Does Prayer Really Heal?
According to all known research, and what we know about health and wellness, one must follow these basic guidelines to achieve the best health: exercise regularly, eat nutritious foods (non genetically modified and minimally processed when possible), lose those extra inches, especially around the waist (as this may indicate insulin resistance or other underlying genetic factors) and finally— pray?
Yes we did a spell check and yes we said PRAY (and no, it’s not an acronym). This is not just my opinion or the opinion of some doctors, this is actually backed by numerous scientific studies that have shown those who pray live longer, healthier and have a better quality of life.
According to a study conducted by the University of Rochester, over 85 percent of people confronting major illness pray for swift recovery. While a Time/CNN poll found that approximately 80 percent believe that praying for others can cure illness. That percentage is much higher than those pursuing nontraditional healing options or taking herbs and supplements for their ailment. The evidence points that prayer works and is effective in the healing role. The response to this growing body of evidence has moved more than 50 Medical Schools across the United States to include prayer in their curriculum.
Over the past four decades numerous double-blinded studies have been conducted to find out the relationship between prayer and health.
Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardiovascular specialist at Harvard Medical School and a pioneer in the field of mind/ body medicine discovered what he calls “the relaxation response,” which occurs during periods of prayer and meditation. At such times, the body’s metabolism decreases, the heart rate slows, blood pressure goes down, and the breathing becomes calmer and more regular.
Another study on those who pray and meditate, conducted by Dr. Andrew Newberg, director of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania, showed comparable decreased activity in the parts of the brain that are associated with sense of self and spatial orientation. He also found that prayer and meditation increase levels of dopamine, which is associated with states of well being and joy.
So what does all this mean. It basically means that those who pray have shown true physiological effects which are demonstrated in the form of slower brain waves, and feelings of control, tranquil alertness and peace of mind all that resulting in slower heart rate, lower blood press and regular breathing. This is significant because Benson estimates that over half of all doctor visits in the U.S. today are prompted by illnesses, like depression, high blood pressure, ulcers and migraine headaches, that are caused at least in part by elevated levels of stress and anxiety.
Dr. Koenig — director of Duke’s Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health and the author of several authoritative books on faith and healing points to the studies published in the Southern Medical Journal which demonstrated that prayer has a remarkable effect on patients with hearing and visual deficiencies. He goes on to say that “Studies have shown prayer can prevent people from getting sick — and when they do get sick, prayer can help them get better faster.” Furthermore, an exhaustive analysis of more than 1,500 reputable medical studies “indicates people who are more religious and pray more have better mental and physical health,” Dr. Koenig says. He went on to add “The benefits of devout religious practice, particularly involvement in a faith community and religious commitment, are that people cope better. In general, they cope with stress better, they experience greater well-being because they have more hope, they’re more optimistic, they experience less depression, less anxiety, and they commit suicide less often.”
In a National Institutes of Health funded study, it was found that individuals who prayed daily, particularly among church goers, were shown to be 40 percent less likely to have high blood pressure than those without a regular prayer practice. Research at Dartmouth Medical School found that patients with strong religious beliefs who underwent elective heart surgery were three times more likely to recover than those who were less religious.
So with all this evidence scientists can now explain the effect of prayer for one’s self and can further explain the physiological mechanisms of how prayer can impact our health. Herbert Benson’s most recent research suggests that long term daily spiritual practices, help to deactivate genes that trigger inflammation and prompt cell death. He goes on to explain the mind can effect the expression of our genes which is an exciting evidence for how prayer may influence the functioning of the body at the most fundamental level.
Which brings us to this question: what about praying for others? Amazingly over half the research done to date suggests that it indeed it helps, While the remainder of the studies conclude there there is no major effect or difference.
Finally, what science can tell us is that people who pray tend to be statistically more healthy and live longer than those who do not. What faith has shown to those who pray, that science sometimes gets it right. But to be clear, it would be morally wrong to state that prayer along is sufficient in ALL cases, rather patients under medical treatment, medical observations, analysis, or surgery can greatly benefit from prayer.