Placebo and Qi

An article in the September 3-9, 2018 issue of Time magazine, “Placebo’s New Power,” describes instances of people knowingly taking placebos and getting relief.  These “honest placebos” were administered in a study of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) patients.  One patient, whose IBS symptoms improved dramatically during the study, later found her symptoms recurred.  She decided to continue the placebo treatments at the researcher’s private clinic and achieved remission again.

Overall, results were so encouraging in this Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center study that the National Institute of Health has awarded the research team a $2.5 million grant to replicate the study.

Placebos have been around since time immemorial, used to advantage in numerous conditions.  Their use is predicated on the belief that a patient’s faith in the treatment has a healing effect.  Formal pharmaceutical studies in Western medicine measure a presumed new drug’s effects against placebo to determine whether it will work on a large scale.  In Western medicine, generally, the “placebo effect” is disparaged, as though there is something “un-scientific” about it.

The Time article speculates about why people who know they are taking fake pills get better.  It notes patients appreciate doctors who validate their suffering.  They fare better with doctors they perceive as warm and competent.  We are told that confidence in “medical industry leaders” in the US has plunged to 34%, from 73% in 1966.

To me, this is another example of Western medicine taking credit for applying common sense.  Not once does the article mention such old-fashioned terms as “bedside manner,” which cannot be measured or billed for in the codified, prioritized list of “evidence-based” protocols that wants to squeeze patients into convenient, binary-based boxes.

In Western medicine, the patient is seen as a relatively passive recipient of medical care.  The doctor, treatments, and pills act upon the patient, with the external agent believed to effect the healing.

In contrast, Oriental medicine perceives the body is its own healing agent, with its own homeostatic wisdom, presumed to want healing, with the practitioner a partner and participant in the process.  Belief in the treatment, and in the practitioner’s competence, are valuable and acknowledged aids in the healing process.  Far from being “placebo,” the partnership between patient and clinician becomes an integral component of the treatment goal.

A fundamental difference between Oriental and Western medicine involves “qi,” (also spelled “chi”) or “life force.” In Oriental philosophy and medicine, “qi” pervades all things, and is crucial to life. When the body’s “qi” is depleted, restricted, or out of balance, it leads to trouble.  Disharmonies begin on a spiritual level, then become increasingly “dense,” manifesting as intellectual, emotional, and finally physical levels.  Practices like acupuncture rely on stimulating or balancing qi along specific energy channels called “meridians.”

There’s a mistaken belief in the West that we know more than we do about the body.  While we point to specific brain chemicals, such as neurotransmitters serotonin or acetylcholine, these are only two of perhaps thousands of brain messengers that interact in a constant dynamic.  The brain is only one organ in an equally complex body, with signals going back and forth at lightning-fast speed.  Western science presumes the body is like a machine, but the mechanical construct of Western medicine gives no credit to life.

For me to say Western medicine is backwards, that the practice of dehumanizing patients under mechanical models works against health, may sound extreme.  Certainly the most expensive “health care industry” in the world deserves more respect, more funding, and more of our life blood.  But I suspect the opposite, that the commercialization and institutionalization of the “health care industry” has devitalized the system in the name of high-tech, low-yield placebos that only help if you believe they work, and often not even then.


12 thoughts on “Placebo and Qi

  1. Rosaliene Bacchus

    Interesting article, Katharine. I’ve never knowingly taken a “placebo” medicine and have no idea if a doctor has ever administered such a treatment. What I do know is that I have experienced positive results when treated by doctors who have shown a sincere interest in helping me to recover. When we lack confidence in our doctor, we may also doubt that the efficacy of the prescribed medicine.

    1. katharineotto Post author

      You are confirming what the Time article also said about doctor sincerity. There may be a component of wanting to please the doctor, too. It can’t hurt.

      I don’t think modern doctors could get away with knowingly deceiving patients into taking placebos. Parents may be more likely to do it. My father’s cure for all of my childhood complaints was “Take two aspirin and go to bed. You’ll be fine in the morning.” I’m sure my going to bed made him feel better.

