The Nocebo Effect Produces Physical Symptoms

This 2020 study in the New England Journal of Medicine from Harvard Medical School looked at people taking statin medications for high cholesterol. It really highlights the power of the brain in producing physical symptoms in the body. The nocebo effect is the opposite of the placebo. It’s where the brain works in a negative way to produce symptoms whereas the placebo reduces symptoms.

‘Researchers recruited 60 people, average age 66, who had previously stopped statins after two weeks because of side effects. For one month each, they took 20 milligrams of atorvastatin (Lipitor), a placebo, or no pill. They then continued this monthly rotation for a year without knowing which pill was which.

The participants recorded their daily symptoms. Symptom scores ranged from zero (no symptoms) to 100 (extremely severe). People whose symptoms became too intense could discontinue the pill for that month. After a year, the researchers found that 90% of the symptoms people recorded when taking statins were also present when they took the placebo.’

That is a huge number of people having symptoms from the just their brain. It highlights the power of our brains ability to generate physical side effects when taking nothing but a fake pill. Imagine what the brain can do when you have negative beliefs and expectations about your pain or symptoms?

The good news is ‘once the group was shown these results and saw their nocebo response, half felt confident to restart statins and were able to tolerate them.’ So just as the brain can cause symptoms it can take them away. My aim is to help people understand the mind-body connection with their symptoms so they can have similar results!