A Spoonful of Sugar

According to Mary Poppins, the fictional flying nanny in Disney’s movie of the same name, “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down”.

But what if the medicine is a spoonful of sugar?

The placebo has been dubbed the ‘sugar pill’ because it is a dummy medical treatment administered under the guise of medication.  According to a medical dictionary, a placebo is a look-alike pill containing no medication and prescribed or given to reinforce a patient’s expectation to get well.

The placebo effect is called a mind game. Researchers have learned that the dummy pills can influence patients’ perceptions and, thereby, also often their physical condition.  In a survey of Canadian physicians, one in five acknowledged occasionally prescribing their patients placebos.

Dr. Amir Raz, a professor of psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal, teaches the only course on the science of placebos offered at a Canadian medical school. According to Dr. Raz, placebos have been shown to be “extremely potent” in many fields of medicine, including psychiatry, rheumatology, immunology, pediatrics and even some surgeries.

There is ongoing discussion about the role of placebos in medical treatment because the guideline in using placebos is currently foggy.  Giving a placebo without a patient’s knowledge is not acceptable ethics to Canadian physicians.

Alongside the debate over the ethics of their use, there remains steady and increased research into how placebos encourage the mind to heal the body. The patient’s thought about the drug seems to be the determining factor.

Dr. Kaptchuk, Director of the Program of Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter at the Harvard Medical School has found that his work on the effect of placebos has led him to the conclusion that, for some people, simply believing in a treatment can be as effective as the treatment itself.

While these studies tell us a lot about the effect of what we humanly think on our health, they don’t provide consistent or easily explained results. The most consistent results documented in written human record are those recorded as the works of Jesus. His approach recognized the role of thought and a need to change human thinking (one of the original meanings of “repent” is to “re-think”). Key to that change was turning from human aid (thought or drugs) to the Divine. He spoke of the healing he produced as the result of his oneness with God and noted he could ‘of his own self do nothing.’   No sugar coating here!

Patients and doctors alike are surprised by what new studies are teaching about the little bits of nothing and their role in healing. Are studies into this ‘spoonful of sugar’uncovering more of the role the mind-body connection plays in caring for one’s health and well-being?  Is a drug’s effectiveness the result of thought rather than chemistry? And, if so, is it largely or only partially the results? Is it always or only sometimes the result? People are seeking consistently effective solutions to their health problems and will want to know the answer to these more specific questions about placebos.

They are also increasingly seeking to have their spirituality considered in their treatment.






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