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How Lying to Yourself Can Make You Healthier

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We've all heard of the "placebo effect"—the idea that if you think something is going to help you, it probably will. Your mind is a powerful tool! A new study adds an interesting twist that can help you use this mental quirk to your advantage. It turns out that the placebo effect works even when you know it's a fake, according to the journal Pain. And you can use this finding to help you improve many aspects of your health.

Researchers started with 97 patients with chronic, debilitating pain and divided them into two groups. The first group followed their normal pain management routines, while the second group was given a bottle of pills filled with nothing but cellulose (a type of plant fiber) and told to take it every day. The kicker? The bottles were labeled "placebo pills," and the subjects were told they were fakes. After three weeks, people answered questions about their pain. The results surprised even the researchers. People taking the fake pills reported a 30 percent reduction in both usual pain and maximum pain levels and a 29 percent reduction in pain-related disability. The people who took no pills showed minimal, if any, improvement.

"These findings turned our understanding of the placebo effect on its head," said joint senior author Ted Kaptchuk, director of the Program for Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, in a press release. Rather than "tricking" patients into feeling less pain, as previously thought, it appears that placebos work because they provide a ritual that allows patients to feel more in control, he explained.

"Our findings demonstrate the placebo effect can be elicited without deception," said lead author, Claudia Carvalho, Ph.D., in the same press release. "Patients were interested in what would happen and enjoyed this novel approach to their pain. They felt empowered."

This surprising discovery opens up a lot of possibilities when it comes to improving health, Kaptchuk added. He speculated that other conditions with symptoms based on self-perception—like other kinds of pain, fatigue, depression, and common digestive or urinary problems—may also be helped by this obvious placebo pill approach.

In addition, you may be able to use a similar pattern of establishing positive rituals and routines to improve your health, no pills required. For instance, simply believing your morning workout will help you feel better throughout your day and using a calendar with smiley faces to mark days you worked out could help you overcome your dislike of exercise.

"You're never going to shrink a tumor or unclog an artery with placebo intervention," Kaptchuk said. "It's not a cure-all, but it makes people feel better, for sure." And the best part? It's free and easy to try so you have nothing to lose.

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