Suppressing Immune Systems With Sweets

This is not a story about the evils of sweets— in this story sweets is an innocent pawn…
Robert Ader is a psychologist who stumbled upon an amazing discovery in the 1970s while studying taste aversion along with Nicholas Cohen. They wanted to see if by making rats nauseous every time they were fed something sweet they would develop an aversion to sweets.

From The Lancet:1

The researchers had been giving rats a saccharin solution accompanied by an injection of cyclophosphamide, an immunosuppressive drug that induces gastrointestinal upset. When the injections stopped, they found as expected that the rats had become conditioned to avoid consuming the sweet solution. To complete the experimental protocol, they forced the rats to take the saccharin solution using eye droppers. This is where the surprise arrived.
Ader and Cohen found that some of the animals they had force-fed with the saccharin later died. The magnitude of the avoidance response and the mortality rate of the rats was directly related to the volume of solution consumed. What could be going on? “A hypothesis that seemed reasonable to me was that, in addition to conditioning the avoidance response, we were conditioning the immunosuppressive effects (of cyclophosphamide)”, Ader said in a 2010 interview. In other words, the taste of saccharin alone was enough to stimulate neural signals that suppressed the rats’ immune systems, just as if they had been overdosed with the immunosuppressant. Ader and Cohen went on to confirm this hypothesis in a controlled experiment, showing that the behavioural conditioning process could suppress immune responses as measured by antibody concentrations—thereby revealing connections between the brain and the immune system.

So a rat’s immune system can be entrained to evoke an immune response from a substance that is otherwise incapable of producing said response. One would not say that saccharin has been imbued with drug-like properties, but from the rat’s standpoint it has. Is this entrainment limited to ingested substances? Is it limited to unfavorable immune responses? Is it limited to the immune system? Is this limited to rats?
John E. Sarno, MD, doesn’t think so. His book Healing Back Pain is devoted to the possibility that we entrain pain responses within ourselves, and he has successfully treated thousands of chronic pain patients with this underlying principle. He posits that the very act of a doctor telling a patient that a certain posture may produce pain can (in certain cases) entrain the body to expect– and thereby produce– a pain response in that posture.
If pain can be produced by expecting pain, might relief be produced by expecting relief? That might shed some light on the placebo effect.
We are only just beginning to learn the extent to which our bodies are influenced and influenceable.
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  1. The Lancet, Volume 379, Issue 9813, Page 308, January 2012 []