Spirituality Can Soothe Body and Soul
To stay healthy, you probably know that you need to eat right, get plenty of exercise and rest, and avoid bad habits such as smoking. But, it might surprise you to learn that what you believe in can have a big impact on your health and longevity.
"There have been a lot of studies, and more are coming out all of the time, that show how patients with strong spirituality can improve their health from a variety of chronic conditions, like hypertension, heart disease, recovery from surgery and more," said Dr. Michael Torosian, a surgical oncologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, and co-author of the book, Spirit to Heal.
That doesn't necessarily mean you have to believe in God or regularly attend a church, synagogue or mosque to reap health benefits.
"Spirituality is where people find meaning in their life. It's something higher than themselves, though not necessarily attached to religion," said Patricia Megregian, a board-certified chaplain and executive director of the Integrative Medicine Initiative at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago.
"Spirituality is what brings you peace and safety. It could be God or Goddess, or nature. Some people feel it with a beautiful sunset. Some people get it from meditation. For some, it's from their community. It's a feeling that you're connected to something greater, something larger than myself. For some that comes from their family," she said.
Wherever your spirituality or a positive outlook on life comes from, research indicates there are real health benefits:
People with high levels of religious beliefs or spirituality have lower cortisol responses. Cortisol is a hormone the body releases in response to stress.
Positive thinking produces nearly a 30 percent drop in perception of pain.
Spirituality and the practice of religion have recently been associated with a slower progression of Alzheimer's disease.
Those who regularly attend organized religious activities may live longer than those who don't. Regular participation lowers mortality rate by about 12 percent a year.
People undergoing cardiac rehabilitation feel more confident and perceive greater improvements in their physical abilities if they have a strong faith.
Increased levels of spirituality and religious faith may help substance abusers kick their habit.
What's not known is exactly how spirituality or a positive outlook can cause these changes. According to Torosian, there are two popular theories. The first is known as the relaxation response. When the body is relaxed, your heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate all go down, which decreases the body's stress response. The other theory is that spirituality can affect immune-system function.
"Spirituality, faith, church attendance improves immune function in ways that can be measured, like an increase in white blood cells," he said.
"When it comes to health, when the body feels safe and is at ease, the nervous system is able to quiet and be more normal. Then the immune system is able to function better," said Megregian. "When the body is safe and feels safe, all of its other functions can help combat disease."
Not everyone is ready to endorse the notion of spirituality as medicine. U.S. researchers involved with the Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP), the largest review to examine the effects of prayer provided by others for a patient, evaluated the impact of such prayer on patients recovering from coronary artery bypass graft surgery. The results, released March 30, found that such "third-party" prayer had no impact on patient outcomes.
Megregian said it's important to not "wait till you're in the foxhole" to find your spirituality. She suggested doing whatever you can to increase your awareness of your spirituality by using what helps you, such as meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, walking in nature, or attending religious services.
Torosian agreed. "This is a free resource we all tend to take for granted until something major, like a heart attack, happens. But it should also be used to promote wellness."
He added, "As a surgeon, I see cancer patients all the time trying to deal with a devastating diagnosis. Those with a strong faith seem to do much better and handle it better. Spirituality is something that can help all the way from promoting wellness to helping with recovery."