Placebo and Nocebo in Macrobiotics

placebo and nocebo in macrobiotics

Emerging research on nocebos suggests that telling someone something negative about his or her health can be harmful and increase the risk of ill health.

Placebos and nocebos are two sides of the same coin. Research suggests that if we believe something about ourselves there is a reasonable possibility that in some of us that will come true.

The role of placebos is so well established that any research in new medication has to be compared to the effect of a placebo. For example if I believe a herb tea will help me feel pain free there is a good chance the pain will recede once I drink the tea. The belief alone is enough to bring about some kind of healing. This mind over matter scenario is well documented with reports of incredible cures.

Nocebos are similar to placebos but work in the opposite way. If I believe that I suffer from indigestion then there is a reasonable chance that I will. We can believe ourselves into poor health. The New Scientist (13 May 2009) reported on a man who was diagnosed with liver cancer and given a few months to live. He died on schedule only for the autopsy to reveal his liver condition had been misdiagnosed. The man had died of the diagnosis.

Arthur Barsky, a psychiatrist at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital published an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association describing how women who believe they are prone to heart disease are nearly four times as likely to die of the disease compared to women with similar risk factors but who do not share such fatalistic beliefs.

The message is that if we believe in ourselves and our ability to heal, that alone will increase the chance of being healthy. Once we start to allow thoughts of poor health to invade our mental state we compromise our health.

For me this brings into question the practice of diagnosis in macrobiotics and the nocebos that we instill in others. If as a result of a macrobiotic consultation someone believes he or she is pre-cancerous does that increase the chance of getting cancer? If the research on nocebos is correct, it does.

I am amazed how many of my clients come with a list of nocebos that they believe about themselves based on acupuncture, kinesiology, shiatsu, macrobiotics and other forms of subjective diagnosis.

Unfortunately fear is one of our deepest and most powerful emotions. It is the emotion that serves to keep us from danger and keep us alive. At the same time it is a powerful emotive force that can be used to encourage change. I imagine everyone can relate to times we have taken on something out of fear for our health. Healthy eating would be an example. Fear of poor health might encourage someone to avoid certain foods and yet having that belief potentially compromises that person’s health anyway.

In my experience macrobiotics through the 1980s and 1990s was primarily a fear based movement with so much attention given to cancer and food that I suspect many people feared that straying from a rigid diet would result in cancer. For a while macrobiotics was sold on the premise that if we did not eat macrobiotically we would get cancer and this was backed up by a form of diagnosis that frequently instilled very negative perceptions of health in clients.

During the early eighties I ran the counseling services at several of the Mid Atlantic Macrobiotic Summer Camps. I learned two things. One was that when clients tried several different macrobiotic counselors they got different diagnoses. Second that whilst sitting in on hundreds of counseling sessions I saw that the recommendations did not change much according to the diagnosis. In fact the differences in recommendation were so subtle that I doubt the client would have been able to put them into practice anyway. Later my job was to follow up with people who had tried macrobiotics after counseling. Some people who had very positive results told me they had only followed some of the recommendations.

My conclusion is that macrobiotic diagnosis is a subjective art and that it is not necessary for someone to successfully practice macrobiotics. I have met many people who claim to have recovered from ill health through macrobiotic books, general classes and help from a friend.

This leads me to question the relevance of including a diagnosis in counseling. I am not convinced that it is an essential part of helping someone discover ways to improve his or her health. Clients often want more practical guidance on where to get the foods, how to make meals that taste good and how to cook at home when there is little time.

I like face reading, taking pulses, looking at tongues, examining eyes, taking pH readings etc, However for me this is for my own interest. In terms of a consultation it may help me better understand what it would be like to be my client and out of that I might be able to offer more relevant help but I do not see any advantage to passing on negative thoughts if I have them.

My own ethics have for many years been to support people in thinking positively and creating placebos through greater self belief. Although all of my practices are potentially full of nocebos – macrobiotics, shiatsu, feng shui, nine ki – I consciously made the decision to try not to impart anything negative. So far this has not adversely affected my practice and people still try my suggestions and report good results.

Book an online or in person macrobiotic consultation or macrobiotic course with Simon to enjoy the foods, lifestyle and practices that lead to health, happiness and greater contentment.