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Is Alternative Medicine Just a Placebo?

Lissa Rankin's picture

placebo effect

As someone who supports many forms of alternative medicine, included many alternative medicine practitioners in my integrative medicine practice at the Owning Pink Center, and empowers my patients to seek out treatments based on the guidance of their healing inner wisdom (I call it your “Inner Pilot Light”), this statement in an article on CNN caught my eye:

Rigorous analyses of scientific studies have shown that much of what is known as alternative medicine is bunk, with a few exceptions such as St. John's wort for mild depression But the simple belief in a remedy carries a lot of weight, according to experts. And when you go to a practitioner of alternative medicine, you're likely to get someone who offers you more face time and greater sense of reassurance about a therapy than a regular doctor. The positive relationship you form with him or her may have a placebo effect in itself.

So Is Alternative Medicine Really Bunk?

Personally, I take issue with this statement. I believe that some things just aren’t easily studied, but just because we can’t clearly prove it in a randomized controlled clinical trial doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work. What I do agree with is the statement that more face time and a positive relationship can heal.

In the new book I’m working on, I define the term “healer” very loosely. In fact, my definition of a healer is pretty dang broad. I’m not just talking about the man who practices the wisdom of native medicine or the “woo woo” practices of a New Age woman in a muumuu. I’m also including some (but certainly not all) Western medical doctors, nurses, and OR techs. I’m including the Chinese medicine doctor, the yoga teacher, the massage therapist, the hairdresser who spends all day counseling her clients, the janitor who genuinely cares how your day is going, and most importantly- YOU!

Healers Abound

You can find healers everywhere.  We are Reiki practitioners, herbalists, and midwives. We are physical therapists, nutritionists, and psychologists. We are life coaches, lactation consultants, spiritual healers, and homeopaths. We are intuitives, therapists, shamans, hynotherapists, osteopaths, and chiropractors. We are Qigong masters, guided imagery practitioners, iridologists, radiology techs, art therapists, music therapists, dance therapists, energy healers, and biofeedback specialists.

We are kinesiologists, chakra balancing therapists, faith healers, NLP practitioners, spirit coaches, soul retrieval practitioners, sweat lodge leaders, 12-step program coordinators, ayurvedic practitioners, and workshop facilitators. We are sound healers, nurse practitioners, astrologers, physician’s assistants, and crystal healers. We are reflexologists, pet therapists, and creativity coaches.

We are the woman who works in your nail salon and notices when it’s been a while since you’ve had your pedicure because she really cares. We are the doorman in your apartment building who knows your name and always asks how your day is going. We are the taxi cab driver who listens to your tearful story and offers words of wisdom and a gentle touch of the back of your hand when he drops you off. We are the housekeeper who isn’t just the housekeeper - she’s part of the family.

We are also store clerks, pastors, lawyers, accountants, writers, mothers, nuns, and artists. 

We are every individual who is willing to do the inner and outer work necessary to be as whole as possible so they can hold another person’s heart in theirs. Healers come with varied backgrounds, different belief systems, and unique tools in our healing toolboxes, and yet, we are all still healers. If you work in the service industry in any way - and if you open your heart when you’re serving others - you are helping to heal other people, so own it, baby. You are infinitely powerful. You matter. What you do heals. Period.

In other words, we are YOU, if you’re willing to step up to the plate and claim your title.  We all come to our healing gifts in different ways. Some are born with a gift. Others earn it through years of study. Some just follow the light wherever it leads them. And yet, we all have access to this immense capacity to heal ourselves and others.

What If A Placebo Heals?

It’s true that some of these types of healers have little scientific data to support that the treatments they offer “work,” and many of the rare studies that have been done demonstrate a positive placebo effect, meaning that people get better - but so do those not receiving the real treatment.

Countless studies, including this one just reported in WebMD demonstrate that if you believe something will make you better, it will. In other words, if you give 500 people a real drug (or a surgery or a procedure or a supplement) and you give 500 other people a sham version of the same thing (yes, there are sham surgeries!), sometimes you’ll get a response rate up to 50% for those getting only the fake treatment.

What Does This Mean?

When the treatment effect is no greater than the placebo effect, medical science dismisses the treatment as worthless, which is so misguided to me. How can we dismiss the 50% who get better? I’ve struggled with this for a dozen years now. Should we be denying patients treatments that prove to be no better than placebo? (The medical community would answer yes.)

Or should we honor the amazing capacity within us all for self-healing and offer treatments that work but are no better than placebo? And if we do, what should we tell patients?

Some German doctors think maybe we should hand out sugar pills. According to this article, the German Medical Association started advising doctors to give out placebos, which, while it reeks of snake oil, just might work. I don’t know…It’s fuzzy for me.

