On the fortunately rare occasions when I have to take a pain reliever, I have a brief chat before I swallow it. I tell myself that soon I will feel the effects and then I imagine the chemicals flowing through my system doing good.
This is not as strange as it sounds, and I've been doing this since I made a science documentary where we showed that you can reduce back pain with nothing but the power of the mind.
Back pain is incredibly common. It has plagued people since our ancient ancestors came down from the trees and decided it was a good idea to walk upright. As we got older, fatter, and less active, the rates rose.
On the fortunately rare occasions when I have to take a pain reliever, I have a brief chat before I swallow it
Lockdown didn't help. Squatting over computers from home or lounging on couches for hours has had a negative impact. In fact, more than half of those who responded to a recent survey by the Institute of Employment Studies said they had back pain at least once a week.
Obviously, prevention is better than cure, but what if you already have chronic back pain? Well, there is one approach that is very cheap and works almost as well as pain relievers and is virtually free of side effects.
It's about harnessing the power of the placebo effect. Oddly enough, knowing you are on a placebo can work too.
While placebos are usually available in pill form (without active ingredients), some patients have benefited from placebo surgery – a study where they were anesthetized and cut open, but the surgeon only sutured them.
I first became interested in its strong treatment potential a few years ago when I was making a documentary about back pain.
Summer is really over, but by now your vitamin D levels should be well replenished – the so-called sun vitamin is produced in our skin in response to sunlight, and by the end of March to the end of September most people have had enough of being outside.
During my most recent television series, "Lose A Stone In 21 Days," where I was helping people lose their lockdown pounds, I was shocked to find that most of our volunteers' vitamin D levels were low or borderline.
I shouldn't have been surprised because vitamin D is stored in adipose tissue so people who are obese tend to have less vitamin D in their blood. But it's worrying because vitamin D is essential for a healthy immune system.
Two recent studies have highlighted its potential impact on Covid-19 – those hospitalized with the infection who have low levels of vitamin D are more likely to experience life-threatening complications or die.
Unfortunately, without a blood test, you cannot determine whether your values are healthy.
It is currently recommended that everyone consider taking a 10 µg vitamin D supplement daily during the fall and winter months. And this year, that advice seems particularly relevant.
To test the power of the placebo effect in everyday life, we recruited more than 100 people from Blackpool (a city where one in five people have back problems), all of whom had suffered from chronic back pain for years.
The recruits were told they were in a study that might give them a placebo or a strong new pain reliever.
What they weren't told was that they would all be given placebos, capsules that only contained ground rice.
The experiment, carefully carried out by Dr. Jeremy Howick of Oxford University, an expert on placebos, used pills in shades of blue and white – colors that have been shown to have the greatest analgesic effects. After three weeks, more than half of the patients reported a significant decrease in pain and an improvement in disability. In fact, the results were so impressive that they were recently published in a health journal.
So what's up?
Dr. Howick would like to point out that people do not respond to the placebo effect because they are gullible or developing symptoms. In fact, the main characteristic of people who respond to placebos is that they are "open to new experiences".
And it goes deeper than that. We know that when you take a placebo and expect a positive result, your body releases morphine-like substances, natural opioids. Now, German researchers have also found that people who respond best to a placebo produce higher levels of certain proteins in their blood, some of which are known to help control inflammation. Chronic inflammation, where the immune system is constantly on alert, is not only linked to conditions such as heart disease and cancer, but also increases chronic pain.
This new study opens up the possibility of a test that shows whether you are likely to respond to a placebo and get its benefits, without the side effects associated with most drugs.
However, don't expect your GP to offer this option anytime soon.
While placebos are usually available in pill form (without active ingredients), some patients have benefited from placebo surgery – a study where they were anesthetized and cut open but the surgeon only sutured them up
This is because, although extensive research shows that placebos have powerful benefits with few side effects, placebos must not routinely deceive their patients. One option that is being investigated is to let patients know that they are only receiving bogus pills.
In my experiment with Dr. Howick, some volunteers decided to keep taking our placebo even after we discovered it was just rice.
If you want to try using the placebo effect you need a good relationship with your doctor as this has been shown to produce a very powerful effect.
And take a moment before you swallow your next pain reliever. Therefore, when I take acetaminophen for headaches, I always say to myself, "This will really help," because I believe that it will increase the chance that it will work.
Not so fast with the cakes, Uhr-Dieter!
Limited Time Eating (TRE) – also known as "intermittent fasting" – has become very popular, especially with celebrities like Jennifer Aniston. The idea is that limiting your eating to a set time frame will help you lose weight, among other things. A popular approach is to fast 16: 8-16 hours followed by an 8-hour window to eat.
There have been a number of animal and human studies that have shown that TRE is beneficial. A while ago I decided to give it a try. But I found 16: 8 impossible to adhere to, so I went for a more moderate version, 12:12, where I try to stop eating at 8 p.m. and not eat again until after 8 a.m.
I think that keeps me from snacking late at night and helps me keep fit.
But as the Mail reported this week, there was some disappointing news for 16:8 followers. A new US study that enrolled 116 overweight or obese people who were randomly selected to eat normally or to follow the 16: 8 approach found that the fasting group lost just 2 pounds after 12 weeks, just slightly more than the control group.
Both groups ate roughly the same amount of calories, although those doing TRE appear to have consumed less protein, which could explain why they lost more muscle, too.
The moral of this is that when it comes to fasting, longer is not necessarily better.
And what and how much you eat is also important. I'm afraid the calories in cakes and cookies – even if only eaten during an eight-hour meal window – still add up.
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