3 Studies That Show the Power of the Mind-Body Connection
We are all well aware of the placebo affect, but it seems that many of us have not stopped to really ponder what it is and what the vast implications are. When we look at pharmaceutical and other literature, the success of the drug or treatment is based on how the conditions improved compared to a placebo. Thus the accepted fact of the mind-body connection is the foundation of drug and treatment effectiveness studies, and we seem to take it for granted, perhaps because we don’t know how to reproduce the effect willfully.
It’s really incredible if you think about it, in the average study, the placebo is effective in 30% of patients, and in some studies the placebo is 75% successful. That is a better success rate than many drugs and procedures that health consumers spend billions of dollars on every year. The placebo effect is so powerful, that the best studies are double-blind, meaning, even what is in the prescriber’s mind can affect the outcome in the receiver’s body.
Studies have shown that placebos affect neural activity, hormone release, cell receptivity, and immune cell production and activity. Most of the research done has been on the areas in which the placebo seems to have the greatest effect: pain, depression and anxiety. But some surprising effects are on coughs, DNA, IBS, seizures and longevity. The trouble with the placebo is, how do healthcare providers make use of it in an ethical way? Although we may not be able to garner the force of the placebo without a trusted provider, research does prove the profound power of stress-relieving activities and hypnotherapy—maybe we can think of them as methods to placebo ourselves.
Years ago I heard about a study that really impressed me as to the power of belief. In 2002 the New England Journal of Medicine published the results of a clinical trial involving 165 patients. A physician named J Bruce Moseley, who was at one point the orthopedic surgeon for the NBA, participated in a controlled trial of osteoarthritis of the knee. There were two components of the surgical procedure and there was debate as to which one was providing pain relief and improved function for the patients. There were 3 groups of patients, one group had scraping and rinsing, one had rinsing alone, and one had all the incisions, sound effects of rinsing, and anesthesia, but no actual scraping or rinsing at all—a placebo group. The conclusion was that the outcomes for the fake surgeries were the same as for the real ones. Actually, one real surgery group measured worse in walking and stair climbing than the placebo group at two week and two year intervals. In this study the placebo and the 2 methods were all equally effective in relieving pain and improving function in 50% of people. These were patients for whom no other methods to improve their knees had been effective. In all studies like this the participants are informed that they may receive a placebo. Furthermore, at each check-in the patients were asked which group they thought they were in, further reinforcing the idea that they might not have had the real surgery. It would be unethical of course, but what would happen in a study where you told participants that no one was receiving a placebo. Now that would be interesting to see. As participating doctor Nelda Wray said, “The bigger and more dramatic the patient perceives the intervention to be, the bigger the placebo effect.”
Many articles were written later about how the study proved that arthroscopic surgery was a sham, but if half the people felt better and their lives were improved, how can we successfully define “sham?” Would the people who participated in the study and the surgeon’s patients who felt pain relief like to go back and undo it? I highly doubt it. In fact, none of Moseley’s first 10 patients were unhappy with their outcomes. Wouldn’t you like your insurance company to pay $5000 to free you of debilitating knee pain? Many are asking, how can we further study this and give patients the benefits of the placebo without the side effects of the drug or procedure, and without violating the standards of informed consent?
Another study at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre of Alberta, of breast cancer survivors, showed that meditation or being in a support group actually impacted the body on a molecular level. The study showed that over a 3 month period, telomeres—protein complexes at the end of chromosomes—maintained their length in participants who practiced meditation or were involved in support groups, while they shortened in participants who did not.
Telomeres are caps at the end of each strand of DNA that protect the genome from deterioration, which some have compared to the plastic tips of shoelaces. They shorten as we age, and shortening telomeres are associated with increase of disease, poor health, and shorter lifespans.
Other studies found similar results.
This is worth repeating, meditation and support groups had an effect not just on our cells, not just on our cell nuclei, not just on our DNA, but on the tiny basic building blocks, the molecules that form our DNA strands. On molecules that protect our DNA and may determine how long we live. The implications of these studies is profound.
How can those who want to improve their health benefit from this understanding? We can hope to be part of a placebo-controlled study, or the “beneficiary” of a high percentage of physicians who have admitted to giving patients a placebo (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2572204/). And the argument for sitting down daily to meditate or join a support group has never been stronger. Finally, how about hypnotherapy? Is it an effective, ethical option?
An interesting study on IBS, in up to 12 one-hour sessions, 71 percent of patients responded positively to hypnotherapy, 81 percent of whom maintained their improvement for some time, up to 6 years. The therapy also resulted in the elimination or reduction of medication (67.6% to 36.6%). Patients who continued the hypnotherapy and those who did not showed no difference in symptom change, so the therapy may have offered all it’s benefits up front. The study prompted the U.K.’s National Health Service to establish a hypnotherapy unit for IBS patients.
Although I have limited experience with hypnotherapy, I have been a fan for some time, especially for childbirth. The first time I enlisted help from a hypnotherapist for medical reasons was to prepare for surgery. I was having a laparoscopy and was extremely nervous about it, so we did two sessions to prepare. On the day of the procedure, I was so cool and collected, it kinda freaked my husband out. I could not have felt more calm and at peace, even happy to be there. And the effects from those two sessions persisted beautifully through several more surgeries years later, just as it did for the IBS study participants.
These are just three examples in a sea of literature, but even though there is very little money in promoting the power of belief in medicine, this topic is extensively researched and the mind-body connection very well established. The next step is to increase our understanding in how to create this effect without having to perform fake surgeries or prescribe sugar pills. We are only just starting to understand the details of promoting the power of the mind in health and medicine, but just as the placebo is the foundation of great research, I believe the mind’s impact on the body is the foundation of the future of medicine.