What I Think

I think alternative medicine works in part because these practices really work and in part because love (as offered by genuinely caring practitioners who are present and listen, whether they are doctors, acupuncturists, or psychics) activates the self-healing mechanisms within us all. And yes, when you believe you will heal, you’re more likely to do so. Because thoughts manifest. Healing thoughts cause healing. Loving healers help create the sacred space so people can heal themselves.

So call it placebo effect. Call it self-healing. Call it snake oil. I don’t care.

What I do care deeply about is the power we hold within us to make this happen. The reality is that when we believe we will get well, very often, we do.

So what do you choose to believe about your health? Do you need someone to bottle that belief or might you activate your own self-healing without the sugar pill? I’d LOVE to hear what you think!

Believing in your capacity to heal yourself,


Lissa Rankin, MD: Founder of OwningPink.commotivational speaker, and author of What’s Up Down There? Questions You’d Only Ask Your Gynecologist If She Was Your Best Friend and Encaustic Art: The Complete Guide To Creating Fine Art With Wax.



Lissa Rankin's picture

Dear Anonymous "another way of thinking"

I TOTALLY agree with you. We do stigmatize people with our disease labels. It's a sort of medical hexing in fact, and it disables, for many people, the potent self-healing mechanisms that lie within us all...

And it's gotta stop.

Anonymous's picture

Another way of thinking

I was just talking to my friend about a class I took called Cultural Psychology and one of the main discussions was about the differences between disease and disorder.

This article seems to fit quite well. The way the class looked at this topic was that a disease is definable and there are certain objective characteristics that define it. It is the way Western Medicine operates. A disorder on the other hand is more of a cultural construct and has a lot of symptoms that can not be understood when people from other cultures evaluate them.

The Book Culture and Depression edited by Arthur Kleinman ISBN: 9780520058835 had many cases in which these issues were debated and I think that it really comes down to which way you are thinking of the problem. Alternative medicine is just another way of saying it is not the standard Western medicine which sometimes is inferior to the healing offered by other cultural traditions. You have to consider the fact that sometimes these different explanations can help someone much more than Western medicine ever will. Western medicine often stigmatizes the person along with the diagnosis and causes a chain of problems related to the diagnosis. It can cause more damage to a person's psyche and mind than other alternative medicines which often treat both mind and body at once.

Again healing is all about bringing back the person to functionality, not necessarily curing them but helping them deal with it. It is about embracing the person and expelling the problem which alternative medicine does a lot, as explained in previous posts by the methods of more face time and more connection to the person.

Can your culture/practice help you explain your illness and can that explanation help lessen the impact that it has on your life? Does the methods that your culture or practice employs to heal you help bring you back into being a functional and happy person?

Of course changing the mindset about the problem sometimes is the most effective way of fixing the negative impact of the problem. That is why placebo pills work. They make the person think they will get better and so the person has changed his attitude and therefore will change his mind.

The talk that alternative medicine is bunk is from scientific minds that want to be able to explain these results in figures and facts when they won't necessarily show up. These types of healing sometimes are subjective and the patient will feel better even though they still may be sick in the eyes of a Western doctor. The objective criteria that diagnose the disease could still be there but the symptoms might have vanished. The pain and hurt, the stutter, the fits could all have vanished because mind will win over body.Or sometimes there might be a constructive way of explaining the disease that helps the patient deal with it and get back to functioning.

billie hinton's picture

placebo? if it works, who cares?

I came to alternative medicine after years of dealing with doctors prescribing treatments that created bizarre and unpleasant side effects - I tend to be very sensitive to medications and always have the side effect no one ever heard of before. My body shuts down when high-intervention techniques are used.

It was when I found classical homeopathy under the care of a naturopath that things began to heal and work well for me.

Placebo just means we don't know what else to call it at this point. There is so much we don't know.

I live and work with horses and I see them respond to alternative therapies in what often seems like miraculous ways. How could it be a placebo effect in them?

Thanks for a wonderful article.

Lissa Rankin's picture

YES, Maya!

My thoughts exactly. The placebo effect gets a bad rap because it messes up the research of scientists and pharmaceutical industries trying to prove that their treatment is more powerful than the healing power of hope. In my new book, I call it "the self-healing effect" because this is MIRACULOUS really, the body's capacity to self heal. Really....

You get it. I have so much to catch the Owning Pink community up on but I've been so immersed in my book writing cave! Stay tuned. More soon....

Lissa Rankin's picture

Complementary medicine

I agree, love. Alternative implies you can't have both. I used that term only because it's the one most people use. Personally, I think we're all equal partners at the healing round table and we all have tools in our toolbox capable of helping empower self-healing mechanisms that lie within us all...

