Prozac nothing more than a costly placebo

Change of seasons, end of summer, dimming of the light, and seasonal stress may all affect your mood. So it’s quite understandable if you begin to feel a little low around this time of year. In severe cases, it’s known as seasonal affective disorder or SAD.

Of course, these days anyone who has a slight mood change is now a candidate for aggressive drug therapy. But before you resort to using one of these dangerous drugs, you need to see the results of a fascinating new study out of UCLA on the power of the placebo. I’ll give you the details in a moment, but first let’s back up and look at big picture…

In the late 1980s, big pharma really thought they had a “cure” for depression with Prozac (Fluoxetine). Approved by the FDA in 1988, Prozac became the first blockbuster selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI).

Then, in 1993, a book called Listening to Prozac came out. The author presented Prozac as some kind of chemical savior that would banish bad mood and introduce a new worldwide era of peace and love.

But there’s one important fact missing from that book and from most mainstream thinking about depression to this day…

Depression isn’t just a chemical imbalance to be treated with the latest “mind-altering” chemical drugs. It’s not that cut and dried. In fact, instead of the ridiculous idea of “listening” to this drug, we would be better off listening to the patient. And to the experiences that have led him or her to this emotional state.

The famously depressed Prince Hamlet didn’t become depressed because he didn’t get enough Prozac, but because “the time is out of joint.” His famous soliloquy, “To be, or not to be… that is the question…” is Shakespeare’s dissertation on the spiritual and moral dimensions of life experience that affect mood. One that doctors would be well served to listen to…instead of the laughable notion of “listening to Prozac.”

Of course, in the years since Prozac hit the market, we’ve learned a lot about these drugs.

For one, antidepressants only seem to help one out of seven people overall. Plus, they cause dangerous side effects in up to 50 percent of people overall. These side effects include increased risk of suicide and possibly homicide in some.

Recently, I reported on some other disturbing findings about one extremely popular antidepressant in particular. A study showed it increases the risk of breast cancer–the number one health worry of women today.

Of course, middle-aged women are at greater risk of depression. In fact, about twice as many women as men are treated with antidepressant drugs, which only increase their risk of breast cancer further.

(Subscribers to my Insiders’ Cures newsletter can refer back to the September 2014 issue for more information about this new-found link between breast cancer and a popular antidepressant. If you’re not yet a subscriber, now is the perfect time to get started. Subscribers can always look up archived issues by logging onto my website.

We also now know antidepressants don’t work any better than a placebo in treating depression.

In fact, more than 10 years ago, a major Harvard study showed no differences between an herb, a drug and “placebo” in treating depressed patients. For ethical reasons, they couldn’t leave patients suffering. So the “placebo” control given to everyone in this study was 15 hours of intensive interaction with a highly trained mental health professional. In other words, they got good, old-fashioned “talk therapy.” (Long before that–in the 19th century–it was known as “moral therapy.”) Of course, neither the drug nor the herb could add anything to the benefits of that “placebo.”

In the latest study, researchers from UCLA observed 88 clinically depressed men and women between the ages of 18 and 65.

All patients received supportive care in which a therapist provided emotional support and encouragement.

In the first group, 20 patients received only this supportive care. The second group of 29 patients received placebo plus supportive care. And the third group of 39 patients received an antidepressant drug plus supportive care. It was a double-blind study, however. So among those receiving a pill, there was no way to know whether it was drug or placebo.

At the study’s outset, the researchers asked all the patients how effective they thought the medication and treatment would be. They also measured patients’ impressions of the strength of their relationship with supportive healthcare providers.

The researchers found it mattered little whether a patient took a drug or placebo. What did matter was whether the patient believed the treatment would work before it began. In fact, their expectation at the study’s outset about how well their treatment was going to work almost entirely predicted their response to it. (Regardless of whether it was a drug or placebo.)

Now, let’s remember those earlier studies where antidepressants were shown to benefit just one out seven people. Maybe when antidepressants do work…it’s merely because the patients strongly believe they will work.

According to Andrew Leuchter, the study’s lead author and a professor of psychiatry at the UCLA, “In short, if you think a pill is going to work, it probably will.” Here again, it shows the power of the mind-body connection.

It’s also ironic since mainstream medicine tries to say the proven benefits of natural therapies are only due to the placebo effect. It turns out that some of the biggest, “go to” drugs of the past three decades are nothing more than placebos. Later this month, I will present some very surprising, new findings from Germany about what these antidepressants really do to the connections inside your brain.


  1. “Role of pill-taking, expectation and therapeutic alliance in the placebo response in clinical trials for major depression,” British Journal of Psychiatry, September 11, 2014
  1. “Effect of Hypericum perforatum (St John’s wort) in major depressive disorder: a randomized controlled trial.” JAMA2002; 287(14): 1807-14.
  1. “Deconstructing the placebo response: Why does it work in treating depression?” UCLA Newsroom ( 9/11/2014