In order of relevance
Placebo [plass-ee-bo] A drug containing no active ingredients given to a patient participating in a clinical trail in order to assess the performance of a new drug.
2. Something done or said simply to placate or reassure somebody that has no actual effect on whatever is causing his or her problems or anxiety.
Placebo effect: a sense of benefit felt by a patient that arises solely from the knowledge that the treatment has been given.
The topic of Self Healing often arises when I attend meetings, seminars, give speeches or simply discuss why some PALS seem to fare better than others.
The first answer is that ALS/MND manifests in several different ways (despite what some textbooks say).
Last but far from least is that most long term PALS seem to have an extremely positive mental attitude despite extreme and unpleasant circumstances. This attitude can be learned and some PALS actually attribute their longevity to making significant changes to their lifestyle and, even more importantly, to their thinking and attitude to life and their illness.
It is true that if you are directly in the path of a speeding freight train, positive thinking alone will not stop the train. That is the case with some PALS. The illness hits too hard and fast for any known remedies to be of much assistance. For those PALS with a less aggressive form of the illness there may be an opportunity to "step aside" and slow the neurodegenerative process.
I have not included many scientific references because the articles, scientific and otherwise, pertaining to this topic are numerous and varied. Placebo or Self Healing research is now an accepted and funded branch of medicine but has not fully entered most western medical practices. This may (and perhaps should) change in the near future.
Every cell in the human body is encoded with the ability to self destruct (apoptosis or programmed cell death) or conversely to heal itself, at the cellular level, using its embedded genetic template. This healing process differs greatly from the immune response that takes place when the body is under bacterial or viral attack.
Cellular healing is a much subtler and non-systemic response, involving only individual cells. More is now understood about the apoptotic process but little is known about precisely what triggers its opposite - healing within individual cells. There seems to be every indication that, given the right conditions, our bodies are preprogrammed to effect repairs at the cellular level.
Although different, in some respects this process can be illustrated by what can happen to undifferentiated stem cells. When provided with the appropriate cellular environment and genetic signals, stem cells can grow to fulfil the function of any other cell. Given the appropriate signals and stimulation, all but the most damaged cells should theoretically be able to repair themselves and continue to function normally by referring to their embedded genetic blueprint. Human liver cells can do this to some extent, actually regrowing excised sections of liver.
Simple organisms like starfish best demonstrate this regenerative process. They can completely regrow severed limbs. Even more remarkably, under the right circumstances, a completely new starfish can regrow from the severed limb. It has been suggested that starfish can do this because they are naively unaware that such regeneration is “impossible”. Starfish, after all, do not have what would normally be regarded as a brain, yet this "lower" life form has a superior ability to heal.
The Placebo Effect
If weak mindedness or gullibility alone were an explanation for the healing qualities of the placebo effect it would indicate that up to one third of the population are weak minded and delusional enough to both induce and maintain an illness - or to cure it.
By inference, around a third of healthy, intelligent medical volunteers who experience a placebo effect must be similarly deluded. The numerous papers written on this subject would suggest that delusion has less to do with the self healing process than one would expect. I am among those that feel it is time to re-evaluated the placebo effect and start assessing and even harnessing the remarkable ability of ones mind to influence the healing process.
Placebo trials became an integral and now mandatory part of pharmaceutical testing before a new medication could be released onto the market. It is now virtually a foregone conclusion that 22% 27% of people (depending on the data you read) involved in new drug trials will have a positive response regardless of whether they receive active medication or a placebo.
If the pharmaceutical industry has invested billions proving that their products work in spite of a known placebo effect they have ipso facto proved that the placebo effect not only exits but needs to be acknowledged as a very real healing mechanism. If this much money had been spent on a saleable product it would be acclaimed a scientific wonder of the highest order.
So why has placebo healing been dismissed as the result of weak mindedness, superstition and non-science? The opposite is true. Hundreds of thousands of clinical trials and thousands of millions of dollars have indirectly confirmed that placebo or self healing is a scientific fact of significant consequence.
The placebo healing ratio is so consistent that it hardly seems fair that “terminally ill” patients should be given placebos when the drug being tested could possibly save their lives and those not experiencing a healing placebo effect will almost certainly die. With a known percentage of placebo responses well established in thousands of trials of everything from moisturising lipsticks to cancer medications it is unconscionable and inexplicable that placebo testing for terminally ill patients should even be considered. Allow that 22% 27% will improve and draw data from the remaining 73% - which will happen anyway, placebo or not.
