The other side of the placebo coin is that people can be made ill by something they believe will make them ill. Some patients are more suggestible than others in this respect, but a fair proportion of food-sensitive people will react with symptoms if they think they have eaten one of their culprit foods. This reaction in no way invalidates their food sensitivity – it is real, even if the symptoms of the moment are mentally generated or psychogenic.

Such reactions are not really surprising, if you remember Pavlov’s famous experiment with the dog and the dinner bell. The dog was ‘conditioned’ by a bell being sounded every time it was fed. Even before it was given the food, the dog began to produce saliva in response to the appetizing smell. After a time, the dog would salivate whenever it heard the bell, whether food was present or not.

An experiment with guinea pigs has shown that immune reactions can be conditioned in exactly the same way. The guinea pigs were sensitized to an antigen by having it injected into them, and they were simultaneously exposed to a strong odour. Later, the odour alone was enough to make them release large amounts of histamine. If guinea pigs can do this, then why not humans?

Certainly anyone who has ever had a severe, immediate reaction to a food is likely to react in the same way if they are told that they have consumed some of the same food. And people whose intolerance of a food has long since cleared up may continue to react to that food for purely psychological reasons.


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