Lissa Rankin is a renowned physician and author who has spent many years studying the placebo effect.
She is absolutely certain that our thoughts affect our body physiologically. Which means we can heal ourselves with our own minds!
In one of her TEDx Talks she described her findings and told the amazing story of Mr. Wright who shrank his tumor to twice its size with the power of his mind.
Here are the highlights of her lecture:
Can the mind really heal the body? And if so, is there any scientific evidence to convince skeptical physicians like me?
These are the questions that fueled the last few years of my research and what I discovered is that the scientific community, the medical establishment, has been proving for over 50 years, that the mind can heal the body. We call it the placebo effect. And we’ve been trying to outsmart it for decades.
The placebo effect is a thorn in the side of the medical establishment. It’s an inconvenient truth, that gets in between, trying to bring new treatments, new surgeries into the medical establishment. So it’s a problem. Supposedly.
But I actually think this is really good news. Because it’s concrete evidence that the body holds within it innate self-repair mechanisms that can make unthinkable things happen to the body.
So if you have a hard time believing that the body can heal itself, you need look no further than The Spontaneous Remission Project, a database compiled by the Institute of Noetic Sciences of over 3500 case studies in the medical literature of patients who have gotten better from seemingly incurable illnesses.
You think there’s such a thing as an incurable illness? I swear, if you go look at this database, it will blow your mind.
Everything is in there. Stage 4 cancers that disappeared without treatment. HIV positive patients, that became HIV negative. Heart disease, kidney failure, diabetes, high blood pressure, thyroid disease, autoimmune diseases, gone.
A great example of this in the medical literature, is a case study from 1957 of Mr. Wright who had advanced lymphosarcoma.
So, things weren’t going well for Mr. Wright, time was really running out. He had tumors the size of oranges in his armpits, his neck, his chest, his abdomen.
His liver and spleen were enlarged, and his lungs were filling up with two quarts of milky fluid every day that had to be drained in order for him to breathe.
But Mr. Wright wasn’t giving up hope. He had heard about this wonder drug called Krebiozen, and he was begging his doctor, “Come on, just give me some of that Krebiozen, it’s all going to be good.”
Now, unfortunately the Krebiozen was only available on a research protocol and the protocol required that the doctor be able to make an assessment that says that this guy has at least three months to live. And his doctor, Dr. West, just couldn’t do that.
But Mr. Wright was tenacious and he didn’t give up. He kept badgering his doctor, until finally his doctor was like, “Okay, fine I’ll give you the Krebiozen.”
So he dosed him up on a Friday, not expecting that Mr. Wright would make it through the weekend. But to his utter shock, when Dr. West came in to do rounds on Monday, Mr. Wright was up, walking around the wards, and his tumors had shrunk to half of their original size.
They had melted like snowballs on a hot stove. And 10 days after getting the Krebiozen, they were gone.
So Mr. Wright was up rocking and rolling like crazy and Krebiozen is the miracle drug he believed it to be, for two months, until the initial reports came out about Krebiozen that said that it didn’t really look like Krebiozen was working so well.
Mr. Wright fell into a deep depression and his cancer came back.
So this time Dr. West decided to get sneaky, and he told his patient that “You know that Krebiozen that you got, that was a tainted version, really not so good. But I got us some ultrapure highly concentrated Krebiozen, this stuff’s got it going on.”
He then injected Mr. Wright with nothing but distilled water. And once again, the tumors disappeared, the fluid in his lungs went away. Mr. Wright was up rocking and rolling for another two months.
And then the American Medical Association blew it, by publishing on a nationwide study that proved definitively that Krebiozen was worthless.
Two days later, Mr. Wright after hearing this news died.
Soon after that, I came across another study in the medical literature that was the stuff of fairytales. Three baby girls were born, delivered by a midwife, on Friday the 13th. And the midwife pronounced that these three babies, born on such a faithful day, were all hexed.
The first, she said, would die before her 16th birthday. The second, before her 21st. The third, before her 23rd birthday.
And as it turned out, the first girl died the day before her 16th birthday, the second died the day before her 21st birthday, and the third girl, who knew what had happened to the other two, got wind of that, and the day before her 23rd birthday, she showed up at the hospital hyperventilating, begging them, to make sure she survived. She wound up dying that night.
These two case studies are great examples from the medical literature of the placebo effect, and its opposite, the nocebo effect.
So Mr. Wright, when he got that distilled water and his tumors melted away, that’s a great example of the placebo effect. When you get a seemingly inert treatment and yet something is happening physiologically in the body, such that the disease goes away. The nocebo effect is the opposite. So the three hexed girls are an example of the nocebo effect. When the minds believed that something bad is going to happen in the body then it comes to manifest.
So the scientific literature that medical journals like the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association, these scientific journals are full of evidence that the placebo effect, and the nocebo effect are incredibly powerful. If you give people a fake treatment, a sugar pill, a saline injection, or most effectively, a fake surgery – yeah, really – 18% to 80% of the time, people get better.
And it’s not just in the mind, that’s what I thought in the beginning, like “Oh! They’re just feeling better, they’re thinking better.” But it is not.
It’s actually in their physiology. This is measurable. You can actually see what happens to the body.
So for example patients getting placebos were found to have ulcers that healed, colons that became less inflamed, bronchia that dilated, warts that disappeared, cells looked different under the microscope. It’s provable, it’s happening in the body, even though it’s initiated by the mind.
So, when you look at these, some of the studies are just amazing.
I love the Rogaine studies. You get a bunch of bald men, you give them placebos. They grow hair!
