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Placebos work even if you know you're taking a placebo

The idea alone that you're taking or injecting something that'll improve your performance does indeed lead to performance improvement. It's called the placebo effect – and the placebo effect is so strong that, according to researchers at Harvard Medical School, a placebo still works even if you know you're taking something that contains no active ingredients. Good news for the boys and girls working for the supplements industry...

Placebos work even if you know you're taking a placebo
In 2010 Ted Kaptchuk of Harvard Medical School published the results of a study in which he had done an experiment with 80 people with irritable bowel syndrome. For three weeks Kaptchuk gave half of his subjects nothing at all and the other half a placebo. And the subjects knew that. They were told what placebo pills were and the bottle containing the pills that they took home also had a label saying that the pills were placebos.

At the end of the three weeks, Kaptchuk used standardised questionnaires to ask the subjects about their progress [IBS Global Improvement], asking them to give this a score on a scale of 1-7.

A 1 represented 'substantially worse', a 4 'no change' and a 7 'substantially improved'. The placebo group scored an average of a 5, or 'slightly improved'. The group that had not taken a placebo had noticed no change, so scored a 4.

Kaptchuk also measured the percentage improvement in symptoms the subjects had experienced [Adequate Relief]. In the placebo group the figure was 59 percent; in the other group the figure was 35 percent.

Finally, the subjects had to indicate how severe their symptoms were on a scale of 0-500 [Symptoms Severity]. The placebo group reported an improvement of 92 points. In the group that had not been given placebos, the figure was 46 points.

Placebos work even if you know you're taking a placebo

"Our study suggests that patients are willing to take open-label placebos and that such a treatment may have salubrious effects", Kaptchuk concluded. "Further research is warranted in irritable bowel syndrome and perhaps other illnesses to confirm that placebo treatments can be beneficial when provided openly and to determine the best methods for administering such treatments."

Biomedical scientists are becoming more and more interested in the placebo effect. It owes its existence to the capacity of the human mind to promote the healing process, the subject of the 2002 documentary Placebo: Cracking The Code.

The placebo effect plays a significant role not only among medicine takers, but also no doubt among nutritional supplements users. Even if you take a rubbish supplement that you know the manufacturers have put dried grass in, there’s still a chance that it'll work.

PLoS One. 2010 Dec 22;5(12):e15591.