The Power of the Placebo Effect

FEBRUARY 05, 2018
For a drug therapy to the gain golden seal of approval in the United States, there are many required steps, including research, lab testing, and phase 1, 2, and 3 trials. The average cost for a new medication to make its way into the local pharmacy is a whopping $2.6 billion, on average.1
Yet, another big requirement for drug approval focuses on the beliefs that people have. What I am referring to, of course, is the placebo effect.
The beliefs that we hold are so strong and impactful that they have the capacity to supersede the role that medications play. The science of psychoneuroimmunology shows the impact that our minds and thoughts can have on illnesses and the prescribed medications intended to treat them. One researcher in this field, Dr. Henry Beecher from Harvard University, explained through some of his experiments that the success we commonly attribute to a medication’s impact on a condition might actually be the patient's belief that this truly is the magic potion. Let’s look at 2 examples:
One of the most widely known examples of this concept, put into experimental practice, involved 100 medical students who were recruited to test 2 new medications: a “super stimulant” red capsule, and a “super tranquilizer” blue capsule.2 This was what they were told they were given, but in reality the 2 were intentionally switched, that is, the red capsule was actually the tranquilizer (a barbiturate), and the blue capsule contained the stimulant (an amphetamine).

The results of what the participants experienced was striking: They were right in line with the subject’s expectations. The subjects were told that they received a stimulant but it was really a tranquilizer, and felt they stimulated. Meanwhile, those who were told that they would be taking a tranquilizer but actually were given a stimulant felt tired. Taking this yet a step further really drives the power of beliefs home: These students were not given placebos; they got the actual medications.
Despite taking the medications, their own beliefs about what the drugs were and how they would affect their bodies superseded what the real medication was and how it acted on the body. So, it was mind over matter or mind over medication.

Following the experiment, Dr. Beecher said that “[a drug’s usefulness] is a direct result of not only the chemical properties of the drug but also the patient’s belief in the usefulness and effectiveness of the drug."

Now let's look at the impact that our beliefs can have on not just medication but our entire immune system. One event occurred at a sports event in Monterey Park, California, where several people had reported having food poisoning.3 The physician who examined these patients deduced that the source of the food poisoning was a soft-drink machine at the venue. To warn others, the information was announced over the public-address system, which caused widespread panic. People began to faint and vomit. Even those who did not consume a beverage from the soda machine, but were only near it, began to complain of the same symptoms. Not too long after the announcement, it was confirmed that the soda machine was completely sanitary and not the source of the illness. Once this was announced, people who drank from the machine and were ill miraculously felt completely void of any such symptoms. 
This is not meant to downplay the incredible role that medications have in treating conditions or suggest that we should use mental will alone to heal ourselves. But it does highlight the tremendous power that our minds and beliefs have in terms of patient care and how they can be used to augment therapy in effective and optimal treatment strategies. One thing to consider beyond the scope of medications is this: If the beliefs we have are so powerful that they can overpower the effects of medications, what else could they be used for in our lives? What mental hurdles can we overcome? What limits can we surpass that we have set on ourselves?

Imagine the impact we could have if we were to consciously tap into this mental capacity each day. In terms of diet and health, we average more than 200 thoughts related to food daily. We do have the power, and awareness is the first step in turning that into an asset that we can use to better ourselves and the lives of people we serve each day. If you want to learn more about research and science-based mindset techniques, visit or contact me at

1. Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development. Tufts CSDD assessment of cost to develop and win marketing approval for a new drug now. Published March 20, 2016. Accessed February 5, 2018.

2. Blackwell B, Bloomfield SS, Buncher CR. Demonstration to medical students of placebo responses and non-drug factors. Lancet. 1972;1(7763):1279-82.

3. Robbins T. Awaken the Giant Within: How to Take Immediate Control of Your Mental, Emotional, Physical & Financial Destiny! New York, NY: Simon & Schuster; 1992.

Adam Martin, PharmD, ACSM-CPT
Adam Martin, PharmD, ACSM-CPT
Dr. Martin is a licensed pharmacist, having earned his doctorate of pharmacy degree from the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy in 2012. He is the founder of TheFitPharmacist movement, which strives to empower pharmacists and pharmacy students to thrive in their careers by overcoming stress and unhealthy habits using science-based principles and unmatched support. His passion for helping those in pharmacy led to TheFitPharmacist Podcast on the PharmacyPodcast network, where he provides practical tips for staying healthy while working at the pharmacy, along with interviewing professionals in the top of their respective fields to bring their knowledge right to your earbuds. He merges his passion of pharmacy with the experts in nutrition through being the owner and nutrition consultant at The Diet Doc Pittsburgh North, with the company having over 25 years of success. Learn more and join TheFitPharmacist movement at
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