* In 1972 Sam Londy died of cancer a few months after he was diagnosed, just as Dr Clifton Maedor, had told him he would. An autopsy revealed that Sam did indeed have cancer, two small tumours in his liver and another small tumour in a lung. These tumours and any effects they may have had on Sam were incapable of killing him. As there is no scientific explanation for his death it is believed that Sam died because he expected to. He believed the diagnosis from an authority on the subject and, for reasons that cannot be adequately explained by western medical thinking.
Sam complied with the diagnosis and died. [Strictly speaking, this is known as a Nascebo reponse]. Dr Maedor now makes a point of sharing this story with other doctors and students in the hope that they will not make a similar “mistake”.
* Dr Albert Mason, studying in the UK but now working as a psychotherapist in California, believed that hypnotherapy could cure warts. He hypnotised a young man with large areas of warts on his body and the young man was completely cured after a few sessions of hypnosis.
Dr Mason’s teacher, Dr Moore, was astonished and informed him the condition had not been “warts” but the incurable skin disease, congenital Icthyoform Erythroderma. Patients normally deteriorate, suffer numerous infections and die. Dr Mason believed he was treating a patient with warts.
Over forty years later, the man with a “terminal” skin condition who believed his doctor could cure him has not relapsed. He remains the only person with the illness to be cured. Dr Mason never managed to cure another Icthyotic patient after he accepted it was "impossible" to treat the illness with hypnotherapy. (British Medical Journal 1952)
He made the radical decision to test if the mere experience of a surgical procedure, with no remedial surgery taking place, accounted for the occasional improvements observed and explained why not all patients benefited. At the suggestion of Dr Nelda Wray and to the bemusement of his colleagues he enacted the entire surgical procedure minus the actual flushing and smoothing of the surface of the joint and recorded precisely the same success ratio as when he performed the normal operation.
Even more remarkable is that the patients that improved report years later, that the joints remain mobile and pain free. The only explanation is that the belief that they were experiencing a surgical procedure triggered a self healing response that was sometimes more effective than the actual corrective surgery had been.
Before Western Medicine
Very often the precise cause of death cannot be clearly determined. The same is true when a similar process is used to heal by so called witch doctors and faith healers. If there is belief in a healer’s assumed, learned, inherited or otherwise accepted "power", healing by suggestion alone is possible. So what is actually taking place in western medical terms?
The concept that “it’s all in the mind” has been exploited positively and used to good effect by psychotherapists employing clinical hypnosis to induce and maintain the self healing process to treat a variety of diseases. It could be argued that “faith healing” essentially a strong belief in a positive outcome (whatever ones religious convictions) works on a similar principal. The important thing seems to be that one believes in and is able to fully embrace the idea that one can be healed, despite any evidence or assertions to the contrary. This belief is frequently dismissed as “false hope”.
False hope is an oxymoron. All hope and faith fails conventional scientific definition and is therefore "false". Faith and hope are employed when an outcome is unknown, unpredictable or scientifically unprovable. Yet faith and hope have been primary tools for people that have survived extreme and prolonged trauma including imprisonment and torture, being adrift at sea or buried under collapsed buildings for lengthy periods. Verifiable tales of survival in extreme conditions must number in the millions and, almost without exception, hope and/or faith were primary survival mechanisms.
Real or Imagined?
Our brains control 300,000 enzyme functions per minute and contain 100 billion active neurons. The brain governs every aspect of body function both autonomously and as a result how we use our minds. A simple, low-tech experiment can also demonstrate this to be true. Read the following paragraph, then relax and use your senses, imagination and visualisation:
Relax for several minutes with eyes closed then imagine a large, juicy lemon. See yourself picking up that lemon. Feel its weight and texture. Imagine its smell. Tap it and imagine the sound. Now take an imaginary knife and slowly cut the lemon in two. Watch and smell the misty spray and droplets of lemon juice. Feel the fine droplets on your skin. Now tilt your head back, open your mouth and prepare to squeeze lemon juice onto your tongue. Use all your senses to feel, watch, listen, smell and finally taste the sharp lemon juice as it slowly drips onto your tongue.
Are you salivating? If you have used your imagination and all your senses to visualise squeezing the lemon juice into your mouth your body has very probably reacted in exactly the same way it would have done if the lemon were real. Your brain and body does not discriminate between real and imagined lemons - or anything else for that matter.
If you follow a similar procedure, relax and use all your senses to visualise yourself completely well, your brain and body will attempt to comply with this imagined scenario. Chemical reactions will start to take place throughout your body, even at the cellular level. If this Imagined scenario is repeated regularly and the image and feeling of wellness (employing all your senses and with attention to the smallest detail) there is a distinct possibility that the imagined will ultimately influence the real.
