In the late 1980s, I was teaching a pulse reading course to a group of lay people in Los Angeles. About halfway through the all-day seminar, one student fainted and fell to the floor. We supported him, and after a few moments, he said he was fine and wanted to continue with the course. I somewhat reluctantly continued teaching.
After the seminar that day, I sat down with him to see how he was doing. He said that he had only fainted once before in his entire life—in Mexico about 10 years prior. He said just like in Mexico, he got clammy, broke into a cold sweat, a wave of nausea came over him, and he woke up on the floor.
He told me that ever since he had fainted in Mexico, he had a chronic pain in his mid-back and under his liver on the right side. He had been to every doctor, healer, and shaman he could find to help with his nagging pain for ten years, and that was the reason he was taking my pulse class. He told me that as he was taking his own pulse, the pain got worse. The same feeling of clamminess and nausea he experienced in Mexico came over him again. The more he took his pulse, the more intense the pain became, until he blacked out.
After the course that day, I asked him if I could call him in a few days to see how he was doing. When I called him a week or so later, he told me that the pain he had in his liver and mid-back for 10 years had completely resolved—he was free of any pain or discomfort. I would see him from time to time when I traveled back to Los Angeles and he would always make a point to come and tell me how grateful he was and that his pain was still gone.
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Pulse Reading for Self-Awareness + Healing
According to Ayurveda, the pulse can enhance awareness. When the body is directed to become more aware of itself, it can heal itself. We all know that the body can heal—spontaneous remissions and the placebo effect are scientific facts, but still unexplained.
Maybe Ayurveda, which is essentially the science of enhancing awareness, tapped into the mechanics of the self-healing placebo effect thousands of years ago. Instead of trying to solve all our medical problems with drugs, maybe it is time to investigate the power of the mind and its placebo effect to heal.
While the healing placebo effect is undisputed, it has been more of a nuisance for researchers than a viable tool to help folks get well. It works so well that researchers had to devise an elaborate protocol called a double-blind study, where both the real and fake medicines are studied.
The question that begs to be asked is: Why isn’t the placebo effect taken seriously? There’s no dispute over its therapeutic benefit. In fact, the effectiveness of the placebo is nothing short of phenomenal, ranging from 35% to a whopping 82% effective in some studies.1-3
For a western drug to be approved, all the drug has to do it outperform the placebo in one of the clinical trials. Literally, a drug can be outperformed by a placebo sugar pill in 7 out of 8 clinical trials, and then still be approved as a new drug.
The more compelling question then is: Why isn’t the placebo effect being investigated as a potential therapy, since it works so well? In this article, I will dive into some of the mind-boggling benefits of placebo and how Ayurveda employs the mind regularly to heal the body.
In one study, published by the American Psychological Association, 82% of the effectiveness of antidepressants was attributed to placebo effect.1 In fact, when the FDA released data from the study, they found that in more than half of the studies on six leading antidepressants, the drugs were outperformed by placebos.1
In one of the classic placebo studies, a group of medical students were given one of two pills. One group thought they were receiving a sedative and the other group a stimulant. They both received sugar pills. In the group that received the “sedative,” more than 2/3 felt drowsy, and the students that took two pills reported feeling sleepier than the students who just took one.
The group that took the “stimulant” pill felt more energy, but what was surprising was that 1/3 reported feeling side effects ranging from dizziness and headaches to numbness and staggered gait. Only three out of the 56 students reported feeling nothing.2
Perhaps the most concrete evidence of the effectiveness of placebo is related to post-surgical pain. In a powerful study in the New England Journal of Medicine, 180 patients with knee osteoarthritis were randomly divided into three groups. One group had debris removed from the knee, the second group had the knee lavaged (rinsed), and the third group got a fake surgery.4
The results were astounding! During the 24-month post-surgical follow-up procedures, there was no difference between the placebo group and the groups that actually received surgeries. All three groups got better. Two years later, when the placebo group was told they did not get the actual surgery, they were happily doing things like walking and playing basketball that they could not do before “surgery.”4
In another study on post-surgical pain, 75% of patients suffering from post-operative wound pain reported satisfactory relief after only an injection of sterile saline.3
It’s In Your Head
In another study on antidepressants, 51 subjects were divided into two groups. One group received a placebo and the other an antidepressant. Both groups experienced relief from depression, but surprisingly, the placebo group saw measurable changes in the prefrontal cortex of the brain that the antidepressant group did not. This surprising result was measured by a technique developed by UCLA called cordance, which measures regional brain activity.6
This study and others suggest that not only does the placebo effect work, but it can make structural changes in the brain that can potentially support permanent benefits.6-9
Just as my pulse reading student increased his own self-awareness, is it possible that we can all increase self-awareness and support the body’s natural healing process? We know that in ancient primitive cells, those with the most awareness of their environment evolved faster. The human body is a cellular work-in-progress still striving to be more self-aware. Is it possible that the placebo effect is a result of a subtle self-awareness boost?
Once the body is self-aware and able to recognize a problem as a problem, it can employ a natural healing response for that problem. It doesn’t even need to involve thinking! When the body forms a scab, this requires no thinking. Healing is an involuntary system.
The body develops self-awareness through yoga, breathing, meditation, self-pulse reading, and, of course, a balanced Ayurvedic lifestyle in accord with natural cycles, and also through doing something to address an issue—this is a signal to the body that something is wrong and that energy is being directed toward the problem. Then the body can kick in its own healing responses. This is how Ayurveda may explain the placebo effect.
How has self-awareness played a role in your own health journey?