Healing Line

Healing Line

Health and Spirituality

Fall 1997

The following article is reprinted from the Mayo Clinic Health Letter, Nov. 1996, with permission of the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, Rochester, Minnesota 55905. For subscription information to the Mayo Clinic Health Letter, call 1–800–333–9038.

Although this article does not focus on Christian prayer for healing as the only true way to be healed, as we at CHM, of course, believe, the presence of this article in such a prestigious publication is a testimony to the fact that the medical community is beginning to recognize that there is indeed something to prayer. In addition, it is important to note that the scientific and medical fields are more open to encouraging and participating in prayer.

CHM continues to participate in the scientific study documenting the effects of Christian prayer on arthritic patients. The results of this study are due to be announced in the spring of 1998.

Prayer. Worship. Belief in a divine being.

For many people, these are important parts of life. Polls consistently show that more than 90 percent of people in the United States believe in a god or higher power. About half of Americans regularly attend religious services or pray.

Incorporating prayer, faith and worship into your life may give you a sense of community, tradition and spiritual satisfaction. But some studies suggest there may be other benefits. Could spiritual beliefs and practices enhance your health and well–being as well?

More and more, the medical profession is considering that possibility. As a result, spirituality's role in today's high–tech medical world increasingly is being explored.

Medicine's Spiritual Roots

In the 20th century, modern medicine has largely kept health and spirituality separate. But for centuries, the two were linked.

In some early societies, religious leaders were also healers. In the Middle Ages, priests administered medicinal herbs and prayer to the sick, while monasteries recorded medical knowledge. Many modern religions are based on holy men or women whose followers believed they had the ability to heal.

However, during the 20th century, especially in Europe and North America, health and spirituality grew apart as scientific methods and discoveries revolutionized medicine. Medicine focused on the body's physical mechanisms. Physicians who developed long–standing relationships with patients often dealt with spiritual issues as part of the case, but in a world of MRI scans, advanced surgical procedures and electron microscopes, spirituality often became a topic left to theologians and religious leaders.

Patients Spur Interest

Yet spirituality's importance in medicine has remained unchanged for at least one group — patients.

According to polls, about the same proportion of Americans today believe in a god as did 50 years ago. In the meantime, books devoted to spirituality and medicine regularly appear on bestseller lists.

This patient interest has prompted medicine to begin a serious discussion of spirituality, according to doctors at Mayo Clinic and elsewhere. Since the late 1980's several doctors have written books advocating spirituality's health benefits.Top medical journals also have published articles advocating exploration of the topic.

In addition, studies have been conducted which have suggested:

  1. Prayer may have improved recoveries of patients who had heart–bypass surgery at a San Francisco hospital.
  2. Regular church attendance may have helped reduce hypertension in elderly men.
  3. Religious faith helped ease emotional anguish of those facing cancer diagnosis.

Debate Continues

Still, spirituality's role in medicine remains controversial. One reason is that other studies haven't shown any significant health benefits. There also has been criticism of the design and methods used in studies that did show benefits.

For example, critics have charged that in the study of heart–bypass patients in a San Francisco hospital, there were no safeguards to prove that prayer groups really prayed for patients. Other studies have drawn similar criticism.

In additon, there has been much debate about the mechanism — the actual way — in which spirituality might affect your body.

Some believe that religious lifestyle practices, such as not drinking or smoking, provide certain health benefits. Others theorize that physical changes may occur in your body from the sense of well–being and community that spirituality can provide.

For example, meditation and relaxation may slow your heart and breathing rate . In addition, your body may produce chemicals, called endorphins, that contribute to a sense of well–being — much like the "runner's high" experienced by long–distance runners.

Changes Taking Place

Although the debate is far from over, you may see changes in medicine because of this discussion. While it is not likely your doctor will write "prayer" on the prescription pad, he or she may be comfortable discussing how you might benefit from spirituality. Chaplains may be more likely to be on your medical team during hospital stays, and clinics specializing in cancer and other chronic diseases also may include emotional and spiritual health in patient cure.

In addition, a growing number of medical schools are beginning to include courses on spirituality's role in health.

Not a Cure–All

Medicine remains firmly anchored in science, technology and the objective, fact–based methods that have conquered many diseases. Spirituality is not a replacement for these methods or the medical advances they have spawned. Nor is it a cure–all or guarantee you won't become ill.

Still, a growing number of physicians are considering the idea that spiritual practices and beliefs might strengthen traditional medicine when accompanied by realistic expectations.

Fall 1997 Issue