The Power of the Placebo Effect, Explained

Rachel Carlton Abrams, MD, knows firsthand how wonky teenagers’ sleep schedules can be. Three years ago, her then-17-year-old daughter couldn’t fall asleep until well past midnight most nights, which resulted in unpleasant mornings on school days. Low light, sleep teas, and screen-free evenings weren’t helping, so Abrams decided to add another element to the nighttime routine: a low dose of melatonin, a hormone supplement that may help regulate the sleep-wake cycle. Research shows it’s been effective with sleep issues such as jet lag, but not with chronic insomnia.

But that melatonin worked like magic for her daughter, says Abrams, an integrative family medicine physician and author of the book BodyWise. “As a doctor and a parent, I know we are all suggestible: If the mind believes it will be sleepy, it will be sleepy.”

Irina Todorov, MD, an integrative family medicine physician at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, had a similar experience with one of her patients, who’d suffered from chronic knee pain for more than a year. Over-the-counter painkillers, physical therapy, and injections hadn’t helped, and knee-replacement surgery was the likely next step. But Todorov wanted to try one more thing first. She recommended the patient start taking Boswellia serrata, also known as Indian frankincense. While research suggests the herbal supplement can reduce pain and inflammation from knee osteoarthritis, it usually takes several weeks. But Todorov’s patient reported that the morning after she took the first dose, her pain was completely gone, and it stayed that way.

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