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To Placebo or Not to Placebo.

Most people widely acknowledge the efficacy of a sugar pill, masquerading as a cure-all medicine, but according to some scientists, meditation and a positive outlook have a similar impact.

The old methodologies of giving a control group of patients a fake tablet to take has been supplanted by tests where the subject is aware of the placebo. Ted Kaptchuk of Harvard Medical School in Boston, gave some patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, placebos made from an inert substance. Test subjects were then informed that the inert substance was shown to be effective in clinical studies in improving symptoms of IBS through the process of mind-body self-healing. At the end of the trial, a significant proportion of those taking the sugar pills claimed relief from symptoms compared to those who received no placebo at all.

Irving Kirsch, a psychologist from the University of Hull, thinks that giving someone something to believe in is the key. When a patient received an explanation as to why something should work, they were more convinced that a treatment would be successful. Faith, too, appears to be similarly effective, although studies into the efficacy of prayer and belief in a deity remain highly controversial.

It all appears to boil down to one thing – the control of stress factors and associated hormones. Those who class themselves as optimists have lower stress responses, recover better from medical procedures, have healthier immune systems and in general, when faced with potentially fatal conditions, live longer than those who classify themselves as pessimists, realists or fatalists.

Optimism not only appears to dampen the effects of the stress hormone cortisol, but can have a restorative effect on the ‘fight or flight’ body response, by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system that controls the opposite, ‘rest and digest’ response.

It seems as though our behaviour has a far-reaching impact on our physical wellbeing. Studies into social isolation have generated similar results. Those subjects who view themselves as lonely, have a statistically increased risk of almost all harmful conditions, from heart attacks to dementia. Those who feel satisfied with their social lives sleep better, respond well to vaccines and age more slowly. This correlation is so strong, that preventing loneliness is akin to giving up smoking in terms of health benefits (John Cacioppo, University of Chicago).

The same is true of meditation practitioners. During the search for spiritual enlightenment, volunteer meditators participated in various small-scale health trials. Evidence from these studies, suggest a range of positive health benefits, such as a boost in immune response against vaccines, cancer and a protection against relapses in cases of severe depression. Researchers like Clifford Saron and his colleagues from the Center for Mind and Brain, at the University of California, go as far as suggesting that meditation can slow the ageing process, by activating an enzyme that lengthens the telomeres in our cells. The shortening of these telomeres during cell division, being a primary cause of ageing. Saron attributes this enzymatic release to the influence of meditation on the stress response pathways in the body. A co-author of Saron’s study, Elissa Epel, a psychiatrist at the University of California, believes that meditation may also trigger the release of growth and sex hormones.

This growing body of evidence is hard to refute, and with that in mind I am determined to force myself to think only of the positive aspects of life, no matter what life slings at me. I shall think myself thin, believe in success and who knows, I might even stimulate my body into growing higher than the hobbit-size of five feet tall.

Sam Nash is the author of the sci-fi conspiracy thriller, The Aurora Mandate. Release date TBA. You can find her at or on Twitter @samnashauthor or

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