Belief or Biology?
There is so much data to demonstrate that the placebo effect not only happens but does so consistently and quite predictably. Simply accepting that a remedy may have a positive effect seems to be all that is required for the placebo effect to take place. In the majority of cases, no great faith or strong belief in the "cure" or the practitioner administering it is required for self healing to occur. Positive physiological, chemical and other changes have repeatedly been recorded in volunteers and patients that have reason to believe they have taken or done something to improve their health.
Similar criticism occurs regarding homeopathic preparations. Sceptics argue that the dilution process employed in preparing homeopathic medicines removes all active ingredients and all homeopathic cures therefore result from the placebo effect.
Critics seem to miss the most important fact. People do get well using homeopathic medications, so in that respect it can be an effective treatment.
The inability of conventional western medicine to explain precisely how it works does not seem to influence its efficacy. [Incidentally, homeopathic preparations have also been used to successfully treat animals so I have no idea how sceptics manage to dismiss these cases].
It could be argued that placebo or self healing heals without medication, has no harmful ingredients and requires no unrealistic belief to work. Detractors seem to contend that healing "would have happened anyway" because there are no active ingredients involved and the subject must be duped or have an unrealistic belief for healing to occur. The bottom line is that healing does occur. Anaesthesia does occur. Dramatic, measurable physiological changes do occur.
Not having an acceptable answer as to why these things occur does not seem to stop them happening. Not having an acceptable answer for how and why it occurs is not a good reason to dismiss it as insignificant, ineffective, unimportant, unscientific and of no value as a healing tool.Is Self Healing Possible?
If the well documented placebo effect occurs so frequently and consistently that it requires billions of research dollars to exclude it as the possible cause of unexplained healing, the answer would appear to be "yes".
The next question would be, "can this ability to promote healing without drug intervention be harnessed?". Quite clearly, the answer to that would also be "yes".
As discussed, psychotherapists and even "unsophisticated" healers have been employing an individual's capacity for self healing for millennia. In combination with conventional and supplementary medications and techniques, self healing could play (and perhaps should play) a significant role in the healing process.
Positive Mental Attitude
It is not a "belief" and often has little to do with faith or hope. Having a positive mental attitude should pervade every aspect of life by acknowledging good things as they occur and not negatively obsessing about "bad", uncomfortable, frustrating and potentially depressing events. It could be argued that "Good and Bad" are more a matter of opinion than fact.
It is undeniable that extremely unpleasant, frightening, painful and disturbing things do occur in life. But the old chestnut: "when life hands you lemons you can make lemonade" remains true if (and only if) one is willing to accept that certain aspects of life will not necessarily be pleasant but neither do they render one incapable of either finding a solution or moving on.
"That which does not kill us makes us strong" can be true if one chooses to grow from life's challenges and misfortunes rather than be cowed and defeated by them.
A positive mental attitude (PMA) can begin with ones answer to "Is the glass half full or half empty?" Life routinely poses questions that will enable you to discover your habitual response. Do you tend to focus on what is lost or what remains? This question may seem a little fatuous because it appears so simple.
The question certainly is simple but the application of what your answer implies is far more difficult. Life overflows with options and choices you can use to your advantage if you can develop the habit of identifying and responding to them positively. It is possible that one may find it difficult to remain 100% positive 100% of the time.
Often the pressures of life can seem overwhelming but the real tests and successes occur at such times. Given time to "catch your breath", assess the situation and reaffirm your intent to find something positive in every situation can usually return you to your positive frame of mind and enable you to deal with whatever you are confronted with.
If a PMA does not come naturally to you - or has been stressed and battered to the point where it no longer seems to function properly - accept that you will fail occasionally but look forward to consistently regaining control. PMA results from a choice, a decision and frequent use. Practice makes perfect.
How Can Thinking Heal?
It is accepted by professional athletes that visualisation and a positive mental attitude can be crucial to their performance. Some employ Life and Motivational Coaches with whom they travel the world whilst competing. The athletes repeatedly visualise and "live" the outcome they desire before competition.
This does more than focus the mind. At the elite level, the difference between some athletes is measured in hundredths of seconds or fractions of centimetres. The difference between winning and losing is often the "mental edge" gained from positive visualisation and mental attitude. One could think of it as a self administered motivational seminar.
One famous example of this training approach was of a basketball team that made no change to their training routine other than repeatedly visualising that they had won convincingly and easily and by "mentally playing" each game before the competition. They later claimed that this alone took them from the bottom to the top of the league that season. This is one of many well documented and verifiable examples.
