Are you one of the millions of people who started a new health habit as a New Year’s resolution? Maybe you’ve started a new daily supplement routine. Have you wondered if the positive effects you’ve felt have been due to the placebo effect?
The placebo effect describes when the benefit one experiences from an intervention, including a supplement or drug, is not attributed to the inherent properties of the treatment, but to the psychological processes of the person receiving it. The concept of placebo effect is used regularly in clinical trials to discern whether the observed benefits of an intervention is beyond psychological. This is how it normally goes in Radicle Science trials and other scientifically rigorous clinical trials: participants are randomly given either the actual product being studied, or a placebo that looks and tastes exactly like the actual product, but without the active ingredients. Participants won’t know which one they have received until after completion of the study. At the end of a study, if participants who received the actual product experienced improvement significantly more than those who received the placebo, then we say that the product has a statistically significant effect on the relevant health outcome. If the improvement is similar between the two groups of participants, then the improvement is most likely only due to placebo effect.
At Radicle Science, we observe the placebo effect all the time. Sometimes in the middle of a trial, participants write and tell us how much a product has helped them, before they later realize they received the placebo. Therefore, it is probably no surprise that a study that compared clinical studies with and without placebo designs found that, about 20% of the time, these studies yielded different conclusions on whether an intervention is effective.
Just because it can be confusing, doesn’t mean that the placebo effect should be seen as a bad player in science. The powerful biopsychosocial mechanisms behind placebo effect have been shown to decrease severity of pesky symptoms such as pain and nausea, and alleviate irritable bowel syndrome. What consumers should be aware of is what placebo effect can and cannot do. It can make one feel better, but may not enable the physiological changes that one looks for when taking a supplement if that supplement has not been well-studied to show benefits beyond the placebo effect.
Sometimes, studies exist on active ingredients inside of a supplement product, but not on the product itself. While these studies offer valuable insights, they do not equivocally suggest that the product has the same effectiveness. The product can contain a different dosage of an active ingredient than the dosage stated on its packaging, or the dosage that has been proven effective. .
What does this mean for the next bottle of supplement you purchase? Check to see if the supplement has been shown to have the desired health benefits in a clinical study that compares it with a placebo.You might be able to search for this information on the supplement brand’s website, search for freely available research studies on databases such as PubMed, or reach out to the brand to inquire.
Another way to critically evaluate whether a supplement may have true benefit for you, is to take a look at the demographics of participants in clinical studies that involve the product. Researchers have found that around 20% of drugs have different effects depending on one’s race and ethnicity. Racial minorities, especially Asians, American Indians and Alaska Natives and most notably Latinos, are consistently underrepresented in clinical trials in most disease areas as compared to U.S. census distribution. In Radicle Science trials, the racial demographics of participants not only roughly mirrors that of the U.S. Census, but also exceeds the average drug trial in the U.S. in representation of American Indian or Alaska Natives.If this makes you feel you want to take action, you can! By being a participant in a Radicle Science trial, you can contribute to better understanding of the effects of supplement products on aspects of health you desire to improve, may it be sleep, cognition, energy, or any of the other areas we focus on. By becoming a study participant, you also become a citizen scientist. In Radicle Science trials, you receive for free a six week supply of either a supplement product or a placebo, and answer questionnaires about how you feel in the area of health studied. At the end of the study, you will learn whether you have received a supplement product or a placebo, along with a Personalized Health Report so you can understand how the product uniquely affected YOU! If you received a placebo product you will be able to see if you experienced the placebo effect. And either way, you can know that you were central in understanding if the supplement product has benefits beyond placebo effects, for the greater good of all.