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Angels we have heard on health

Chuck, with Christmas on the horizon, I was thinking about the role of religion in health. How do you view their relationship and faith healing? – A. Salazar, Farmington, N.M.

First, congratulations to Oak Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn., which was honored again by the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi’s Regional Health Council for advocating healthy lifestyles. The church was highlighted in an August edition of The New York Times as a part of the National Baptist Convention’s goal of posting a health ambassador in each congregation by September 2012.

It’s great to see a newly founded openness and resurgence of the marriage of spiritual and health resources.

In modern times, a score of studies have been conducted regarding the relationship of faith, prayer and healing, most validating the positive role and influence of religion in health and fitness. In 2008, Dr. Harold Koenig – co-director of Duke University’s Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health – told U.S. News & World Report, “In the past eight years, there has probably been more research and discussion on the topic of religion and spirituality and health than was conducted from 1800 through the year 2000.”

For example, one website for health care professionals documents 25 such studies – 19 pro-faith and 6 anti-faith – conducted by prestigious universities, think tanks and eminent professors and scientists.

Some of those suggesting a link between faith and healing included a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine that looked at how faith and spirituality helped with coping during times of illness and injury, a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology that looked at how faith helped protect patients against symptoms of depression and a study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology that demonstrated that patients with cancer could experience a better quality of life when medical needs were joined with spiritual resources. A study at Duke found that those who prayed regularly and attended religious services often had lower blood pressure than those who didn’t. Another Duke study showed that cardiac patients receiving intercessory prayer in addition to coronary stenting recovered better than those who received stenting alone. A study from The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine showed how people who believed in intercessory prayer saw different results than those with less belief in it. Florida State University produced a study that showed that praying for someone else could better your relationship with that person. A George Mason University study published in Psychological Science demonstrated how meditation could enhance mental abilities.

Similarly, U.S. News & World Report noted that Dr. Ken Pargament of Bowling Green State University compared and contrasted the benefits of spiritual meditation versus secular meditation on those who suffer from headaches, particularly migraines. He and his colleagues asked a group of people to meditate 20 minutes daily by simply repeating a spiritual mantra, such as “God is good. God is peace. God is love.” The “secular group” was instructed to use a nonspiritual mantra: “Grass is green. Sand is soft.” After a month, the spiritual group reported a greater decline in the number and intensity of headaches, as well as a greater increase in pain tolerance.

Dr. Jeff Levin, a health and psychiatry expert at Duke, wrote a landmark work, “God, Faith and Health: Exploring the Spirituality-Healing Connection.”

In it, he wrote: “A study of Mexican Americans shows that frequent church attendees report higher levels of well-being and experience less disability, fewer days in bed and fewer physical symptoms than less frequent attenders. … Johns Hopkins University researchers learned that monthly religious attendance more than halved the risk of death due to heart disease, emphysema, cirrhosis of the liver, suicide and some cancers. … A study finds that coronary care unit patients who were prayed for by strangers fared better than patients who did not receive prayer.”

I can’t answer why faith and prayer heal some and not others, but we do know they heal many, so we should not shy away from them. Indeed, we should practice faith as we practice medicine.

We also must keep in mind that faith and prayer don’t replace the medical community; they complement it. They work in conjunction with one another. God heals through modern medicine and prayer, and we should seek both when we need it. To avoid either is to ignore one of the greatest resources that God has given us to empower and heal us.

I agree with Pargament: “There seems to be something special that spiritual resources offer in times of trouble.”

In Part 2 next week, I’m going to not only address the dangers of omitting medical or faith care but also let my 90-year-old mother tell you a story about when God used both to save her life.

For a more holistic medical approach, my wife, Gena, and I recommend Sierra Integrative Medical Center, in Reno, Nev. The people there are pioneers in integrative medicine. They blend the best of conventional medicine with the best alternative therapies.