Placebo effects explained

Placebo = a substance that does not contain any active medicine or molecule.

But sometimes it makes us feel better anyhow!

Medical research has recently been considering the issue of placebo with an increasing interest. In the past few years several research experiments have been undertaken - and are still happening - in many hospitals and university laboratories around the world in order to understand if and how placebo works.

Placebo is normally used as a means to control the effect of new drugs in research studies: many patients are tested, some of them using the new drug and some the fake or placebo. If the people taking the drug but not the placebo users are improving, that can be proof of the response to the real chemicals contained in the drug and not to random outcomes or other types of effects (self improvement).

However, many experiments designed expressly to see if placebo creates a response in itself have proven that patients actually feel better after taking a neutral pill or a fake shot, and this result is sometimes as strong as the one obtained by the real drug. This effect is real and physical: the patient feels and IS better, and this because he/she expects to be so by taking the (whatever) “treatment” is offered by the doctor.

Improvements on placebo treatment have been measured on depression, sleep disturbance, irritable bowel disease, and even Parkinson’s disease. How is it possible that a sugar or starch pill can improve our health?

It is now more clear how this system works. The brain is convinced of the power of a fake drug or a treatment and expects - and believes in - a positive outcome. This conviction is the key and is acting chemically: as response to this, parts of the brain release neurotransmitters (the messengers permitting communication between neurons) of the ‘feel-good’ type, like dopamine or endorphins (body natural opioids that act like pleasure drugs). Such natural chemicals produce pain-killing, pleasure and reward sensations in the body.

Therefore placebo treatments induce a real chemical change in the brain that leads to changes in other parts of the body. What triggers the release of such good mood chemicals is the power of a person's expectations. If a person expects a pill to do something, then it's possible that the body's own chemistry can cause effects similar to what a drug might have caused. Such power of expectation and belief is even more effective when it is backed up by a large group of people. In many cases, healing events at pilgrimage sites are due to such power - at least as explained by science, not by religion.

The placebo effect is also the explanation science gives to the effects of homeopathy. In fact, none of the responses of homeopathy have been proven to be due to a physical cause, and supporters of this practice explain it through the action of infinitesimal vibration, or the subtle energy of the memory of a substance in water, since in most such treatments there is no remains of even a molecule of “active ingredient”.

Some of the medical arena is still fighting the idea that a placebo can trigger the quantified chemical changes in the brain; however, disregarding the power of placebo treatment on ailments is closing access to a pharmaceutical-free but observed path to wellbeing and health improvement.


Torgan, C. 2015 Placebo Effect in Depression Treatment, 2015, National Institute of Health,

Feinberg, C, 2013 The Placebo phenomenon, Harvard magazine

Vance, E. 2016 Mind over matter, national Geographic Magazine

Raúl de la Fuente-Fernández, Thomas J. Ruth, et. al 2001 Expectation and Dopamine Release: Mechanism of the Placebo Effect in Parkinson's Disease, Science, Vol. 293, Issue 5532, pp. 1164-1166

Ratini, M, 2016 WebMed, The Placebo Effect, what is it?

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