The most powerful form of energy one can generate is not mechanical, electronic or even atomic energy, but prayer energy.
–Alexis Carrel, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1912
This week, 2.3 billion Christians[i] will observe Holy Week and celebrate Easter, and 14 million people of the Jewish faith[ii] will observe Passover. Hanuman Jayanti will be observed by many of approximately 1.15 billion followers of Hinduism,[iii] and some of an estimated 500 million Buddhists[iv] will observe Theravada New Year. Later this month, Ramadan will begin for more than two billion Muslims.[v] In honor of this special time of year, I thought it fitting to look into the question,
“What is the connection between prayer, religiosity, spirituality, and health?”
Or is there any?
According to studies from some prominent institutions, “Yes, there is a strong connection.”
The Relaxation Response
Dr. Herbert Benson, MD, of Harvard Medical School and the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital has long studied the “the relaxation response”—a physical state of deep rest that changes a person’s physical and emotional response to stress. Several ways in which the relaxation response can be achieved is through prayer, chanting, and repetitive motion. Dr. Benson’s team looked at how this state affected each of the body’s 40,000 genes, finding that it induced anti-oxidation and anti-inflammatory changes that counteracted the effects of stress on the body, compared to a control group.[vi] The practices that helped people get into the relaxation response were shown to lower heart rates, blood pressure and oxygen consumption. They also alleviated symptoms associated with hypertension, arthritis, insomnia, depression, infertility, cancer, anxiety, and aging.[vii]
The relaxation response was also easy to attain. According to Dr. Benson, our bodies can reach this state when we sit in a relaxed position with our eyes closed for 10-to-20 minutes, once or twice a day, and repeat a word or sound as we breathe. This can be done by praying, or using words such as “love” or “peace.” And if your thoughts wander—just refocus and repeat the word that you’ve chosen. Don’t feel guilty for having stray thoughts—Dr. Benson said that it’s normal and expected.[viii]
Religion vs Spirituality
The relaxation response can be reached by both those who attend regular religious services and those who practice a more individual form of spirituality, such as meditation or yoga. The National Wellness Institute defines spiritual wellness as “the search for meaning and purpose in human existence.”[ix] Because of its individuality and breadth, however, spirituality can be hard to measure for some purposes of study. Spirituality can also be free of the rules, regulations, and responsibilities that are associated with traditional religion. For that reason, Dr. Harold G. Koenig, MD, Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and Medicine at Duke University Medical Center and GRECC VA Medical Center, focused on health and “religion” in presenting his findings from numerous studies.[x] He defined religion in the following way:
“Religion involves beliefs, practices, and rituals related to the “transcendent,” where the transcendent is that which relates to the mystical, supernatural, or God in Western religious traditions, or to Divinities, ultimate truth/reality, or enlightenment in Eastern traditions. Religion may also involve beliefs about spirits, angels, or demons. Religions usually have specific beliefs about life after death, and rules about conduct that guide behaviors within a social group. Religion is often organized and practiced within a community, but it can also be practiced alone and in private, outside of an institution. Central to its definition, however, is that religion is rooted in an established tradition that arises out of a group of people with common beliefs and practices concerning the transcendent. Religion is a unique construct, whose definition is generally agreed upon. It can be measured and examined in relationship to mental and physical outcomes.
Religion is important to most of us
Dr. Koenig’s presentation points were based on the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, a view that he described as God being separate from humans and creation, and as personal. His self-acknowledged lack of expertise in Eastern religious traditions led him to focus on a Western religious model. He found that in the United States:[xi]
- 93% of Americans believe in God or a higher power
- 89% report affiliation with a religious organization
- 83% say that religion is fairly or very important
- 62% are members of a church, synagogue or mosque
- 58% pray every day (75% at least weekly)
- 42% attend religious services weekly or almost weekly
- 55% attend religious services at least monthly
What was the connection to physical health? Dr. Koenig found[xii] that those who engaged in religion had:
- Less depression and faster recovery from depression
- Greater well-being, happiness, meaning, purpose, and hope
- Fewer heart attacks, and fewer deaths from Coronary Artery Disease (CAD)
- Better recovery following cardiac surgery, and fewer complications
- Lower cardiovascular reactivity to laboratory-induced stress
- Lower blood pressure
- Fewer strokes
- Fewer metabolic problems
- Better immune functioning
- Lower levels of stress hormones
- Less cancer, longer survival with cancer
- Less susceptibility to infection
- Greater longevity
- An increased quality of life
- Slower cognitive decline with aging, Alzheimer’s disease
- Less functional disability with increasing age
Researchers at Emory University’s Emory Rollins School of Public Health also found a connection between regularly attending religious services, improved health, and lower mortality.[xiii] Conducting an empirical study on data collected between 2004 and 2014 through the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study (HRS), the Emory researchers determined that people who attended religious services once a week or more often had a substantial amount of protection against mortality from all causes. People who attended religious services less frequently still had a greater protection against mortality than those who didn’t attend at all. In fact, they found that the protective effect of frequent attendance at services was very similar to the protective effects of higher income levels and wealth on health, economic factors that were well measured in the HRS. Religious affiliation had no effect on the findings.
