The Placebo Effect On Weight Loss And Sports Performance
My fascination with the placebo effect began many years ago in a small but serious gym in Trinidad. Back home, steroids were very much a part of the weightlifting and bodybuilding culture. Everyone knew where you could get it and who you could get it from, but dealers were very discriminating in who they would or would not sell their wares to. One day, about two or three months from our Carnival, one of the young guys at the gym (who we will call Greg) decided that he was going to use steroids to get in shape for the coming festivities. He was not particularly liked and all of the steroid dealers had refused to sell to him at one time or another. He was however, annoyingly persistent, and so, partly to shut him up and partly because they didn’t really like him very much, they conspired to give him fake drugs. Thinking that it would be worth a laugh, they agreed to give him an injection of what they told him was testosterone propionate every week for two months. I can hardly express how happy he was. He was so looking forward to starting his cycle, and while I was appalled that they would play such a cruel trick on him, for purposes of self preservation (I wasn’t big and muscled back then) I held my tongue.
Dutifully every week, Greg and the guys would assemble in the men’s locker room to administer his shot. It was always an event, with most of them bursting at the seams trying hard not to laugh as he was injected with diluted vegetable oil and (hopefully) sterilized water. The joke, turned out to be on them. In spite of the fact that Greg was receiving a weekly dose of watered down vegetable oil, he put on a solid fifteen pounds of muscle in the course of two months, and when from being able to squat 225 lbs for six repetitions to 315 lbs for 12 repetitions. The weight on all of his lifts when up and not only did he get bigger, leaner and stronger, but he also developed an acne problem. A tell tale sign of steroid use! Utterly perplexed, the guys at the gym couldn’t understand what was happening. They eventually came clean and gave him his money back, flabbergasted and apologetic for having pulled a prank that didn’t pan out as expected, but Greg would not have it! He firmly believed that they were simply envious of his remarkable gains, how else could he have done what he did? The answer has fascinated me for decades and I have seen the astounding effects that placebos can have. Yet, aside from using it to sell supplements, snake oil and even pharmaceutical drugs, it isn’t studied as much as it should be.
What Is A Placebo?
A placebo as applied by medical science is defined as a preparation which is pharmacologically inert (such as a sugar pill) but which appears to have a therapeutic effect based solely on the power of suggestion. In a medical setting, the placebo effect occurs when a patient or individual takes an inert substance, with some degree of suggestion either from a person or institution of authority, or from information about the pill that states that the pill will have a positive effect in the individual’s healing process and there is an improvement in their condition. Credible studies proving the placebo effect have been around since the late 1930’s, and yet it is largely ignored by the public. It is so powerful that the FDA requires it as a part of all drug trials and physicians regularly use it today as part of standard treatment. Almost 50% of the doctors polled in a 2007 survey admitted to prescribing medications that they knew were ineffective for their patients’ conditions or in doses too low to produce any possible therapeutic benefit but to provoke a placebo response. It is disheartening that rather than viewing our innate ability to positively influence medical outcomes and changes in our bodies solely from suggestion as a positive aspect, most ignore it or see it as some sort of trickery. In so doing, many miss the wondrous potential locked within us all.
The More You Spend On A Placebo Product- The Better It Works
From a marketing perspective, this view is encouraged, as it puts the emphasis back on creating the need for a drug, pill or powder for everything from the common cold to weight loss. The power of placebos is quite well known among makers of questionable products like supplements and even some pharmaceutical drugs. A study published in the Journal of American Medicine, showed that the placebo effect was indeed directly proportional to the amount of money spent on the placebo. For the test, the subjects were given a serie of painful electric shocks. Participants were then asked to rate the pain they felt after each shock. They were then given a placebo pill that they were told had properties similar to codeine, a powerful pain medication. The pill given was completely inert and half of the patients were told that their treatment cost $2.50 per pill. The other half was told that their pills had been purchased at a discounted price of ten cents per pill. When they were then given a second series of electric shocks, and asked to rate the pain, 85% of the patients taking the $2.50 pill reported that the second set of shocks were less painful. In contrast only 61 % of those taking the ten cent pill said the shocks were less painful. The conclusion was unmistakable: the more expensive the pill, it seems, the larger the perceived effect — even when the pill clearly actually has no effect whatsoever.
There are other social factors involved in the efficacy of the placebo effect. Over the years, it has been shown that the placebo effect is in fact getting stronger and that it differs greatly from culture to culture. One reason why the placebo effect continues to grow could be the omnipresence of marketing for both pharmaceutical drugs and pseudoscience products here in the United States. Since 1997 when the FDA lifted its restriction on direct-to-consumer advertising, we have been deluged by ads promoting the effectiveness of numerous pharmaceutical drugs. Ads designed in part to increase the placebo response of the drugs themselves and in some cases the marketing has backfired. So strong has the placebo response become for some popular antidepressants and statin drugs, that if they were tested today against inert substances they wouldn’t pass the FDA requirements for working better than a placebo. To counter this, many companies have moved their test trials to other countries with lower placebo responses to get their drugs approved.
How The Placebo Effect Can Make It Seem Like Everything Works For Weight Loss
For vitamin, herb and supplement manufacturers, this created a goldmine of opportunities. With the right pricing, the right athletes or celebrity endorsements and the right advertising campaign, they could make outlandish claims about their products and always find an audience who would swear that their products work. Thanks to the placebo effect. Over the years, everything from boron to bee pollen has been marketed to improve muscle building and fat loss. Each time a new product is released, there are those who swear by the results they see. Even though, as time goes on, the products are shown to be completely ineffective. Back in the 90’s, as an impressionable teenager, I used everything from Mexican sarsaparilla to linseed in the quest to get bigger and stronger without resorting to anabolic steroids or prohormones.
As ineffective as they were all shown to be when everyone else was using it, we all felt that we saw some results.
In my personal training practice, I have seen the placebo effect as a powerful psychological tool for weight loss. I have always maintained a strict no supplement or fat loss supplement policy with my clients as they either don’t work or are potentially harmful. However, a number of bodybuilders and fitness models who I worked with in preparation for competitions or high end photo shoots, would complain that other athletes had an edge over them since they were using fat burners. To counter this, I would find a fat burning product with the least harmful looking ingredients (which wasn’t easy) and tell them that while I did not recommend it, if they had to take anything they could take 1/9 the dosage prescribed on the bottle to help them lose body fat. In every case, they felt better and claimed the supplement helped them lose more body fat. After the contest or photo shoot, I would inform them that not only the supplements they used were worthless in terms of fat burning, but that even if it could work the dose was far too low for them to experience any significant effect. All the positive results came from their training and dedication to their diets. The best part of my little trick is that for all other shows or shoots in the future, they never felt like they needed anything else to help them get into shape as they understood that the power always came from within.
1. Gensini GF, Conti AA, Conti A (April 2005). “Past and present of what will please the lord: an updated history of the concept of placebo”. Minerva Med 96
2. Silverman S. The Placebo Problem. Wired
3. Moerman DE (2000). “Cultural variations in the placebo effect: ulcers, anxiety, and blood pressure”. Med Anthropol Q