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Think Yourself Thin

A placebo is a powerful thing. Now, it seems that they can be administered in both tablet and psychological form, with similar effects on our health. Tell a person that they are drinking a high energy drink, and they will release less of the chemical which indicates hunger. Tell the same person that the same drink is a healthy, low sugar drink, and they will report feelings of hunger within minutes. We really can trick ourselves into controlling aspects of our bodies that would normally be under the subconscious, autonomic nervous system’s domain.

Conversely, the nocebo effect can be paralysing. Give people a placebo pill with a list of possible side effects and some patients will experience symptoms to a staggering degree. How we think is critical to our health. We can no longer treat ailments as physiological issues in isolation to our feelings. We can, in effect, control our metabolism, aging, blood pressure and a myriad of other bodily processes, just by thinking about them. Poor perceptions of health can lead to a release of cortisol or other hormones which has an inflammatory effect, thus leading to discomfort and possibly early aging.

Alia Crum, of the Mind and Body Lab, Stanford University, California, explains her pioneering research into how our mindset can alter performance and physiological capabilities in this week’s edition of the New Scientist Magazine. Crum and her team analysed the placebo effect on a number of factors, such as weight loss, fitness, stress, and insomnia.

In one experiment, she split 84 hotel cleaners into two groups, and set about manipulating their mindsets. One group were told detailed information about how their cleaning regime was physically demanding enough to be considered a full body workout. She told them that vacuuming burned 200 calories per hour, meeting the US surgeon general’s exercise expectations. After a month, she returned to the two groups and found that with no changes in activity or diet, the group who were given the exercise information had lost an approximately 1kilogram each and their average blood pressure had dropped from elevated to normal. There is of course the possibility that that by informing these candidates, they put more effort into their cleaning routines, but probably not by a significant amount.

Kenneth Lichstein, University of Alabama, found that people who complained about a continuous lack of quality sleep, despite recorded data to the contrary, experienced daytime fatigue, high blood pressure, depression and anxiety. Those who received the same amount of sleep but did not complain about it, were almost free of symptoms. He claims that ‘worry about poor sleep is a stronger pathogen than poor sleep.’ He said that priming people to think that they had slept badly or unusually deeply, influenced their cognitive abilities the following day.

Ellen Langer, Harvard University, tested the placebo effect with aging individuals. She took a group of pensioners to a monastery in New Hampshire, and instructed them to act as if they were 22 years younger. They were given a steady diet of music, films and books from their younger days, and constant access to pictures of themselves as young people. After only five days, the pensioners reported improvements in their arthritis, posture and that their thinking and memory recall was sharper.

That is not to say that we can cure ourselves of excessive high blood pressure or prevent strokes, but our fundamental notions of medical care have concentrated solely on the adjustment of physical systems. Our doctors, specialists, surgeons and health professionals, must take medicine into the next decade with a holistic approach to healing body and mind. The old adage, we are what we eat, should coexist with a new one; we are what we think, too.

Sam Nash is the author of the thriller series, The Aurora Conspiracies, available from Amazon at You can find her at or on Twitter @samnashauthor or Alternatively, you can download her free prequel novella series. Kindle:

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