  2. Sha'Tara

    I had to look up “placebo effect” and “placebo” to understand what this article was about. Still not sure I do. Why would anyone need to fool themselves about a treatment? Wouldn’t it be, either I want the pill, shot, whatever, or I don’t? Why take something of knowingly no medical value and expect something (positive or negative) from it? If I, through my mind, can create the healing effect, why take the “aspirin”? Wouldn’t that result in a denial of my own self-healing power and my ability to use it? Just wondering as I don’t use drugs and have had nothing to do with doctors for over 40 years now. Am I just one of the “lucky” ones?

    1. katharineotto Post author

      I’m sorry I didn’t explain it better. The “placebo effect” is the idea that a medicine tends to work better if the patient believes it will work. Pharmaceutical studies for FDA approval are based on what’s called “double-blind” testing. This means that some patients are given the real medicine while another group (“controls”) are given “placebo” or a pill with no active ingredients. “Double blind” means neither the patient nor the giver of the medicine knows which is med real and which is fake. For the new medicine to be determined effective over placebo, it means that the patients who received the real medicine had a statistically significant improvement over those who were given the fake.

      I believe in self-healing, too, but we have this mass hallucination going on that tells us we need outside help for our health problems. Maybe I should call this “reverse placebo,” because if you believe you are sick or susceptible, your belief in illness can make you sick.

      1. Sha'Tara

        Yeah, I had forgotten what placebo meant. I believe that the closer one gets to any industrial/institutional/professional medical world, the sooner one will begin to experience signs of sickness… any sickness will do, but they love the “incurable” ones best, like cancer. I think the entire medical “complex” is a complex cancer but that’s just me. I hate the whole dependency thing. Health and dependency on the medical/drug cartel is a contradiction in terms, but again, my opinion although most of the people I have known who have trusted in their doctors and drugs… are dead. Maybe that says something? The bullshit drug experiments so-called doctors performed on my mother drove her to suicide at age 46, and maybe that says something too, huh? Do you get the feeling yet that I personally hate and despise the whole “health” industry? 🙂

      2. katharineotto Post author

        Me, too, Sha’Tara, and that’s because I know it from the inside out. It is about 95% sham, according to me, but no one wants to believe it. People are so easily manipulated by their fears, and are most vulnerable in the area of health. It’s horrifying to see how the “health care industry” exploits those fears for profit, while feeding fantasies of magical “cures” right around the corner.

  3. Sha'Tara

    The concept of profiting from others’ pain and misery is repugnant to me. I read somewhere years ago that in Sumer the state trained and equipped individuals to be health care practitioners. If someone died on your hands and it could be shown it was due to error or incompetence, you were executed. What a great concept.

    1. katharineotto Post author

      It’s a dilemma. Doctors have to eat, too, and theoretically, they go into medicine to alleviate suffering. People expect too much of doctors, and they expect too much of themselves, which is why there are so many malpractice suits. It’s hard to prove error or incompetence.

      On an entirely different subject, you’ve mentioned your mother’s suicide before. I didn’t know how to respond and still don,t. How does a person respond to something like that?

      1. Sha'Tara

        Katharine, yes, doctors have to eat too, but that’s a long shot from the kind of lifestyle they prominently throw in everyone’s face, at least in Americanada – they live the life of the rich and expect more, always. As to malpractice due to incompetence, they have a “clique” that dutifully covers for them. Sure, they carry heavy malpractice insurance but that’s not to pay for their victims losses but rather because another set of sharks called “lawyers” are swimming in the surrounding waters salivating at the thought of garnering that insurance money. Except for those such as “Medecins sans Frontieres” (Doctors without Borders) and the few who give of themselves in times of great need or crisis, most are either unmentionable or despicable. I would not defend a doctor accused of malpractice, having known too many who are nothing more than licensed drug pushers. I believe that society, particularly Western society, has elevated the medical profession far above what it deserves and that profession has been aligning itself with the elites for a very long time. Hitler had no trouble finding doctors and nurses to run his extermination experiments on the “untermunschen” and in the Nazi death camps. Big Pharma has no trouble at all buying doctors to knowingly push its questionable pills upon a compliant and ignorant sheeple.
        My mother’s suicide was just another in the millions of victims of the medical and psychiatric profession given false hopes uner false pretenses and and used as guinea pigs to test drugs or “procedures” such as lobotomies. One reporter who has done a great deal of research into psychiatry and the legal drug scene is Jon Rappoport. You could check this one article:

      2. katharineotto Post author

        I can’t argue with anything you say but would add that the “health care industry” is a huge conglomerate of profiteers that use doctors as fronts. Yes, the doctors are complicit, which in my view makes them even more reprehensible, because they should know better. Even those who go into it with the best of intentions become compromised along the way by debt, overhead, and a system that is bent on converting the idealists or punishing them for going against the tide. I’ll have more to say about this in future articles.