The opposite is also true. So if you give people a placebo and you tell them it’s chemotherapy, they vomit, and they lose their hair. So this is really happening in the body.
And the question I have is – Is it just the mind’s positive belief that’s making this happen?
Not according to Harvard researcher Ted Kaptchuk. According to him, he thinks that the most essential part is actually the nurturing care of a health care provider, more so even than the mind’s positive belief that some of the studies actually say that the doctor is the placebo or can be.
So to say that you can heal yourself is sort of a misnomer. You know, the body can heal itself.
The body has this innate natural self-repair mechanisms, but the scientific data proves that you need the tending nurturing care of a healthcare provider, of some sort of a healer, to facilitate that process. It’s not an easy process to go through alone, so it makes a big difference if somebody else is holding that positive belief with you.
Later I developed a new wellness model called the Whole Health Cairn, and this came about as part of my research, trying to find how else can we harness this mind’s power that’s clearly evidenced by the placebo effect and the nocebo effect, can we do something without being in a clinical trial?
And my hypothesis was that in order to heal ourselves, in order to be optimally healthy, we need more than just a good diet, regular exercise program, getting enough sleep, taking your vitamins, following your doctors orders. Those things all are great, and critical and important.
But I also came to believe that we need healthy relationships, a healthy professional life, a healthy creative life, a healthy spiritual life, a healthy sex life, a healthy financial life, a healthy environment. In essence, we need a healthy mind.
But I want to give you a few highlights about what this is all about. So you can see from the Whole Health Cairn, that all of these facets are built upon a foundation stone that I call your inner pilot light.
And for me that’s the essential authentic part of you, that knows what’s true for you. That’s willing to tell you the truth about maybe what’s out of alignment in your life, what stones in your whole health cairn might be out of balance.
And as you see I’ve put the body, physical health, on the top of the whole health cairn because it’s the most fragile, the most precarious, and the most easy to kind of fall out of balance if other things in your life aren’t going so well.
So what I found in the medical data is that relationships matter. People who have a strong social network have half the rate of heart disease compared to those who are lonely. Married people are twice as likely to live long lives than unmarried people.
In fact, curing your loneliness may be the most important measure of prevention you can enact upon your body. More so than quitting smoking or starting to exercise.
Your spiritual life matters. Those who attend religious services live up to fourteen years longer.
Your professional life matters. You really can work yourself to death. In Japan they call it karoshi. Death by overwork, and the survivors of those who die of karoshi, can actually apply for workmen’s comp like benefits in Japan.
A study showed that people who fail to take their vacation, are actually a third more likely to get heart disease.
The attitude really matters. Happy people live 7 to 10 years longer than unhappy people, and optimists are 77% less likely to get heart disease than pessimists.
So how does this happen? What is happening in the brain that is making the body change?
The brain communicates with all the cells in the body via hormones and neurotransmitters. So, for example, if you have a negative thought, belief or feeling in the brain, your brain triggers this as a threat.
If you feel lonely or pessimistic, things are bad at work, you are in a toxic relationship, the amygdala says, “Threat! Threat!” and it turns on the hypothalamus, that talks to the pituitary gland, that communicates with the adrenal gland and the adrenal gland start spitting out stress hormones like cortisol, norepinephrine, epinephrine.
It turns on what Walter Cannon at Harvard calls the stress response, that triggers the sympathetic nervous system, and puts you into that fight or flight mode, which is adaptive, it’s protective if you are running away from a mountain lion, but in every day life, you’re supposed to have that quick stress response if there is a threat and then it’s supposed to switch right off. This isn’t what happens in our regular lives these days.
But fortunately there is a counter balance in relaxation response that Herbert Benson at Harvard described.
And when this comes about, the stress response turns off, the parasympathetic nervous system turns on, and healing hormones like oxytocin, dopamine, nitric oxide, endorphins fill the body and bathe every cell in the body.
What I found the most amazing about this is that those natural self-repair mechanisms that we all have they only flip on when the nervous system is relaxed. So when you’re having stress responses, all those natural self-repair mechanisms get flipped off. The body is too busy trying to fight or flee, in order to heal itself.
So, when you think about this, you have to start to wonder like, How can I possibly start to change the balance in my own body?
So one study showed that on average we have more than 50 stress responses per day. And if you’re lonely, or depressed or pessimistic or unhappy at work or in a miserable relationship that number is going to be more than twice as many.
Now this relaxation response is what researchers think explains the placebo effect. So when you’re going to get supposedly maybe a new wonder drug — you don’t know whether you’re getting the placebo or not — it triggers that relaxation response, that combination of the mind’s positive belief and the nurturing care of a healthcare provider relaxes the nervous system. And then all those natural self-repair mechanisms can come into play.
Fortunately though you don’t have to be in a clinical trial to turn on your relaxation responses. There are lots of simple pleasurable activities that turn on the relaxation responses and these have been proven in the medical literature.
So you can meditate, you can express yourself creatively, you can get a massage, do yoga or tai chi, you can go out with your friends, you can do work that you love, you can have sex, you can laugh, you can exercise, you can play with animals.
So I ask you to consider the Whole Health Cairn in your own life. Which stones in your Whole Health Cairn might be out of balance? Each of these stones can be a factor for creating stress responses or relaxation responses.
How might you turn on more relaxation responses in your body? And most importantly, what does your body need in order to heal? What prescription do you need to write for yourself? And are you going to be brave enough to take action on the truth of what your inner pilot light already knows?
What about you? Have you ever noticed the placebo effect?