nothing mysterious. In IBS patients, gut function may be affected by stress, inflammatory mediators, or specific diets.

If people adjust their lifestyles, such as reducing stress levels, avoiding trigger foods, and promoting gut health through exercise, they will often naturally alleviate their IBS symptoms.

The natural healing mechanism is the foundation of placebo effects. (Illustrated by The Epoch Times)
The natural healing mechanism is the foundation of placebo effects. (Illustrated by The Epoch Times)

Even with no action, the gut, microbiome, and immunity can slowly heal on their own over time.

Our bodies have an incredible self-healing function that operates continuously, protecting us from harmful substances, viruses, and cancer.

Our immune system and lymphatic system are the first line of defense against these threats. Our liver removes toxins, while our kidneys release waste.

Amazingly, our cells can recycle waste within them, and even our DNA can repair itself. These are just a few examples of the countless ways our bodies work to keep us healthy.

Natural healing is the foundation of the placebo effect, an innate ability that we all possess.

Positive Belief

The efficacy doubling in group B is intriguing since patients in this group received a placebo along with a reassuring note about self-healing.

Reassurance leads to positive belief, the second component of the placebo effect.

The author of the IBS study, Dr. Ted Jack Kaptchuk, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of the Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter, conducted another study.

The study included 66 acute migraine ​​sufferers who were given either a placebo or the migraine drug Maxalt during their documented episodes of migraine attacks.

The two pills looked identical and were put in an envelope and labeled differently. These envelopes were then assigned to three groups. Group A received a placebo labeled as Maxalt, group B received Maxalt labeled as a placebo, and group C received Maxalt labeled as Maxalt.

After two and a half hours, patients in groups A, B, and C reported reductions in their pain scores of 30 percent, 38 percent, and 62 percent, respectively.

Positive belief affected the treatment outcome. (Illustration by The Epoch Times)
Positive belief affected the treatment outcome. (Illustration by The Epoch Times)

The most intriguing finding was that patients treated with a placebo labeled as Maxalt experienced similar effects as the group who received actual Maxalt but believed it was a placebo.

The positive belief associated with the drug suggested that it would be effective. Every well-known drug is linked to certain brand-related beliefs.

The same thing can happen with a placebo.

Simply taking a placebo, such as a sugar pill, with the belief that it’s a medication, has the potential to improve pain, anxiety, and depression, reduce blood pressure, heal gut ulcers, and boost the immune system.

Placebo surgeries, in which patients are put under anesthesia, cut open, and sutured back up without any actual intervention, have had a positive impact on patient outcomes.

This power of belief is often overlooked in modern medicine, while it has been emphasized and developed in spiritual practices and psychiatric therapies.

The Message Matters

The message conveyed to a patient by his or her doctor regarding the expected treatment outcome can significantly affect the patient’s healing process.

For example, in a study conducted by Alia Crum, an associate professor of psychology at Stanford University, doctors administered a histamine skin prick test to patients. After six minutes, they gave the patients a placebo cream. The histamine skin prick test is used to produce an allergic reaction, which causes a rash on the forearm.

The doctor informed half of the participants that they had been given an antihistamine cream to treat their rash. The other half were told that the cream was a histamine agonist and would worsen the rash.

The group that was told the cream would exacerbate the rash experienced irritation within 10 minutes after application. Those who were told the cream would make the rash better saw improvement (5.1 mm versus 4.7 mm).

A doctor's message impacts the outcome of a histamine skin prick test. (The Epoch Times)
A doctor’s message impacts the outcome of a histamine skin prick test. (The Epoch Times)

The study results suggest that the message has an impact on the treatment outcome.

This brings us to the story of ivermectin. The government’s campaigns against ivermectin for treating COVID-19 were destructive. They even designed trials to fail to demonstrate its efficacy. As a result, most doctors believed it was ineffective and irresponsible to prescribe.

Delivering negative messages to patients made it much harder to demonstrate the effects of ivermectin, impeding skeptics from investigating its benefits.

Compassion With Authority

In a previous study, Dr. Kaptchuk’s team recruited 262 patients with IBS and randomly assigned them to three groups.

The first group of patients did not receive any treatment. The second group received a placebo, with minimal doctor-patient interaction. The third group received the same placebo as the second group, but their doctors listened to them attentively and patiently.

