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Health: Life Hacks – Pass The Pills

Posted September 12, 2012 by Ann Cronin in Lifestyle

There is a pill for seemingly everything, and if it’s not sitting in the chemists next to pharmaceuticals, it’s in the local health food store. Tesco has its own brand, and you can even get them in Lidl. I presume you have a press… perhaps many presses, or drawers, boxes, secret stashes of pills. They’re everywhere: pills to make your hair better, pills to make your skin glow, pills to make you smart, pills to make you calm. There’s a vast selection of magic pills that we purchase because of clever marketing claims and buzzwords such as ‘improves’ and ‘benefits’ along with ‘increases’ or in the case of magical slimming pills, ‘lessens’ ‘retains’ and the brilliant ‘traps’.

Trap indeed. While I would love with all my heart to believe these claims, I no longer can for I have seen the light. Here’s a great word I know: placebo.

One of the joys of psychology is discovering how inherently suggestible we are as a species. We are programmed to act out behaviours and respond in certain ways to different situations and objects. The process of going to the doctor is programmed into us as children; you attend, you list your ailments, a diagnosis is offered and medicine prescribed. As you have learned from the past, the medicine will usually make you feel better.

So in the present, you take the medicine and almost immediately start to feel better. The administration of the drug takes time to cross through the lining of the stomach, but you start feeling better sooner than the drug has a chance to act. Our brains decide that we feel better; therefore, we do. Of course, this drug is going to act as it should; it’s been tested and proven to be effective, thus your doctor prescribed it and your pharmacist dispensed it.

So what do placebos do? When you are given a pill you believe that pill will work, because in the past pills have worked. This pill may have no actual ability to cure, improve or aid you in any way, but if you believe it will, then it will. This placebo effect means we have a physiological response to a sugar pill or to a procedure that we feel should work. Numerous documented cases show just how susceptible we are to suggestion; all of the drugs that are controlled have been tested against placebos in what are called blind studies. A blind study means that participants had no idea if they were getting a placebo or the real drug (a double blind study means that neither the administrator of the drug nor the patient knew if they were getting the drug). This is part and parcel of the scientific method and the drugs that reach the market have to be tested in this way.

So, given the rigorous testing that my antibiotics went through to get into my belly, a rigorous reading of the ‘claims’ of pills and potions is necessary. There’s a reason that vitamins and other bottles of ‘smarties’ cannot legally say ‘cures’ on their labels; it’s because they are placebos. They work on suggestion, and if you are no longer suggestible then they’ve lost a customer and you can dump that press full of bottles.

Examples of the words so beloved of the pill sellers are:

◊ enhances ◊ boosts ◊ increases ◊ improves ◊ 

◊ stimulates ◊ speeds up ◊ helps support ◊ 

◊ helps nourish ◊ fat stripper ◊ fat blocker ◊ 

◊ promotes ◊ maintains ◊ good source ◊ restricts ◊ 

◊ assists ◊ restores ◊ can reduce ◊ 

This list is by no means comprehensive, but it has made me far more frugal in how and where I spend my money. While I wish desperately that there was a pill to make me smarter, more attractive and thinner, I have to do it the old fashioned way with exercise, and a large book to hide behind!

About the Author

Ann Cronin

  • http://www.lisamcinerney.com Lisa McInerney

    It’s amusing the amount of those buzzwords that find their way into yogurt and toddler formula ads.

    • Claire Gleeson

      There’s nobody as susceptible to guilt-marketing as parents of young children…

  • http://twitter.com/nuckpang Stephen R.

    I LOVE the placebo effect! One of my favourite things about our little brains. I love that there’s also the evil twin of the placebo effect, which makes you feel shit just because you expect to (Ben Goldacre chats about it at 100mph here:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O1Q3jZw4FGs )

    • http://www.lisamcinerney.com Lisa McInerney

      I reckon I suffer from the evil twin. I get headaches and I’m always so insistent that painkillers won’t help that… well, they don’t help.

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