        Thanks for your answer. I’ll check out Rappoport’s link soon.

  4. stolzyblog

    Most of this is correct, or on the right track. I’ve spent most of my forties, almost a decade, engaged in a deep study of alternative health measures and medical systems. This included, but was not limited to, taking three years of coursework in homeopathy, visiting China three times and trying to understand the health concepts in place there (which were a mishmash of traditional Chinese medical concepts and borrowings from Western technology, and looking into various unusual ‘energy’ modalities for healing, as well as doing a study of body/mind interrelationships regarding disease and wellness.

    I agree that Western medicine is heavily technologized, nearly controlled by the pharmaceutical industry, and infested with a feeling that doctors and medical professionals ‘know everything’ whereas the patient is subject to unscientific delusion. I have to disagree with Sha’Tara, in that there are very big distinctions to be found within the way U.S. healthcare and medicine is practiced and that of Canada, especially eastern Canada, Quebec and Ontario. (I do not have experience in the western parts of the country.) This is due largely to how the economics work in Canadian healthcare. In the US there is enormous pressure from the insurance industry (for both doctors and patients) and from the lure of economic greed. The disparity between income levels of doctors and patients in the US is far worse than in Canada. In my experience, healthcare as administered in Canada is more gentle, less colored by the constant specter of money, and the doctors, etc. will actually listen to you more. Message to Americans: Canadian healthcare beats the crap out of US healthcare. (I have lived in the US for 50 years and Canada for 14.)

    This does not say that the western medical model, quite prevalent in Canada too, is not a problem in the ways highlighted in the article. Interestingly, in Homeopathy practice, placebo prescriptions are fairly commonplace. This is based upon the homeopath’s judgement that the suffering still remaining before cure or amelioration (in the specific case at hand) is minor or even helpful to the final resolution of the illness. Of course homeopathy is deeply hated by the medical establishment. It is a very interesting study to look back at US medical history from about 1750 to 1880 or so, during which period western medicine and homeopathy coexisted peacefully and the two types of professionals respected each other. Then the AMA got involved in a turf war. All this is not to say I am a strong homeopathy advocate. It has it’s problems too because the personal traits needed to become a very good homeopath are quite rare.

    I agree about the approach of being in charge of one’s own health situation, including improvement, treatment, and to some extent diagnosis. The way I use medical professionals is to view them as consultants, and after listening to several under various systems and doing my own research, I make my own decisions. I know for a fact that physical malady has alot to do with with prior psychological level causations, and usually medical doctors only give lip service to this idea. I also know there is something automatically healing about taking charge of the health crisis one self, and not submitting to authority or short shrifitng your intuitions.

    I have found that western acupuncture and TCM clinics do not fully work in the American context, because the underlying philosophy is too different, and it is difficult for patients to grasp the reasons a given treatment is proposed or conducted. This in itself inadvertantly promotes passivity, qi or no. Finally: the most convincing and true medical modalities I have come across are BAch Flower remedies and Anthroposophical medicine. Both, interestingly, are western alternative systems. Both take some time to understand, especially the latter.

    Thanks for article and for enduring this lengthy reply.

    1. katharineotto Post author

      Thank you for your contribution, and I look forward to hearing more from you. I know nothing about Canadian healthcare but am too familiar with the system in the US. With the mandate for insurance, people are being funneled into a one-size-fits-nobody system guaranteed to treat you to death, as long as insurance pays for it. Who can afford care when they’re paying so much for insurance?

      We need to know more about alternatives, I have some experience with acupuncture but know little about other modalities. Homeopathy seems to be getting more respect. I have heard the story about the AMA turf wars before. It doesn’t surprise me.


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