It is clear that mental attitude and visualisation can play a quantifiable role in the physical outcome of sporting endeavours. It is equally well documented that the same techniques can be applied to life in general. If it is true that you get what you expect from life - "expect the worst and you won't be disappointed" or alternatively, "you get from life what you put into it" ("as ye sow, so shall ye reap" if you prefer the biblical equivalent).
Again, an internet search will provide countless verifiable cases of "thought structuring" an outcome in advance. I could provide several dozen personal examples myself but more scientifically documented cases may be more convincing and appropriate in the context of this article.
Leap of Faith?
This immediately gives you a certain degree of control over your own destiny - no small achievement. If you believe that "God helps those that help themselves" it should not conflict with any religious convictions you may have. By helping yourself in a positive way you are also helping others by relieving some of the burden they may feel on your behalf.
Bear With Me...
From the dawn of time mankind has accepted things like "the god of the mountain is angry and will therefore argue with the god of the sky and cause a storm to swell the river and flood our crops and the goddess of abundance will frown on us and we shall all starve. It is all somebody's fault - probably the last person to climb the mountain or that person over there with a limp and a strange haircut".
To educated, rational minds this makes no sense. Blaming convenient deities over whom we have no control and punishing those that are different in an attempt to redress the balance makes no sense. This way of thinking is part of ancient history, right? Think again. We may have settled into a more rational and scientifically based way of life but the tendency to blame somebody or something for our misfortunes is still part of most peoples' lives.
Blame is so habitual that it is usually camouflaged and justified and almost certainly given another name. By whatever name, blame is blame and remains a rejection of personal responsibility. If it is not our responsibility it is also not our fault. If it is not our fault it is by extension somebody/something else's fault and therefore usually beyond our control.
Few people get through life without blaming some person, some circumstance, some lack, legislation, limitation or something for the way they feel or for the circumstance in which they find themselves. To the best of my knowledge, the majority of religions and philosophies allow that we have a degree of free will. Use that free will to make a choice - a choice to take charge, accept responsibility and start to make changes...
Do not "blame" yourself if things haven't so far turned out to your liking. If this is to work at all you must start today. Forget regret. Begin with a clean page and actually list what you want from life. This could include material possessions but those involved directly or indirectly with neurodegenerative or other illnesses will have other priorities.
Let us assume that good health is a major component on your "wish list". What form does that good health take? What are the nuts and bolts of good health? What really comprises good health and how can that be achieved? Give this some thought. Once past listing the obvious items you may be surprised at how detailed this list becomes. You may need to separate the list into two columns - the things you want and the things you do not want. With this done, concentrate on the positive changes you have listed.
Where To From Here?
If you can accept that your mind could influence your physical wellbeing you may be able to use it to your advantage. Why not? You have nothing to lose and, if you believe the majority of the members of "The Over Five Club" (long term survivors of ALS/MND) with a positive mental attitude and an active involvement in the process of your own wellbeing and healing, you could have a great deal to gain.
You do not need to set aside extra time to engage in the self healing process, although you may initially have to assess whether your new habit of applying a Positive Mental Attitude is reasonably consistent. If you are ill (or caring for somebody that is ill) this may be tricky.
Although not difficult once the habit is established, maintaining a PMA may require numerous "restarts" in the initial stages. There is no denying pain, discomfort, frustration, fear, etc. if they result from your illness, so there is little value in doing so. Accept that these things happen and find a way to move beyond them. Using pain as an example, does it go away if you complain about it? Probably not.
When you have done the best you can to physically deal with the pain (frustration, discomfort, fear, whatever) do what you can to remove your thinking from the problematical situation. What would you do if you were pain free? Visualise this. Live this pain free scenario in your mind. If it involves running along a beach or sky diving do that in your mind.
Use all your senses and emotions and create this mental image as clearly and consistently as possible. In addition to acting as a temporary distraction this mental process will produce physiological responses to match your mental imagery. If you question this is true there are literally thousands of case studies available in scientific journals and other publications, most of which are freely available via the internet.
So much of life is wasted on negative, unproductive and even bitter and vengeful thinking. Expecting the worst of every situation (or person) takes effort to maintain and frequently becomes a self fulfilling scenario.
At times we all have legitimate complaints about poor service, shoddy workmanship, bad management or whatever. These are best dealt with by writing a polite but firm letter stating why you are dissatisfied and what you expect by way of compensation (if appropriate) but most people seem "happy" to complain and retell the story of injustice repeatedly, spreading the blame as thickly as possible. This is both unproductive and unhealthy.