Carz's picture

Great article. Personally I

Great article. Personally I prefer to see it termed as complimentary therapies rather than alternative. Alternative implies a choice between the different types of medicine or therapies but in so many cases they compliment each other.

Maya Hanley's picture

'Just' a Placebo

What's always struck me in these articles about the effectiveness of alternative medicine etc is the expression, almost always used, of it's 'just' a placebo. If 50% of the people are responding to a placebo surely the placebo effect should be being studied more, as it indicates clearly that people play a huge part in their own healing.

Unfortunately, placebo has now come to mean something of little worth. In fact, I think it is the thing of most worth, that should be studied in great detail, as it would create a huge amount of awareness in humans of our own power to heal ourselves if it was acknowledged as something quite extraordinary.

I find it short-sighted and have always said this, since I was a young woman, that science dismisses this effect and would rather look at empirical data. That said, 50% of people responding to placebos is empirical and I could understand their dismissal of it somewhat better if the percentage was low, say 10% or something. It's quite fascinating how the human mind and body work and we know so little about it so wouldn't it be great it they started to spend more time on this than on creating yet more drugs to push on to people?

Lissa, it is so wonderful that you are leading the charge in this area and I have little doubt you will succeed. We're ready for this.

Lissa Rankin's picture

Amen, sisters

My father- also a physician, made fun of anything "woo woo." He was totally woo woo allergic in fact. So I think his cynicism rubbed off on me as a young doctor, and I've since learned that Dad was just plain WRONG (God rest his soul).

It's been such an eye opener for me to realize that science just can't explain the miracle of the human body, or even more mysterious, the wonders of the mind, soul, and spirit. I'm glad I finally crawled out from under my hole!

Patrice's picture



I don't cry easily. I don't cry often. This post hit me so hard that I couldn't even make it to the end before the tears started. I believe so sincerely in the power of love. I'm not really new age or holistic, and like you, I grew up with an M.D. for a daddy. We are science people, of course. But what you wrote about love activating our self-healing mechanisms can't be denied. There is just too much inexplicable healing going on.

Clinical studies and empirical data are what drives the science world. We can't really blame them for the statement "alternative medicine is bunk." But it's analogous to the science-religion argument. Religion is based in faith-belief without proof. If through love someone is healed but we can't scientifically prove how it happened, it leaves the lab folks scratching their heads.

Keep doing what you're doing. You're on the right path. Love really does conquer all.

Ade's picture

I believe in magic.

I think that magic lies within ourselves. We are made of energy. Every part of ourselves comprises of atoms, molecules...energy. If we can learn to harness that powerful and glorious energy within ourselves, it would be CRAZY AMAZING!!

Part of the problem is fear. I think we're afraid to open our hearts to intangible things, to care for one another. I find that difference in my doctors. Today, for example, I went to see a new doctor. It wasn't fun but his loving and caring manner with me made me feel better. I think, from a holistic standpoint, that kind of loving and caring manner is crucial to the healing process. Love frees us. It allows good energy and powerful postive forces into our hearts. The better we feel about ourselves, the easier it is to connect with and focus on the healing process. Everything within us is interconnected.

jessica 's picture

healers and placebos

Great write up Lissa. We should all remember pets and animals in general. I was reminded of this yesterday as I finished up with a client and my big old cat, Winston, made a point to come in an purr at her until she picked him up and held him awhile. He has never done that with a client before.

Thankfully she is a cat person and not allergic and didn't mind the fur. Maybe he knew she needed, and would appreciate the equivalent of a hug from a cat. Another friend says the purring must have been needed on the first two chakras. All I know is my client looked much happier for it.

animals can be wonderful for our human spirit. Keep on trekking Dr. Rankin.

Jessie Matthews's picture

WONDERFUL article!

I really take exception to someone saying that alternative medicine is "bunk." I've seen so many people in my own life made SO ill by standard medicine - people literally being poisoned by their medications and by doctors who can't spend more than 5 minutes in an exam room before moving on to the next patient. Write a prescription and move on seems to be the motto of so many of these people, and it makes me so very sad.

I became a Reiki practitioner on September 11th of last year and moved on to get my 2nd degree attunement this past spring. I can say that learning and practicing Reiki has changed my life and the lives of my family. Now, when we feel aches and pains or feel as though we are becoming ill, we use Reiki as our first treatment option - and about 98% of the time, no medications are needed. My mom once said to me, "It's amazing. Since learning Reiki, I've learned that I don't have to live in pain." And that's the absolute truth.

Is it placebo? Maybe. Maybe not. There's so much we don't understand about the world around us - and so much that can't be weight, measured and quantified by modern science. What I know is what I've seen in my own life and in the lives of others who are using alternative healing therapies on a daily basis - and the life changes I've witness are truly amazing!

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