Engaging in a generally healthier lifestyle could play a part in the studies’ outcomes, especially considering the beliefs of many religions toward drug and alcohol use, smoking, and other behavior with negative health consequences. Dr. Koenig found:[xiv]
- People who regularly attended church service, prayed individually, and read the Bible were 40% less likely to have diastolic hypertension than those who seldom participated in those religious activities.
- People who attended religious services regularly may have stronger immune systems than their less-religious counterparts. Those who never or rarely attended church or synagogue tended to have the highest levels of Interleukin-6, a protein produced by various cells that helps regulate the body’s immune response. The high levels may indicate a weakened or overactive immune system.
- According to one study, people who attended church at least weekly had about 1/3 the rate of alcohol abuse and were about 1/3 as likely to smoke than those who seldom participated in congregational worship.
- Religious youth showed significantly lower levels of drug and alcohol abuse, premature sexual involvement, and criminal delinquency than their non-religious peers. There were also less likely to express suicidal thoughts or make actual attempts on their lives.
- People who attended church regularly were hospitalized less often and left the hospital sooner than people who never or rarely participated in religious services. Further, the deeper a person’s religious faith, the less likely he or she was to be crippled by depression during and after hospitalization for physical illness.
- Elderly people with a deep, personal religious faith had a stronger sense of well being and life satisfaction than their less-religious peers.
- Religious people lived longer and physically healthier lives than their non-religious counterparts.
Becoming closer to God/learning scripture/connecting religion to life
So, what keeps bringing worshippers back on a regular basis? According to Pew Research Center[xv] and Gallup,[xvi] there are several factors. In an August 2018 study, Pew Research Center found that six-out-of-ten people who attend church do so to become closer to God—eight-out of-ten regular attenders said they “always” or “often” experience a sense of God’s presence when they attend worship services. Nearly three-quarters said they “always” or “often” feel a sense of community with people who share their religion when they attend religious services, and six-in-ten said that they felt a sense of connection to a longstanding tradition.
Gallup’s 2017 study found that sermons were the most important factor in determining how frequently people attended for three-out-of-four worshippers. Specifically, they cited sermons or talks that taught more about scripture, and ones that helped people connect religion to their own lives. Other elements, such as spiritual programs for teens and children, community outreach and volunteer opportunity, and having dynamic religious leaders also mattered to a majority of people attending religious services, according to Gallup.
The greater purpose
Whether religious or spiritual, people have long sought to connect and find meaning with something greater than ourselves, and to find purpose for our existence. The journey can sometimes be trying, but it makes us feel a part of history and tradition, it rewards us with inspiration and comfort—and at times, it fills us with awe.
These are certainly the most trying of times. They are exactly the times when our faith is tested—-and needed—-the most.
Whatever religious holiday you are observing or celebrating this month, may it be filled with blessings, good health, safety, connection, and peace.
Until next time,
[ix] Where You Live Matters; Spirituality and Aging; 8 July 2019; https://www.whereyoulivematters.org/spirituality-and-aging/
[x] Religion, Spirituality and Health in Older Adults, Duke Medicine, http://www.uphs.upenn.edu/pastoral/events/ResSymKoenig09rev.pdf
[xi] Religion, Spirituality and Health in Older Adults, Duke Medicine, http://www.uphs.upenn.edu/pastoral/events/ResSymKoenig09rev.pdf;
[xiii] Emory News Center; Study shows link between regular attendance at religious services and health and longevity; 8 January 2018; https://news.emory.edu/stories/2018/01/religious_services_health_longevity/index.html
[xiv] Do Faith and Prayer Strengthen Your Immune System?; Harold Koenig, MD; innerself; https://innerself.com/content/living/health/healing-disciplines/5059-healing-power-of-faith.html
[xv] Why Americans Go (and Don’t Go) to Religious Services; Pew Research Center; 2018 August 1; https://www.pewforum.org/2018/08/01/why-americans-go-to-religious-services/
[xvi] Sermon Content Is What Appeals Most to Churchgoers; Lydia Saad; 2017 April 14; https://news.gallup.com/poll/208529/sermon-content-appeals-churchgoers.aspx