The placebo effect.

Scientifically speaking it’s the beneficial effect that occurs from a placebo drug or treatment, which cannot be attributed to the placebo drug or treatment itself. Therefore, must be related to the patient’s own belief in the treatment.

In layman terms, if you ingest a drug or have a treatment administered, believe that you are receiving the real drug or treatment and believe this drug or treatment will fix your condition. That belief is enough to make your symptoms disappear altogether even if that drug you swallowed or that treatment you received was in fact a placebo. Meaning it didn’t contain any therapeutic properties which could be attributed to the resolution of your symptoms.

Isn’t that mind blowing? Pardon the pun.

When I first started reading about this, I had pick my jaw up off the ground.  Our minds have the power to make genuine symptoms that in some cases patients could have been experiencing for years disappear just like that!

What the studies are telling us!

Dr Irving Kirsch a Harvard psychologist and researcher and well respected expert in the field of the placebo effect. In 1998 he published a meta-analysis (the gold standard of research) of almost 3000 patients treated with either antidepressants, psychotherapy, placebo or no treatment 1.

What Kirsch discovered was nothing short of breathtaking. A placebo mimicked 75% of the drug’s effect, that non-antidepressant medications had the same effect as antidepressants, and that 25% of the apparent drug effect was attributable to the “active placebo effect”. Dr Kirsch refers to the term active placebo effect as the mere belief in the antidepressants 1.

Antidepressants outperformed placebo in only 20 of 46 trails. That’s less than half!

10 years later Kirsch published yet another meta-analysis (gold standard of research), however for this analysis he wanted delve deeper. He accessed unpublished studies leveraging off the Freedom of Information Act. This revealed some startling revelations. Antidepressants outperformed placebo in only 20 of 46 trails2. That’s less than half!

What’s worse is that the results that the studies came from which Kirsch included in his analysis were in fact designed by the drug companies themselves. Meaning these studies were purposefully designed to give the drug an advantage over the placebo, and yet they still failed!

Let’s look at another study published in the Journal of Psychiatry in 2014 and one my favourites as it demonstrates the true extent of the belief in antidepressants. Researchers at Columbia University analysed data from two large multi centre discontinuation trails comprising of almost 700 people diagnosed with major depressive disorder and taking Prozac for 12 weeks 3.

Once the patients had been on Prozac for the initial 12-week period, they were then told they would be randomly selected to receive either a placebo or to continue treatment. So, for first 12 weeks they all knew they were taking the Prozac, after this time they didn’t know whether what they were taking was in fact the antidepressant or just a sugar pill.

The results speak for themselves. Both groups, the ones who were assigned to continued taking the Prozac and the ones assigned to taking the sugar pills BOTH experienced a worsening of their depressive symptoms. Yep, you heard right both groups experienced a worsening of symptoms 3.

What does this mean? It suggests that the initial improvement that was experienced in the first 3 months of treatment was merely due to the placebo effect. It also suggests that just the thought of being told that they were going to be taken off the antidepressant and may begin receiving a sugar pill was enough to undo that placebo effect.

The placebo effect demonstrates beautifully the strongly held belief that antidepressants are the cure all for depression. This belief runs deep and is not something that pharmaceutical companies want to see disappear anytime soon.

I’m here to tell you, there are alternatives:

8 strategies to get you started:

  1. Diet, nourish your body with whole foods, complex carbs, good fats.
  2. Cut down on the sugar, sugar has been directly linked to depression
  3. Exercise regularly, exercise helps produce BDNF, our brains natural antidepressant
  4. Get enough sleep, easier said than done, but sleep is so important to our overall health and wellbeing
  5. Assess your hormones, out of whack insulin and cortisol have both been linked to depression
  6. Assess your gut, certain bad bugs have been directly linked to depression
  7. Take the right nutrients, you’ll need to see a qualified health practitioner who this to get you on the right track
  8. Get tested! Some bloods to have done include Whole Blood Histamine, Plasma Zinc, Serum Copper, Homocysteine, e/LFTs, CRP & ESR

Remember your mental illness isn’t a Prozac deficiency.

Uncover the root cause and you will fix your mental illness.

By Megan Maitland


BBioMedSci BClinSci


  1. Kirsch I & Sapirstein G. 1998. Listening to Prozac but Hearing Placebo: A Meta-Analysis of Antidepressant Medication. Prevention & Treatment. 1. no. 2
  2. Kirsch I et al. 2008. Initial Severity and Antidepressant Benefits: A Meta-Analysis of Data Submitted to the Food and Drug Administration. PLoS Med. 5 no. 2.
  3. Rutherford B et al. 2014. The Role of Patient Expectancy in Placebo and Nocebo Effects in Antidepressant Trials. J Clin Psychiatry. 75 no. 10.

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