A Spoonful of Sugar Is The Medicine

by DavalosMcCormack on September 1, 2009

I used to work with a doctor who did a stint in the local county hospital, San Francisco General. It’s an amazing place filled with extraordinary doctors, nurses and other staff. And they need to be, they see some of the toughest cases, the worst injuries and the most difficult of patients – some of whom have drug problems, some alcohol problems, some mental health problems, and some all three combined.

My friend told me that one of the most effective medications they had for treating some of the hardest cases, where no other drugs had worked, was a thing called Obecalp. He says it was almost something of a miracle drug, helping people battling multiple issues.

Unfortunately after a while the ethics committee at the hospital told them they couldn’t prescribe Obecalp anymore because it was unethical. You see, Obecalp is just placebo spelled backwards, so what they were really giving these patients was a sugar pill of sorts.

Now, the fact that it worked where others didn’t was in itself amazing. The fact that there was nothing in the pill but the power of the patient’s imagination and belief that it would work is even more incredible.

I often think of that when I read studies that say vitamin C doesn’t work for preventing colds, or that taking a multivitamin won’t reduce your risk of cancer or heart disease or even death from any cause.

Despite the scientific evidence to the contrary millions of Americans take vitamins every day, in fact a growing number of people are turning to supplements for their health, often because they have lost their job or don’t have health care coverage and they consider a daily multivitamin supplement a lot more affordable form of health insurance than supplementary insurance.

Many people swear that since they started taking vitamins they feel healthier, look better, have more energy. Science may say “nuh uh” but that doesn’t seem to make any difference. And while these may just be a series of individuals talking about their own health, what science calls anecdotal evidence, taken collectively it’s hard to dismiss what they have experienced.

Science has to ask the big questions such as ‘does this work’ or ‘is it safe’ or ‘how does it work and for who’. But perhaps the more important question, at least from the individual’s perspective, is ‘does it matter’. Maybe as long as something is safe then the individual’s experience is more relevant in helping them decide whether to take a supplement or not.

Whether it works because of some internal biochemical mechanism we haven’t yet figured out, or whether it works because of the placebo effect, doesn’t really matter. Just as long as it works.

It all reminds me of the line from a song in the musical Mary Poppins “Just a spoonful of sugarĀ  helps the medicine go down”. In this case the spoonful of sugar is the medicine. Good health never tasted so sweet!

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