Are positive health impacts of spirituality simply a placebo effect?

©GlowImages - spirituality impacts health - not a placebo effect

©GlowImages – spirituality impacts health – not a placebo effect

Doctors prescribing placebos has long been considered a questionable practice.  But, according to new research, prescribing a placebo is a stealthy, but increasingly accepted way to raise a patient’s expectation of getting better. And it has been shown to reduce symptoms even when patients know they are taking a dummy pill.

Giving a placebo without a patient’s knowledge is not acceptable ethics to Canadian physicians.  However, in a survey of Canadian physicians, one in five acknowledged occasionally prescribing placebos.

Ongoing discussion about the role of placebos continues because the guidelines for their use are currently foggy.  Alongside the debate over the ethics of placebo use, there remains steady and increased research into how placebos encourage the mind to heal the body – it’s often even referenced as a “mind game”.  Yet, the fact that a patient’s thought about the drug seems to be the determining factor is hardly a game, given the need we all have to find consistent health outcomes.

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, paediatrics and even some surgeries.

Researchers are not entirely sure how the placebo effect works.  Some suggest that there is the mind-body connection – that it is all in the patient’s expectation of healing – and others, that it is purely a biological phenomenon. Does this open the door to the question of a drugs’ efficacy being in thought or in chemistry?

Harvard Researcher, Dr. Ted Kaptchuk, 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.  As an alternative to deceptive placebos, his study suggests that doctors could explain to a patient how she or he may benefit from the placebo effect and then prescribe a correctly labeled sugar pill with a clear conscience.

Research has also shown that other “mental” aspects of the treatment setting make a difference. For example, patients who see a warm and caring physician tend to recover sooner.  And at Columbia University, staff and students are encouraged to lay down their stethoscopes and listen to their patient’s stories.  Columbia’s medical seminars underscore the connection between the humanities and healing.

While these studies tell us a lot about the effect our thoughts have on our health, they don’t provide consistent or easily explained results. Nor, do they provide a clear path to employing this mind-body connection consistently to treat disease. The most consistent, documented results of healing through mental means are those recorded as the works of Jesus.

Of course, some researchers hold that the impact spirituality and religious practices have on health outcomes – which in numerous studies is consistently positive – is little more than one more example of the placebo effect. Yet, Jesus’ application of what he knew was certainly more consistent than modern day placebo research indicates is possible through simple mind-body manipulation. Perhaps, key to his approach was not only the recognition of the importance of changing human thinking (one of the original meanings of “repent” is to “re-think”) but also his admonition to turn 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.’

Pool of Bethesda
Pool of Bethesda

One of my favorite Biblical accounts of Jesus’ approach to healing is the story of a man who, for thirty-some years, sat by a pool waiting for a stirring of the water – as this was believed to be done by an angel and thus have healing power. Is this not similar to the belief of health associated with a sugar pill?  Jesus did not sugarcoat his words when he commanded the man to take up his bed and go home – back to an active and productive life.  The man was healed immediately and gladly complied. And, he did not even expect to be healed by this passing stranger – no placebo effect going on there.

Canadians are seeking consistently effective solutions to their health problems and will want to know the answer to how the placebo works and how any new understanding of it can be deployed to actually create consistent health outcomes.

Perhaps we need to also better understand the role spirituality, prayer and religious practices have on a person’s health – given the glimpses we have that it may be more than simple chemistry – even the sugar coated kind.

 Originally published in several Metroland medias, such as Simcoe County.

Wendy Margolese  writes regularly on the relationship between thought, spirituality and health, and trends in that field.  She is the media liaison for Christian Science in Ontario.   Feel free to contact her at and on Twitter: @wmargolese


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