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Patients’ guide to Magic medicine
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Included with your subscription. Your download will be saved to your Dropbox. I introduce my students to placebo by calling it witchcraft, because it does the same thing and has the same functions.
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I ask. When Moore started to write a book on the topic, he realised that his ideas would be controversial and decided that he needed to work with other academics. Helen Sheridan, associate professor at the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences in Trinity College Dublin and an advisor to the subcommitte on herbal medicines with the Health Products Regulatory Authority , says placebo applies to people when they may be some element of the immune system brought into play, that is controlled by the mind.
In her recent book Cure , the author Jo Marchant lays bare a catalogue of studies showing that the placebo effect is deeply complex and so much more than just a curious trick of the mind where we believe we are better. Marchant tells of Ted Kaputchuk , who trained and worked as a traditional Chinese herbalist and acupuncturist for many years before becoming professor of medicine and professor of global health and social medicine at Harvard Medical School.
While practicing as a herbalist, he watched people visibly improve before they had even left his office, but he became uncomfortable with the idea that it was the herbs at work. In a more recent experiment, Kaputchuk teamed up with his colleague, Dr Anthony Lembo , a gastroenterologist.
In a trial of 80 patients with long-term irritable bowel syndrome, half were given a placebo and told it was a placebo but it might help with self-healing, and they still did better than those who got no treatment.
A study of 20 women with depression showed up similar results, while a study on migraine patients found that those who knew they were taking a placebo still felt 30 per cent less pain than those receiving no treatment. Evidence is mounting for the placebo effect. The mere belief we are being looked after, with medicine and care from nurses or loved ones, can help to ease symptoms, boost the immune system and even prevent us from getting sick in the first place.
Nor will it lower your blood pressure. Earlier this year, researchers at University College Cork found that the microbes in our gut influence how our nerves work. Irving Kirsch , a lecturer in medicine at Harvard University , has produced a body of research showing that the effect of pharmaceutical drugs used for depression had little more effect than placebo. Kirsch put in a freedom of information request to the US Food and Drug Administration on clinical trials of antidepressants.
The response suggested what pharmaceutical firms had not been telling us: with the exception of severe cases, most antidepressants such as Prozac performed little or no better than an inert sugar pill placebo. His research has been criticised on the basis of flaws in those trials and the difficulties in measuring improvements in depression.
But between the placebo effect and the influence of the microbiome on our body and mind, could the herbalists be onto something? Research in the National Folklore Collection shows many herbal remedies were accompanied by some kind of ritual: usually a chant, prayer, incantation, or sometimes a symbolic rite such as passing a sick person three times around a bush or animal. Bethann Roche is one of the founders of the Irish Medical Anthropology Network, and her own background is in anthropology and medicine.
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She has spent most of her working life as a public health doctor in Ireland and many years examining the phenomenon of faith healing. She says anthropology has a contribution to make to health — and she emphasises the word health as distinct from medicine. She laughs heartily. Your healing is all in your head. That is fantastic.
I grimace and prevaricate. Well, I say, the implication is that you were imagining it all along. If you have an abnormal microbiome it produces hormones which are like small protein molecules going straight to the brain, easily absorbed across the gut barrier and blood brain barrier. Does it matter? The fourth trimester is vitally important for the hefty transition to motherhood.
What we seem to regret more than anything else are missed opportunities. Without regret, we cannot learn from our mistakes.
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