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During my medical residency, whenever a patient got better for no obvious reason, but wanted us to explain the wonder we worked, we'd chalk it up to that new cutting edge drug we slipped into their bag of IV saline and called "Obecalp." The patients would nod in slack-jawed wonder at the mention of such an odd-sounding name. They had never heard of Obecalp and wondered whether they had even seen the commercial. It is too new even for TV, we'd say. And we continued with our daily rounds. 

Obecalp is of course placebo spelled backward. And the placebo effect can be used to explain more astounding cures than either patient or physician thinks imaginable. To define the phenomenon, the placebo effect is "a beneficial effect, produced by a placebo drug or treatment, that cannot be attributed to the properties of the placebo itself, and must therefore be due to the patient's belief in that treatment."

It's all about belief, but we'll get back to that.

First, as Harvard Health reports, few physicians have ever prescribed "pure" placebos like sugar pills or saline solutions. But about 40% report that they have prescribed over-the-counter pain relievers or vitamins as placebos, "not because they believed these compounds would have a direct effect on the person's condition," but because most patients seek treatment and physicians are paid to treat. Prescribing pills in this way involves some deception, even if the patient feels better. Ignorance can indeed lead to bliss. And as the small statistical difference in treatment outcomes between anti-depressants and placebos shows, you can use the power of the mind to heal yourself from a host of ills without all the untoward side effects associated with prescriptive medication.

The placebo effect is at work outside the doctor's office as well. As in say, when you begin taking echinacea for your cold, or zinc, or vitamin C, and instantly feel your symptoms evaporate. Despite the fact that numerous studies have found echinacea ineffective against the common cold. And though vitamin C may reduce the duration and severity of sickness, it does not actually prevent a person from getting sick. The studies involving zinc are also inconclusive, and though some patients do report a reduction in flu-like symptoms, almost all are in agreement as to the bad taste and nausea that this mineral is sure to induce in doses high enough to reduce said symptoms. To prevent a cold, don't catch cold. So leave the supplements at home and bundle up.

Most fads out there have not been shown to deliver on their promises. Which doesn't seem to diminish our purchase of them. A recent addition to the list of "next new things" is beef bone broth. Taken from (you guessed it) the marrow bones of cows, boiled in some mixture of water, garlic, salt and vinegar, bone broth has been called a "magical elixir" by no less than Shape  Magazine, which promises that regular ingestion of the gel-like substance (gel-like because it is basically gelatin) will make you look and feel younger and help you sleep better - despite the fact that no ingredient in said broth has actually been shown to produce these benefits.

Yet package pushers out to make a quick buck tout the benefits broth has for such diverse ailments as poor digestion, arthritis, even cellulite. Broth "protects joints, it's good for the gut, maintains healthy skin, supports immune system function, boosts detoxification, and aids the metabolism and promotes anabolism," promises one such proponent, Dr. Josh Axe, who it should be known is not a real doctor. Rather he is a chiropractor and nutritional doctor, whatever that is. Dubious credentials aside, Dr. Axe is not exactly giving an impartial testimonial as he sells bone broth on his website. He suggests taking it with coffee. And like other so-called health experts, Axe seems to make a living off the placebo effect. He also endorses echinacea. (I single out the not-so-good doctor because his advertisements are all over Facebook - which explains the stiff price of his items.)

The only time bone broth has been formally studied, scientists found its lead content to be markedly high. Heavy metal contamination is rampant in our environment. It finds its way into our waterways and our fields. Animals including fish and ruminants store these pollutants, which are byproducts of our industrial age, in their fat and bones, which are released when we make of them food. (A sign we probably shouldn't make animals food.) Now, lead is one of the most potent toxins on earth. Symptoms of poisoning include irritabilty, anorexia, weight loss, fatigue, belly pain, vomiting and constipation. Too much lead ingested can lead to death. The bone broth tested had 10 times the lead level of the water in which it was cooked. So if the only scientifically-proven finding associated with this new health craze is a decidedly unhealthy one, why even give it a try? Chalk it up to curiosity, if you're like me.

See, my brother had purchased some bone broth for my mother who had been suffering nausea and weight loss during her cancer experience. The hope was that the broth would supply her with some calories, protein and minerals she wasn't getting elsewhere. But poor mom couldn't keep anything down and that included fancy supplements. Not one to let anything go to waste, I began adding a spoon to the family pooch's Kibble. Max liked it. Over the course of a couple months, he finished an entire 16-oz bottle. The other bottle I reserved for moi. Since I had kept it in the refrigerator to preserve its flavor and protect it from rancidity, it had coagulated into gelatinous goo, so I heated a serving on the stove. I tend to overdo things, so a serving for me was about 4 ounces, or a quarter of the container. I drank it down and waited. And waited. Nothing. No added energy, No sense of euphoria. No preternatural glow. Maybe I'm impatient. So I have resolved to empty the jar's contents "down the hatch," as they say and will do so in the days that remain before Thanksgiving. But other than some extra belching, I already am convinced I won't enjoy any of the purported benefits. Burping is beneficial, right? Could this be because I am set against the stuff, reluctant to jump on the bandwagon and pledge my allegiance to an elixir whose curative properties are dubious - there's that word again - at best? Or am I suspicious because I have common sense? I suspect the latter. Because 24 hours after taking my first sip of skeleton stew, all I am left with is dog breath. Understandable, because dogs are the only ones to gnaw on hind parts.

And when we subject the stuff to scientific scrutiny, we find it does not match up to all this hype. One 8-oz serving of grass-fed bone broth has about 70 calories, some of it from protein. But the 6.5 grams of protein it does provide can be obtained from one large egg. Not that much. In contrast to an egg, which has barely any sodium, bone broth contains 10 percent of the daily recommended intake. It's courtesy of all the added salt, and can't be good for blood pressure. Salt is pretty much the only nutrient (if you can call sodium a nutrient) that bone broth contains in appreciable quantity. The next highest being iron. Eight ounces of broth delivers 4% of the needed intake of this oxygen-carrying component of blood. A paltry amount when you consider the $12 purchase price per pint. To save money and meet your metal minimum, you should just prepare food with iron cookware.

I suspect whatever benefit users are deriving from bone broth comes courtesy of the placebo, which is to say it arises in the mind. As Harvard advises, "quacks and charlatans can exploit the placebo effect to peddle treatments that are useless, and even harmful, if for no other reason than they keep people from getting treatment that is directly effective." But if used consciously and with discretion, the placebo effect is an integral part of good medical care, an "ally that should be embraced by doctors and patients alike."

The mind is a terrible thing to waste, or to give away to some such quack. The brain can triumph over reality. So use the power of positive thinking to your benefit. "Mind over matter" is a phrase we all know, and the practice is free. Believe things will work out and they will. Have faith. Think good thoughts. Believe that clean water and fresh air and whole foods are all you need to recover from the flu instead of C and zinc and beef limbs and it will be true for you. It will also be easier on your wallet. And there is no bad aftertaste.


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