Anger, bitterness and frustration produce chemical reactions in the body, which are unhealthy and even damaging, especially if habitually repeated. Deal with the problem in a positive and constructive way then let-it-go! Do the same with all "bad" and "negative" things that happen in your life. Deal with them, let them go then move onto positive thoughts and mental images. This positive imagery and mental state provokes precisely the opposite chemical reactions in the body, reactions that are conducive to good health and healing.
The Bottom Line
I would contend that there is ample evidence to scientifically demonstrate that self healing occurs, if only in the guise of the placebo effect.
To restate the words of the first paragraph: every cell in the human body has the innate ability for self destruction and self healing. This does not result from immune system activity but occurs at a more subtle, near molecular, level.
What Provides the Stimulus to Provoke Individual Cellular Healing?
Expect to heal. Expect to be well.
Actively visualise the healing process and the results of being healed. This may include visualising (enacting in your mind) doing the things that your illness is preventing. As surely as your body will produce saliva if you clearly visualise sucking on a lemon it will attempt to enable your body to adapt chemically and physiologically to accommodate the events and results of your thinking.
Be consistent with a PMA and creative visualisation, employing all your senses and emotions and your brain and body will be unable to discriminate between "real" and "imagined". The physical results may not be immediate (although in some cases they can be surprisingly rapid) but be aware that changes do take place in your body every time you create and maintain a mental image or emotion.
Do not make the mistake of blaming yourself or others for being unwell. Start with a blank page and deal with the situation you are faced with now. Accept that you probably have far more control over your own health and future than you ever imagined.
Is self healing possible? You decide.
The Biology of Belief by Dr. Bruce H. Lipton, Ph.D.
This book provides a clear and comprehensive explanation of how our thinking directly effects our physiology at the cellular level. There are numerous references from respected medical journals to support the proposition that our minds, moods and environment directly effect our health.
Australian researchers now have proof that the term "use it or lose it" is quite true.
Individuals that use their minds and "exercise" their memory regularly have been shown to produce neuroprotective chemicals in the hippocampus, the area of the brain most involved with memory. People that do not exercise their intellect and memory regularly, either through work or playing chess or other games that require visualisation and memory skills, are more likely to develop dementia and memory problems in old age.
Even if memory is failing, memory exercises will boost protective brain chemistry over time. Everybody is therefore advised to exercise the brain as well as the body to remain healthy and delay symptoms of ageing.
A group of scientist (listed below) from various disciplines concluded that the placebo effect could reduce the cost of medicine by one third and similarly reduce the extent of invasive surgery, unwanted drug side effects and similar problems.
They also concluded that placebo or self healing is a powerful, very real and useful healing tool that will most certainly become a fully accepted western medical technique as science begins to fully describe and understand how the process can best be applied and controlled. To this end, millions of dollars are now granted worldwide for placebo research.
* In 2002 57% of doctors polled admitted that they had prescribed placebo treatments for some of their patients.
* Dr Michael Dixon in the UK has written a book on the placebo effect and routinely uses non-mainstream and placebo treatments when appropriate. His data show that 70% of his patients, if not completely healed, improve to some extent, take fewer medications, have a better mental attitude and cope with residual illness far better.
* Prof Irving Kirsch, University of Connecticut, discovered that the success rate of many top selling anti depressants was only around 4% better than results obtained from administering placebos in the original clinical trials, which is clinically meaningless. He and other researchers concluded that placebo healing played a significant role in the successful treatment of depression.
As a health care professional I often witness how a positive mental attitude (PMA) and faith in one's own ability to be well makes all the difference to palliative and rehab patients. As you stated, there are people from the scientific community that don't believe that which cannot be "proven".
Results are results and in my opinion some of the most amazing, inspiring and life changing events have no need of scientific explanation. Wouldn't it be wonderful if the importance of PMA were taught in schools and the power of self healing an integral part of training for all health professionals?
Congratulations again on an inspiring website, Steve and thanks for reminding me that the glass is definitely over half full.
I was diagnosed with ALS recently. What a devastating thing to absorb. Your Self-Healing section really hit home.
The biggest battle I have going on right now is between my ears. When I'm able to be upbeat and living in the moment the various parts of my body actually feel much stronger. Your section is inspiring me to try to focus more on this and to consciously self-correct when I slip into fear and negativity.
Instead of being thrilled at the healing and inquisitive how such a thing can happen they just blow it off by saying the person was misdiagnosed.
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