Spirits of good health

Can the mind really exert a significant influence on your health, and how does spirituality or religiosity play a role? Does faith in and of its self confer health benefits, and if so, does it matter if you go to church? It is becoming clear that a high level of spirituality, as well as simply having a good attitude, can have profound effects on your health.

While spirituality has many different meanings, it generally refers to an individual’s sense of the meaning of life and their role in the bigger cosmos. It can mean tuning in to one’s inner self through shared beliefs and religious practices, such as church or synagogue, but it also can also mean private prayer, yoga, meditation, communing with nature or just taking a long walk. Religion is fairly defined as the conduit through which people practice their shared spirituality.

Historically, and perhaps still yet, the role of religion and spirituality was challenged with the emergence of the science and reason that came out of the European “age of enlightenment”. Figures such as American author and minister Ralph Waldo Emerson attempted to create a space for spirituality between the rigid boundaries of scientific materialism and religious orthodoxy. They tried to find a marriage, if you will, of the science and spirit.

The mind-body aspects of health have been thoroughly analyzed and we continue to revisit this age-old paradigm, finding strong evidence that mental attitude and behavior has a profound effect on not just your health, but even that of your offspring. There are numerous studies that should give us cause to seriously examine our personal beliefs and attitudes as they influence our health as much as any modern treatment.

A recent study set out to determine if spirituality and religion had different impacts on health. Anthony Cannon, MD, a psychiatrist resident at Northwestern University in Chicago, released results from his study examining the quality of life of cancer survivors depending upon their level of spirituality and religiosity. They found that people with high spirituality had a better quality of life, regardless of whether they considered themselves of low or high religiosity.

Numerous studies show that people with high spiritual participation live healthier and they live longer. One can only speculate what causal pathway is responsible for this benefit, whether it be their faith, the psychological or physical results of faith itself, or related demographics, socioeconomic status, health behaviors or social connections.

Praying on someone else’s behalf, if they are unaware of the praying, doesn’t create the benefits of praying for oneself. If patients are aware of others praying on their behalf then there seems to be some benefit. Again, it’s not clear whether faith, good intention or a holy spirit is at work here, but it works to improve quality of life, reducing markers of disease such as pain, and even biochemical markers that measure blood pressure, inflammation or stress hormones.

Of note, most patients with health issues do pray for relief from their physical and mental suffering, but the intention of their prayers is not only for healing. Rather, prayer can be a means for allowing patients to positively improve the experience of their illness.

Along the same lines, it is clear that mental attitude and behaviors independent of spirituality or religion also impart significant health benefits. Illness can be triggered or treated by mental events. Consider the “broken heart syndrome” in which a traumatic event can lead to heart failure.

The “Heart and Soul Study” published in the Archives of General Psychiatry examined over 1000 people with generalized anxiety disorder, and found they had a 74% increased risk for cardiovascular events, defined as “stroke, heart failure, heart attack, transient ischemic attack, and death.” Two studies from the June 29, 2010 issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology reach the same conclusion – that anxiety increases the risk factor for heart disease – with one study showing double the risk.

Other research uncovers a link between depression and heart disease. The SADHART study from September 2009 issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry found that people who became depressed, for the first time, after a cardiac event were twice as likely to die in the following 7 years. A somewhat surprising finding of the study was that patients who developed depression only after their heart attack were just as likely to die as patients with a history of depression.

A 2012 study published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, examined the benefit of meditation for the secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease. The group that meditated twice daily for 20 minutes was found after 5 years to have 48% reduction in cardiovascular events. A 2013 study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology showed that practicing yoga twice a week for just one hour reduced the number of episodes of an abnormal heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation by 45%.

It appears that mental attitude can even impact our genes. The relaxation response is the opposite of stress, and is achieved by activity such as meditation, yoga or prayer. A 2013 study released in PloS One examined the impact of the relaxation response on gene expression and found that regular relaxation activity increased expression of genes associated with energy metabolism, mitochondrial function, insulin secretion, and the maintenance of longevity genes called telomeres. It also reduced the expression of genes associated with inflammation and stress pathways.

The common theme here is that one does have the ability to use the mind to impact not only their health today, in the future, and even the health of future generations by turning on or off parts of the inherited genetic code. Personal faith, or the regular practice of relaxing activities ranging from prayer, to meditation or yoga, even walking in nature, is one of your best medicines.

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