Stress and Sex

Helping women decrease stress and enhance desire.

Using the Placebo Effect to Enhance Sexual Desire

The Placebo Effect is powerful. Let's harness it to enhance sexual desire.

When evaluating if a medication is effective, the gold standard research design is to compare the effectiveness of the medication with a placebo. A placebo is an inert-pill that those taking it believe is effective. In other words, in research testing a new medication, some participants receive the actual pill (i.e., the one with the critical ingredients), and others receive an ineffective, identical-looking pill. Because participants don’t know which medication they have received, people receiving the medication and those receiving the placebo are equally likely to expect improvements. Thus, any actual differences between the two groups are thought to be due to the medication itself—rather than the “placebo effect.”

Many studies evaluating medications and other medical treatments find a large placebo effect. As summarized in a Wall Street Journal article, studies across a variety of ailments, including depression, migraines and Parkinson's disease, have found that supposedly inert treatments, like sugar pills and sham acupuncture, yield striking improvements. As just one example, about thirty to forty percent of individuals with depression respond to a placebo. As another example, a 2001 study found that a placebo was almost as effective at improving Parkinson's disease symptoms as the actual medication. Stunningly, the placebo actually induced the brain to produce greater amounts of dopamanine, the neurotransmitter known to be useful in treating Parkinson’s disease.

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Also fascinating, individuals don’t only improve in response to placebos—they also exhibit the side effects they are told they might experience, something that has been called the nocebo effect. An excellent article in the New York Times summarizing research on the nocebo effect pointed out that individuals receiving placebo’s even drop out of studies due to the side effects. One study found that eleven percent of people in a fibromyalgia drug trial taking the placebo dropped out due to side effects. Quoting the New York Times article, “In one remarkable case, a participant in an antidepressant drug trial was given placebo tablets—and then swallowed 26 of them in a suicide attempt. Even though the tablets were harmless, the participant’s blood pressure dropped perilously low.”

So, how could an inert substance result in physiological changes—such as increased dopamine in the case of the Parkinson drug study or the drop in blood pressure in the case of the antidepressant drug trial? The short-answer seems to be the mind-body connection. Research shows us that a placebo is simply not “nothing.” It is a powerful antidote to many physical and psychological problems.

What about the placebo effect and women’s sexual functioning? Across a number of studies comparing placebos to both prescription medications and natural supplements aimed at increasing women’s sexual functioning, most have most have failed to find a clinically meaningful improvement in sexual functioning beyond the effects of placebo. Indeed, responses to placebo have been moderate to large in many of these clinical trials; in some cases, the proportion of women showing improvement in sexual symptoms with placebo treatment has exceeded 40% or more. In short, for enhancing women’s sexual functioning, inert pills seem to work as well as actual medications.

What about if placebo pills are compared to something besides medicine, such as self-help? My colleagues and I recently conducted a study comparing the effectiveness of a pill that participants believed would enhance sexual desire with a book previously found in a study to actually enhance desire. What we found—and presented at a scientific conference and are currently writing up for publication—is that the placebo pills and the self-help book performed similarly immediately after reading the book or taking the pills. However, six weeks later, the book was still having a positive effect, whereas the effect of the placebo diminished upon taking the pill.

The pharmaceutical industry is, as explained in another NY Times article, in a race to develop a profitable drug for female sexual desire problems. As so aptly noted by the New View Campaign on their website, “The pharmaceutical industry wants people to think that sexual problems are simple medical matters, and it offers drugs as expensive magic fixes. But sexual problems are complicated, sexuality is diverse, and no drug is without side effects.”

Why take a drug, replete with side effects, when a placebo works as well? Instead, ask your doctor for an inert pill and believe it will increase your desire—because the research shows it will. Indeed, even people who know they are taking a placebo reap the benefits. Maybe it is the mind-body connection. Maybe it is just the act of doing something to focus on and solve a problem.

If asking your doctor for an inert pill doesn’t appeal, as I am guessing it won’t for most readers, there are a host of other options to enhance sexual desire, again without side effects.

All of these strategies have been noted in clinical writings or research as having positive effects on women's sexual desire, pleasure, satisfaction, or orgasmic capacity. Couple doing one of these things with believing in it, and the placebo effect tells us you are well on your way to change.

Do something. Do anything. Believe in it.

Laurie Mintz, Ph.D., is the author of A Tired Woman's Guide to Passionate Sex: Reclaim Your Desire and Reignite Your Relationship.

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