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November 8, 2010

Take Your Sugar Pill
Neil F. Neimark, MD

I frequently speak of the powerful way in which our beliefs and expectations influence our biochemistry and physiology.

When you have a strong belief in a medication or treatment plan, your body will help convert those beliefs and expectations into biochemical realities.

One intriguing study in the New England Journal of Medicine reveals just how much our positive expectations can influence our health and healing.

Most studies compare the results of a particular drug or treatment against those of a placebo (or inert pill, the so called sugar pill).

In this particular study, when the authors looked at just that subset of patients who were only taking the placebo, they came upon a fascinating finding: those patients who took their medicine (in this case, their placebo) regularly did better than those patients who failed to take their medicine (placebo).

In fact, of those patients who failed to take their medicine (placebo) regularly, 28% died. Of those patients who took their medicine (placebo) regularly (defined as at least 80% of the time), only 15% died.

This dramatically shows the power of positive adherence to the treatment regimen, even in those taking only a placebo.

Somehow our belief in the doctor and in the treatment plan protects us and allows our body to derive positive physiological benefits even from an inert pill.

I am not saying that we should go back to the days of giving patients sugar pills and selling snake oil off the back of a covered wagon, but we should realize the tremendous power of a vital, open and trusting relationship between the physician and the patient, where positive expectations can help augment the body's innate healing potential.

(For more information, read: The Coronary Drug Project Research Group. Influence of Adherence to Treatment and Response of Cholesterol on Mortality in the Coronary Drug Project. New England Journal of Medicine 303 (1980): 1038-41)

Neil F. Neimark, M.D.

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