Study finds sugar pill can relieve Irritable bowel Syndrome

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Clinical studies, generally, address safety and effectiveness of a therapy like drugs.  In case of clinical trials for drugs, most of the time comparison is made against a placebo (sugar pill) to evaluate the effectiveness of drug as suppose to the psychological factors.  Clinical studies are single or double blind; in single blind patients do not know, whether they are receiving drug or placebo and in double blind, both physician and patient are unaware of the nature of pill.  A new study was published in medical journal PLoS One, which involved a small study on patients with irritable bowel syndrome.  The surprising outcome of the study was that the patients were told that they were given placebo and still they reported some relief from bowel syndrome. 

What did the study involve?
The study was funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and Harvard.  The study consisted of:

  • 80 patients with irritable bowel syndrome
  • 40 were given placebo and informed about it
  • Second group was not given anything 

What were patients told about the placebo drug?
Harvard Medical School associate professor of medicine Ted Kaptchuk told that:

  • Not only did we make it absolutely clear that these pills had no active ingredient and were made from inert substances, but we actually had ‘placebo’ printed on the bottle.
  • We told the patients that they didn’t have to even believe in the placebo effect. Just take the pills.  

What were results of the study?
Surprisingly enough, the study...



revealed that:

  • Group taking placebo reported adequate symptom relief from bowel syndrome at double the rate of the group told to do nothing (59% vs. 35%).
  • The results were noted to be as good as the leading irritable bowel syndrome drugs on the market.

Senior author and Harvard Medical School associate professor of medicine at Anthony Lembo did not believe that this would work and said that “I felt awkward asking patients to literally take a placebo. But to my surprise, it seemed to work for many of them.” 

Does that mean I can cure bowel syndrome via placebo?
It is bit early to stretch effectiveness of placebo to a complete cure for bowel syndrome.  The researchers cautioned that

  • The study was small.
  • It’s not clear what it would mean for other conditions and more research is needed. 

The jury is still out there on whether the placebos will be effective in treatment of bowel syndrome or other diseases.  None-the-less, if it proves out that placebo is indeed effective; it would be a cheep option for treating diseases with no side effects.  Wouldn’t that be great? 

Source: LA Times

16 Responses

  1. Timothy Tolstoy says:

    Reading this article leads me to believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with the minds of the doctors performing this study. Obviously, if the people know they are being given a sugar pill, it is, by definition NOT a placebo. The study does not show that placebos work even if people know about them being placebos. On the contrary, it obviously shows that a small dose of pure sugar may relieve irritable bowel syndrome.

    • Alfredo says:

      It does work, I take glucose and it helps better than any pain killer in the market. I recently discovered I am fructose intolerant, previously having been diagnosed with IBS and told it was my imagination that was causing the pain….

  2. Gunner says:

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  3. Alfredo says:

    The main problem is that irritable bowel syndrome is the mislabeling for many causes. One of which could be Fructose Intolerance, just like lactose intolerance, but with fructose. This disease IS cured by dextrose, if the “sugar” pill was glucose of some kind, that allows for the better digestion of fructose, which actually does cure the pains felt by Irritable Bowel Syndrome patients. This is good science, but attributed to the wrong reasons.

    I would like to know the people in the study to tell them about fructose intolerance and how dextrose has removed the pain I had been suffering for years without knowing.

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