The Power of Placebo: Here’s how the ‘belief effect’ influences our views on nutrition, pain and mental health

There is a fascinating interplay between the power of faith and its profound impact on our physical health and nutrition. From faith’s intriguing ability to shape our perception of food to its remarkable influence on our hormonal responses, the connections between what we think, what we eat and how it affects our bodies are powerful.

What is becoming increasingly clear is that expectations and predictions have a very strong influence on basic experiences, on how we feel and what we perceive. Doing anything that you think will help you feel better will probably help you feel better.

–Dr. Leonie Koban, Ph.D., Neuroscience and Affective Sciences, Lyon Neuroscience Research Center

What is the belief effect?

The belief effect occurs when patients’ expectations and beliefs play a substantial role in determining their health outcomes. It mimics the brain’s ability to produce real physiological responses in the absence of any active treatment or intervention.

Beliefs and attitudes can influence the release of neurotransmitters, hormones, and immune system responses, all of which can affect the body’s functioning.

Scientific evidence

Numerous studies have detailed the complicated relationship between faith, diet and health, shedding light on how our cognitive processes can significantly impact our well-being. How else does the belief effect play a crucial role in shaping our dietary choices and health outcomes?

How your beliefs shape nutritional health

The Ghrelin Response

In a study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, researchers examined the influence of anticipation on ghrelin, the hunger hormone.

The participants were given identical milkshakes, but they were told that one was a “decadent treat” and the other was a “sensible, low-calorie choice.”

Remarkably, those who believed they were consuming the indulgent shake showed a more significant increase in ghrelin levels or an increase in feelings of hunger or dissatisfaction with the meal, even though both shakes had the same nutritional value. felt less hungry, or had lower ghrelin levels.

The taste perception

A study published in Appetite examined the relationship between food healthiness beliefs and taste perception. Participants were presented with identical foods, but were given the impression that one was healthier than the other.

The results showed that individuals who believed the food was healthier rated it as more tasty, demonstrating the influence of belief on taste perception. The person’s belief or how he/she interprets (interpresents or internally represents) directly determines the biological response or behavior.

Another notable study involved a woman who suffered from split personalities. At baseline, her blood glucose levels were normal. However, the moment she thought she had diabetes, her entire physiology changed to that of a diabetic, including elevated blood sugar levels.

Diet and nutrition

Belief in the effectiveness of a specific diet can have a profound impact on adherence and results. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) examined the influence of faith on weight loss.

Participants who strongly believed in the efficacy of a particular diet were more likely to stick to it and achieve better weight loss results than participants with less belief. (This is one that I personally have to subscribe to – I normally last about a week on a new nutritional regimen before I get off track.)

The belief effect also extends to nutrient absorption. Studies have shown that believing that you are consuming a meal rich in nutrients can increase your body’s ability to absorb those nutrients. Your confidence in the nutritional value of a meal can affect how efficiently your body extracts vitamins and minerals.

Metabolic response

Our metabolic response to different foods can be influenced by our belief in their healthfulness. A study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine examined the effect of belief on post-meal metabolic markers. Participants who thought they were consuming a healthy meal showed more favorable metabolic responses, including improved insulin sensitivity, compared to those who thought the meal was unhealthy. Amazing what the mind can do!

There is also a special podcast about the connections between neuroscience and human behavior: the Huberman Lab podcast, hosted by neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman, explores topics related to the impact of beliefs on health.

In a recent episode, Dr. Huberman the critical importance of understanding how faith affects our overall well-being. In this episode about mentality and health, Dr. Huberman the impact of nutrition; it’s actually a combined product of what you do, what you think about, your stress, your anxiety – the interconnectedness of your mental and physical selves.

Belief effect extends much further than just nutrition

Let’s briefly explore some of the ways the faith effect affects overall health.

Pain Management: Studies have shown that individuals who think they are taking a powerful painkiller, but are actually taking a placebo, often experience reduced pain perception. This demonstrates the brain’s ability to release endorphins and modulate pain signals based on belief alone.

Mental health: Belief in the effectiveness of psychotherapy or medication can significantly improve mental health outcomes. Positive expectations can lead to reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Immune function: Belief can influence immune responses, affecting the body’s ability to fight infections and diseases. Optimistic beliefs and positive attitudes have been linked to improved immune function.

Cardiovascular Health: Belief in the benefits of lifestyle changes such as exercise and dietary improvements can lead to better cardiovascular outcomes, including reduced blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

These studies provide robust evidence to support the idea that belief can significantly influence nutritional and health outcomes. Recognizing the power of belief in shaping our dietary choices and metabolic responses underscores the importance of a holistic approach to health that includes both physical and psychological factors.

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