In the first group that received no treatment, 28 percent of the participants experienced adequate relief from their symptoms, which can be attributed to the natural healing of the disease. In the placebo group for which minimal interaction was provided, 42 percent of the participants experienced adequate relief. However, in the group in which participants were engaged and received interactive treatment from their doctors, 62 percent reported adequate relief from their symptoms.

Engaged medical care improves treatment outcome. (Illustrated by The Epoch Times)
Engaged medical care improves treatment outcome. (Illustrated by The Epoch Times)

Engaged medical care improves treatment outcome. (Illustrated by The Epoch Times)

Simply put, engaged interaction between doctors and their patients before treatment can produce the most effective results, even with a placebo.

Furthermore, a doctor’s compassion combined with authority can tremendously influence a patient’s healing outcome.

During Ms. Crum’s skin prick test study, a group of patients were treated by a physician who made a personal connection with them. Instead of just asking for basic information, the physician asked about their personal experiences such as, “Where were you born?” and “What was it like growing up in Ohio?” The physician’s badge indicated that she was a “Fellow at the Stanford Allergy Center,” and the procedure was conducted in a spotless room with great precision.

By demonstrating compassion and competence, the doctor raised the patient’s expectations through positive feedback about the cream’s effectiveness. This belief substantially improved the patient’s healing (5.1 mm versus 4.3 mm).

Compassionate, professional engagement improved the treatment outcome. (The Epoch Times)
Compassionate, professional engagement improved the treatment outcome. (The Epoch Times)

In another scenario, the doctor was detached and not at all warm. She stared at the computer screen and asked, “Date of birth, birth location. … Next question.” Her badge read “student doctor,” and her desk was messy. She fumbled when she put the blood pressure cuff on the patient.

In this scenario, the patient showed no reaction to the skin test. (5.1 mm versus 5.0 mm).

A detached and inexperienced doctor had no impact on the treatment outcome. (The Epoch Times)
A detached and inexperienced doctor had no impact on the treatment outcome. (The Epoch Times)

The impact of our mindset depends on the environment in which it’s developed. Social cues, such as warmth and competence, are significant in shaping our beliefs and adding meaning and depth. When we have faith in a treatment, it’s not solely due to the efficacy of the treatment itself, but also because we have confidence in the knowledge and expertise of our doctor, who takes into account our individual and personal requirements.

Not Merely Psychological

It’s often assumed that the placebo response is not mediated through physical or chemical mechanisms but is purely psychological. Despite this prevailing belief, an older and relatively small experiment has the potential to challenge this notion.

Canadian researchers gave six patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease treatment of L-dopamine or placebo pills to study the mechanisms of a placebo.

A key pathological change in Parkinson’s disease is the lack of dopamine in the brain. This experiment used radioactive ligand isotopes to tag dopamine in the brain, which provided a precise readout of the level of dopamine.

The study provided evidence that Parkinson’s disease patients who received a placebo had a substantial release of endogenous dopamine in their brains. The placebo effect was as powerful as the drug treatment, and it was mediated by activating the brain region known as the nigrostriatal pathway, a major dopamine pathway.

Placebo causes the brain to release the very chemicals that Parkinson’s disease patients need. There’s a veritable pharmacy inside every one of us.

Positive thoughts are not merely psychological. Thinking positive thoughts about others can even trigger chemical reactions that boost immune system function, including producing interferons that fight viruses.

Rather than just relying on the power of imagination, placebos work by mimicking the body’s natural healing abilities through neurotransmitters and brain circuitry.

Harnessing the Power of Placebos

The placebo effect remains a fascinating and often underestimated phenomenon in modern medicine. What began as a simple test control has unraveled into a complex interplay of psychological, neurological, and physiological factors.

Revealing these unfamiliar components of the “placebo effect” gives us a fresh opportunity to decipher the true meaning of good therapeutics, including the power of our self-healing abilities, thoughts, beliefs, and social interactions on our overall well-being.

The health care system of the future should reconsider the connection between the mind and body, and explore new holistic approaches to health care that utilize the body’s natural healing abilities.

There are four critical components of a placebo effect: natural healing, positive belief, the message delivered, and the doctor's compassion and authority. (The Epoch Times)
There are four critical components of a placebo effect: natural healing, positive belief, the message delivered, and the doctor’s compassion and authority. (The Epoch Times)

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times. Epoch Health welcomes professional discussion and friendly debate. To submit an opinion piece, please follow these guidelines and submit through our form here.

Important Notice: This article was originally published at by Yuhong Dong M.D., Ph.D. where all credits are due.


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