By any measure, modern medicine is a miracle. Countless lives have been saved, epidemics averted, and suffering eased thanks to medical advances of the past century.
But this miracle comes with miserable side effects. Widespread addiction to prescription drugs, antibiotic-resistant superbugs, and out-of-control health care spending are a few of the problems that plague the system.
According to medical researcher and philosopher Dr. Jeremy Howick, modern medicine has clearly benefited our lives, but we’ve also lost touch with how to determine a proper dose of it. We’ve developed effective treatments for diseases that killed mercilessly in the past, but now we suffer from a new problem: too much medicine.
“For the first time since World War II, life expectancy is going down in the U.S.,” Howick said. “We do need medicine, but we’re taking way too much of it, to the point where it’s bankrupting us and it’s not healthy anymore.”
Howick’s new book, “Doctor You: Introducing the Hard Science of Self-Healing,” offers a compelling solution to our unhealthy dependence: learning to tap into our body’s ability to heal itself.
The concept of the body as a self-healing organism is not new. In fact, it’s been around as long as people have been treating illnesses. Ancient doctors from around the world noted that, given enough time and support, the body will often correct itself.
Of course, it’s much easier to come to this conclusion if all you have is observations from nature, ancient traditions, and primitive tools. Arriving at this insight today is far less likely. One big reason is our sense of entitlement. Along with the miraculous cures that emerged in the 20th century has come an expectation that there must be a pill for every ill—or there may soon be one, given enough research and funding.
This expectation has produced incredible cures, but it has also warped our understanding of what it means to be healthy. Today, 20 percent of Americans take at least five prescription drugs per day, often with little understanding or oversight about how these drugs interact with each other. Medical error now ranks as the third most likely cause of death in the United States. Fatal prescription drug errors alone kill more than 100,000 Americans annually.
Meanwhile, drug researchers look at the body’s ability to self-heal more as a statistical annoyance than a blessing. In order to deem a drug effective, trials have to prove that it can outperform a placebo. The placebo effect shows that even when patients take a fake drug their symptoms often improve.
And it’s not just pills. A recent study at Oxford University looked at more than 50 placebo-controlled studies of various surgical techniques and found that placebo surgery was as effective as the real thing in more than half the trials.
We tend to think of the placebo effect as a delusion caused by deception in order to determine an unbiased truth. It’s why double-blind trials ensure that both researchers and patients are kept in the dark about who takes the placebo and who gets the genuine drug.
But the placebo effect may also demonstrate how our minds and bodies are naturally bent toward healing—no deception necessary. In a 2016 study from Harvard Medical School, researchers discovered that even when patients were told they were taking a fake pill, the ritual of having it prescribed by a real doctor still resulted in significant improvement in back pain.
Other studies on so-called “open label placebos” for IBS, depression, allergic rhinitis, and ADHD have all shown positive effects.