Dear Read­ers

Reader's Digest - - Contents - Bruce Kel­ley, ed­i­tor-in-chief Write to me at let­

AS A LONG­TIME HEALTH ED­I­TOR, I like to think I’m smart about med­i­cal science. Yet what do I do when I have a scratchy throat? I pop open a packet of over-the-counter “im­mune sup­port” tablets, drop them in a glass of wa­ter, and lis­ten, half laugh­ing at my­self, for the tell­tale FIZZZZ sound.

No clinical stud­ies sup­port the ef­fec­tive­ness of this con­coc­tion. None of its in­gre­di­ents, pos­si­bly ex­cept­ing zinc, are proven to pre­vent colds or their symp­toms.

I treat my in­som­nia in much the same way. When I wake at 3 a.m., I pop ibupro­fen to help me re­sume my snooze—de­spite the fact that at least one dou­ble-blind study found that it pro­motes sleep no bet­ter than fake pills.

Stick­ing to my rit­u­als is not as dumb as I some­times feel it is. As Robert An­thony Siegel ex­plains in “The Power of Fake Pills” on page 78, drugs don’t need ef­fec­tive ac­tive in­gre­di­ents to of­fer symp­tom re­lief. In study af­ter study, a treat­ment will get sim­i­lar re­sults as a dummy ver­sion and hence be judged a fail­ure. Yet the sub­jects in both groups end up feel­ing bet­ter—be­cause the act of tak­ing a pill by it­self can do good work.

Siegel’s ac­count plumbs science’s grow­ing ap­pre­ci­a­tion of this placebo ef­fect. With some symp­toms and ill­nesses, many of us can be per­suaded— or per­suade our­selves—to heal faster via what scientists would call an in­ef­fec­tive treat­ment.

Do you have an “un­sci­en­tific” con­coc­tion that you be­lieve works for you, and so it does? Please tell us about it at Mean­while, I’ll bet on my semi-comic rit­ual with the fizz to do what it al­ways seems to—tamp down any brew­ing cold by morn­ing. In health, as in life, we should never un­der­es­ti­mate the power of be­lief.

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