In the cult classic film The Matrix, our protagonist Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, is offered a choice between a red pill and a blue pill. The blue pill will allow him to continue to live his tranquil life in blissful ignorance. The red pill will turn his life on its head and reveal to him that the world is nothing like he imagined.

Considering that during this scene Neo is plugged into a computer-generated world that does not really exist, and therefore that the pills do not exist, does the color of the pills really matter? In fact, the color of the pills might be the only thing that matters in this scenario, with the blue pill representing tranquil ignorance, and the red a fiery war to come.

Considering the proven power of the placebo effect, and the power of our minds to hurt reduce pain or magnify symptoms, it is little surprise that it is not only the active ingredients within medications that influence how we feel. Everything about the medication including brand name, marketing and packaging influences how we feel after we take that medication. The color of the pills in which the medication is delivered may have the greatest impact of all.

History of Coloring Pills

While medicine delivered in the form of pills have been around since Ancient Egyptian times, they only begun to be colored in the 1960s and 1970s. Before then, they were all pretty much a natural “whiteish” color. Colors were added to make the pills more attractive for marketing purpose, to obscure pill capsules and protect the internal medication from the effects of sunlight, and to help both manufacturers and patients distinguish between different medications. The importance of this function should not be underestimated, as five percent of all patients in United States hospitals are there for taking the wrong medication.

While the pioneering pharmaceutical companies that first added color to their pills may not have understood the full impact of color of the psychology of users, it has since been researched in depth. Now pharmaceutical companies invest significant resources in researching the best colors for their various medications.

The perceived positive impact of pill color by manufacturers is apparent in the effort expended in patenting and protecting colors, and the efforts that generic pharmaceutical companies go to in order to mimic the colors of the big-name brands. While companies will sometimes change the colors of their medications after launch, this is pretty rare, and can have a notable negative impact on patients. Studies have shown that changes in pill appearance, in particular color, make it significantly more likely that users will stop taking their medication and refilling their prescriptions.

Impact of Color on the Brain

But why is pill color so important? Is it just the result of what we psychologically associate with different colors? This is clearly part of the story as research has shown that we associate drug colors with different effects, but that these can vary across cultures. For example, in the United States it has been shown that blue pills have a calming, sedative effect. However, in Italy, blue pills tend to stimulate. Researchers have speculated that this is because the color of the Italian national soccer team is blue, and therefore associated with the adrenalin of the match.

However, it is clear that the impact of color of the brain is not just cultural, but also physiological. The eyes serve at least two different functions in the human body. First, light sensitive cells in the retina send electrochemical signals to or visual cortex, where visual images of the world around us are formed. But other cells in the eyes, known as retinal ganglion cells, respond to light be sending different signals to a different part of the brain, knows as the hypothalamus, which plays no role in forming visual images.

What this part of the brain does do is control the secretion of several hormones that control various aspects of body function, including temperature, tiredness, hunger and circadian rhythms. While the full working of this system is not yet understood, it is clear that color and light can affect our mood, alertness and impulse control, among other things.

Experiments involving flooding a person with light of a certain color has shown the significant impact that it can have. An experiment in the United Kingdom shoes that individuals exposed to red light saw their heart rate increase, while blue light could lower the heart rate. When blue lights were installed in underground stations in Tokyo, the suicide rate by jumping in front of trains also significantly reduced.

Pill Color Significance

While exactly how the colors of pills affect our brains, and therefore our physiology, is a mystery that is still being solved, that it has an effect is not in dispute. In terms of Western markets:

Blue – is associated with sedatives and generally has a tranquilizing effect. For this reason, it is a bit strange that Viagra comes as a blue pill. However, it may explain why within five years Viagra was overtaken by Levitra, which comes as a little orange pill.

Orange and Red – are associated with stimulants. This is why pill for cold and flu medications which are advertised as non-drowsy will often come in a capsule that is half red, indicating the non-drowsy effect of the medication. Interestingly, if you buy a pack with day and night capsules, you will see that the night capsules come in soothing blue and green.

Green – is seen as a soothing color, which is why Oxycodone, which is used for treating chronic pain, comes in the form of a little green pill.

Yellow – especially bright cheery yellows are known to have antidepressant properties and so it is no surprise that Valium comes in the form of a little yellow pill.

So next time you are prescribed some medication, don’t knock it back with a glass of water with barely a look. Take a time to notice their distinctive color, you may find your medication working faster and better than ever.

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