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In the late 1980’s, I was teaching a pulse reading course to a group of lay people in Los Angeles. About halfway through the all-day seminar, one of the students fainted and fell to the floor. We supported him, and after a few moments he said he was fine and he 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 and that was in Mexico about ten years before. He said just like in Mexico, he got clammy, broke into a cold sweat and then 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 said that he had been to every doctor, healer and shaman he could find to help him 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 during the course the pain got worse. The same feeling of clamminess and nausea he experienced in Mexico came over him again. He said the more he took his pulse, the more intense the pain became and he blacked out.
He told me that as he was finishing the pulse course that day, he noticed that the pain in his liver and mid-back was totally gone. He got up and moved around, took a walk, and with disbelief, he told me he was free of pain.
I asked him if I could call him in a few days to see how he was doing. I checked in with him a couple of times and his pain was gone with no re-occurrence. How did this happen?
According to Ayurveda, the pulse can enhance awareness, and when the body is directed to become more aware of itself, the body 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 awareness, tapped into the mechanics of the self-healing placebo effect thousands of years ago.
While the 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?” – as there is 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 percent in some studies. (1-3)
Perhaps a more compelling question is, “Why isn’t the placebo effect being investigated instead of ignored as a potential therapy since it works so well?” In this article, I will dive into some of the mind-boggling benefits of the 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 the placebo. (1) In fact, when the FDA released the data from the study, they found that more than half of the studies on six leading antidepressants were out-performed by the placebo. (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 two-thirds of them felt drowsy, and the students that took two of the pills reported feeling sleepier than the students who just took one.
The group that took the “stimulant” pill had a similar result, but what was surprising was that one-third of the entire group reported feeling side effects ranging from dizziness and headaches to numbness and staggered gait. Only 3 out of the 56 students reported feeling nothing. (2)
Perhaps the most concrete evidence of the effectiveness of the placebo is related to post-surgical pain. In a powerful study in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, a group of 180 patients with knee osteoarthritis were randomly divided up 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 got the surgeries. All three groups got better. Two years later, when the placebo group was told that they did not get the actual surgery, they were happily doing things like walking and playing basketball that they could not do before the 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 Not Only In Your Head
In another study on antidepressants, 51 subjects were divided into two groups with one group on a placebo and the other on an antidepressant. Both groups experienced relief from depression, but surprisingly, the placebo group saw measurable changes in the prefrontal cortex in the brain that the antidepressant group did not. This surprising result was measured by a technique developed by UCLA called cordance, which is a measure of regional brain activity. (6)
This study and others like it, suggests that, not only does the placebo effect work, but it can make structural changes in the brain that can potentially support the benefits permanently. (6-9)
Just as my pulse reading student increased his own self-awareness, is it possible that we can all increase our self-awareness and support the body’s natural healing process. We know that the most ancient primitive cells that had 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 boost in self-awareness?
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 is not a thinking thing! When the body forms a scab, this requires no thinking. The healing system is an involuntary system that may be able to be employed involuntarily. Self-awareness through yoga, breathing, meditation, self-pulse reading, and of course a balanced Ayurvedic lifestyle in accord with the natural cycles of nature is how Ayurveda may explain the placebo effect.
How has awareness played a role in your own health journey?