“A placebo is a story we tell ourselves that changes the way our brain and our body work.” – Seth Godin
We’ve all heard of the placebo effect?
Ultimately, it's the idea that if we believe that a pill will work – it will, even if that pill is just sugar. Or, perhaps we believe that celery juice will cure half our health conditions and suddenly we feel great. Great Scot! It works!
Today I want to talk about the placebo effect's ugly cousin – The nocebos. In this case, we presume the worse, health wise, and that’s what we get.
Now, imagine that a placebo comes with a long list of horrible side effects. The nocebo effect kicks in when we believe that there are unwanted side effects associated with that pill.
People have dropped out of studies because the side effects (of the sugar pill) have been so severe.
In another example, it was discovered that women who believed that they were prone to heart disease were much more likely to die from it than those with similar risk factors. The mere suggestion that a drug can cause side effects can become a self fulfilling prophecy for some. The language used in relation to drug side effects can alter the experience of taking the medication.
In a report in the Washington Post in 2002 it was reported that if someone goes into surgery with the willingness to die (perhaps they want to be with their loved one who has passed) they, in nearly 100% of the time, do so.
It happens over and over again.
So, I wondered– how is this any different to the believed side effects from eating a certain food?
How much of this rise in gluten insensitivity is also related to the increased fear around gluten?
It’s been shown on several occasions that on a physical level, negative thoughts associated with a particular food can produce a negative physical response.
Let’s say that again: IF you believe that a food will make you bloated, tired and unwell, there’s a great chance that it will happen, whether you have an intolerance or not.
Meanwhile, we’re constantly bombarded with messages from health ‘promoters’ that gluten is bad, that it will cause this outcome and that, and guess what happens? The perceived threat/outcome is manifested.
We hear so much about the power of the mind in relation to placebos and even goal setting and 'manifesting our dreams' and so, why is there so little discussion around the power of the mind in relation to how foods can make us feel?
“The nocebo effect also allows quacks and charlatans to prey on people’s worries about food sensitivities. Rather than giving sensible advice to reduce stress, eat more slowly, chew more (all common and simple solutions to gut symptoms), food intolerances are diagnosed, giving the potential for a whole host of income streams: meal plans, supplements, detox protocols and so on.” – Plant Based Pixie (Nutritionist)
Imagine you are feeling a bit tired mid day. You decide to go get a hair test (which is debatable in itself) and you’re told that you’re intolerant to gluten or another food. Suddenly you ditch the food and if eaten again, experience some really shitty side effects. No pun intended. It could be that you are genuinely intolerant but it could also be a matter of ‘the power of suggestion’.
There have even been cases where people with ‘gluten intolerance’ have tolerated gluten when they were told there wasn’t gluten in it!
Isn’t the mind phenomenal?
There’s still a lot of research to be done but we’ve seen the effects in studies regarding medication, it would make sense that we’ve have the same outcome with food.
I want to be clear, I’m not saying it’s all in your head nor am I dismissing genuine food intolerances or celiac disease. Nor am I saying that this is always the case but there is definitely potential that it could happen, just as it has with numerous other similar events.
And so, what do we do about it? For some, some deeper subconscious work may be necessary or maybe some cognitive behavioural therapy techniques. For others, the aim may be simply for you to be aware of the potential for a nocebo effect, to be objective, to stand back and begin to challenge the charlatans and those beliefs that may not serve you.
And if you want my help? Check out my Empowered Eating Course where challenging BS is what I'm all about!
Because hey, bread is delicious.