Linda Buonanno, a 67-year-old woman from Methuen, suffered from chronic abdominal pain and diarrhea so severe she could barely leave her home. Then, a few years ago, a new medicine relieved her symptoms completely. Oddly enough, this miracle drug contained no active ingredients. Even more remarkable, Buonanno was aware that she was taking a placebo.
Buonanno received this highly effective new “medication” as a participant in a study led by Dr. Ted Kaptchuk, a Harvard Medical School professor. His work, as well as that of many other researchers and practitioners in the field of mind-body medicine, is profiled in “Cure: A Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body,” by British science journalist Jo Marchant.
Marchant, who has a PhD in genetics and medical microbiology and has worked as an editor at the prestigious scientific journal Nature, was not inclined to believe in the power of placebos or alternative medicine. “I started out as a very black-and-white scientist,” she said in a Skype interview from her home in London. But once Marchant had children, she began meeting more people outside the scientific community. Her kids’ classmates’ parents were well-educated people who swore by homeopathy, acupuncture, and amber teething necklaces. “It didn’t feel right to me to dismiss these people as stupid and being fooled. So that made me intrigued to go and see what the evidence is.”
What she found was a wealth of research supporting the concept that thoughts, beliefs, and emotions have very real effects on the body. In one study, people given acupuncture or even “sham” acupuncture (where the needles aren’t actually inserted) had better relief from pain than those given painkillers. If treated by someone who was warm and caring rather than brusque, they had even less pain. “Comfort talk,” a blend of visual imagery and positive suggestion developed by a radiologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, has been shown in a clinical trial to ease the discomfort of patients undergoing breast biopsies and other invasive procedures.
Some employ woo-woo logic in explaining why alternative therapies work. For example, Marchant recalls, “I went to see a Reiki practitioner who invoked the spirits of various dead people, including my grandfather, in the healing process.” But even if that sounds silly, in many cases alternative therapies do measurably help. Marchant feels that such spurious explanations prevent mainstream medicine from embracing potentially beneficial treatments.
“My concern,” Marchant said, “is that when real, measurable benefits are attributed to pseudoscientific causes, that doesn’t really help anyone. I would love to see us take the mind-body effect seriously and actually have a more scientifically based approach to these alternative therapies.”
Marchant envisions mind-body medicine becoming a routine part of healing, and not only in the form of placebo drugs. “We don’t just want to be giving people dummy pills,” Marchant said. “We want to look at how we can change the way we care for patients.”