The medical establishment has been proving that the mind can heal the body for over 50 years. We call it “the placebo effect,” and we know that when patients in clinical trials get nothing but sugar pills, saline injections, or fake surgeries, but believe they might be getting the new wonder drug or miracle surgery, their bodies get better 18-80% of the time.
While many are aware of the seemingly mysterious placebo effect, fewer people know about its evil twin, “the nocebo effect.” When I was researching my book Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself, I became convinced, without a shadow of a doubt, that a combination of positive belief and the nurturing care of the right healer can activate the body’s natural self-repair mechanisms and help the body heal itself.
But was the opposite also true? Do negative beliefs about our health or harsh care from insensitive doctors harm the body?
Turns out they can.
Harmful Beliefs Poison Your Body
As reported in an article in The Lancet, researchers in San Diego examined the death records of almost 30,000 Chinese-Americans and compared them to over 400,000 randomly selected white people. What they found was that Chinese-Americans, but not whites, die significantly earlier than normal (by as much as 5 years) if they have a combination of disease and birth year which Chinese astrology and Chinese medicine consider ill-fated.
The researchers found that the more strongly the Chinese-Americans attached to traditional Chinese superstitions, the earlier they died. When they examined the data, they concluded that the reduction in life expectancy could not be explained by genetic factors, the lifestyle choices or behavior of the patients, the skill of the doctors, or any other variable.
For four years, since Tricia Barrett first introduced me to the merits of drinking green juice as a dietary supplement, I’ve been drinking 4 or 5 fresh green veggie juices daily. These juices - painstakingly extracted from kale, celery, cucumber, sprouts, parsley, lemon, and ginger - have been my medicine, keeping my weight stable, my blood pressure low, and my immune system strong enough to fight even the viruses that infect my whole family.
But then, about a month ago, my assistant April (who, bless her heart, makes my green juice for me) had to leave town. And my husband was working 12 hour days at his new job, so he couldn’t help out. And I was busy seeing mentoring clients and recording the audio version of my upcoming book Mind Over Medicine. So the green juice never got made, and I didn’t drink green juice for a whole week, something that hasn’t happened for four years.
Lo and behold - I got flattened with a nasty cold.
Green Juice As My Gospel
It got me thinking. Now I firmly believe that my green juice will keep my healthy. My daughter brings home viruses from her school regularly. At one point this winter, over half of her school was out sick - but I stayed healthy. I credit my daily green juice, and praise it often. In fact, every day, when I imbibe my first dose of green medicine, I thank the vegetables for keeping my body fit and healthy and strong.
You might say I worship at the altar of green juice. I have complete, unshakeable faith in its magic and can be found prosthelytizing about it frequently. In fact, I even bring coolers of my green juice to my mentoring sessions with clients so I can introduce them to it, show them how yummy it tastes, hopefully convert them. You might say I’m a true believer.
Most of us have heard of “the placebo effect,” the heal-inducing effect patients in clinical trials experience when they believe they’re getting a fancy new drug or surgery but are actually getting fake treatment. The placebo effect is real, it works about 18-80% of the time, and it’s not just in your head - it actually dilates bronchi, heals ulcers, makes warts disappear, drops your blood pressure, and even makes bald men who think they’re getting Rogaine grow hair!
Unwanted Side Effects
But the placebo effect has a shadow side. The same mind-body power that can heal you can also harm you. When patients in double-blinded clinical trials are warned about the side effects they may experience if they’re given the real drug, approximately 25% experience sometimes severe side effects, even when they’re only taking sugar pills.
Those treated with nothing more than placebos often report fatigue, vomiting, muscle weakness, colds, ringing in the ears, taste disturbances, memory disturbances, and other symptoms that shouldn’t result from a sugar pill.
Interestingly, these nocebo complaints aren't random; they tend to arise in response to the side effect warnings on the actual drug or treatment. The mere suggestion that a patient may experience negative symptoms in response to a medication (or a sugar pill) may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, if you tell a patient treated with a placebo he might experience nausea, he’s likely to feel nauseous. If you suggest that he might get a headache, he may. Patients given nothing but saline who thought it was chemotherapy actually threw up and lost their hair!