For months Dorothy May of Darien, Ill., ignored the ache in her abdomen. After a year, however, the pain still hadn't left, so she finally went to see a doctor. "Nothing is wrong," she was told.
By then she'd lost considerable weight and knew better, so she sought a second opinion. That's when she learned she had stage 4 colon cancer.
“My cells had just ran out of control like mad lab rats,” she said. “My body was dying in pieces.”
May, a psychologist then in her 70s, was told that even with treatment, she’d be lucky to live for three or four months. Hearing this, her family and friends rallied around her, initiating what she called “healing circles,” which involved prayer, meditation and holding hands.
“I just felt as if I were in a flow of divine energy,” she said.
May's tumor shrunk, surgery went smoothly and radiation and chemotherapy yielded few side effects. Strong at 82, May credits spirituality as well as science for her recovery.
“I think that without the (spiritual practices) I wouldn’t have made it at all. Well, maybe. But certainly not spiritually intact, emotionally intact.”
May’s story is representative of millions of others. The vast majority of medical and psychiatric patients have spiritual needs, according to a recent research review published in ISRN Psychiatry, a peer-reviewed, open-access journal. However, her story is also exceptional in that, according to the article, most patients' spiritual needs go unmet.
The rift between faith and medicine is mostly a 20th century phenomenon, a product of the ascendance of technology and Sigmund Freud's focus on the extreme aspects of religion, according to the "Handbook of Religion and Health" published by Oxford University. The past decade, however, has seen signs of reunion, due in part to a surge in scientific research.
Between 2000 and 2010, at least 2,100 studies examined the relationship between religion or spirituality — referred to as RS — and health. That compares to just 1,200 studies over the preceding century-plus. A majority of these new studies show a significant positive relationship between RS and health.
An ounce of prevention
Gertrude Baines, who lived to 115 and was the world’s oldest person prior to her death in 2009, credited God when asked why she’d lived so long. “Ask him,” she told CNN in 2006. “I took good care of myself, the way he wanted me to."
While there's widespread agreement that RS practices help patients to cope with chronic or terminal illness, their greatest health benefits may lie in their preventive power. And the evidence is more than anecdotal.
“There’s now close to 2,000 quantitative, original studies that show that religious involvement is related to better health,” said Dr. Harold Koenig, Director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University Medical Center.
This research is summarized in the "Handbook of Religion and Health." Significant positive relationships exist in the majority of studies that examine RS and mental health characteristics such as well-being and happiness, hope, optimism, meaning and purpose, self-esteem, sense of control, social support and positive character traits.
Koenig believes these mental health benefits may derive from the coping resources and life-enhancing community that religion can provide. They also have physiological consequences, he said, and thus impact physical health, risk of disease and response to treatment.
In addition to these positive relationships, significant inverse relationships are found in a majority of studies examining RS and depression, suicide, substance abuse, delinquency and crime, marital instability, risky sexual activities, exercise, healthy diet, coronary heart disease, hypertension, cancer and mortality.
Viewed in such a light, Americans’ declining involvement in religious practices could bode ill for the country’s collective health, Koenig said.
“People with no religious affiliation, not engaged with any religious practices, have worse health — both cross-sectionally and prospectively. They don’t live as long.”
Your brain on religion
Dr. Andrew Newberg is a neuroscientist and Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. A pioneer of neurotheology, he published one of the first studies on meditation and the brain. By his estimates, there are now about 50 such studies.
“What we’ve come to learn in the last 20 years is the rich interconnectedness of the mind and body,” he said.
Newberg has studied brain scans of Pentecostals speaking in tongues, Franciscan nuns praying, and Sikhs, Sufis, Buddhists and others engaged in spiritual practices.
One of the findings of his research, stated in his 2009 book “How God Changes Your Brain,” is that spiritual practices “enhance the neural functioning of the brain in ways that improve physical and emotional health.”
In addition, “contemplative practices strengthen a specific neurological circuit that generates peacefulness, social awareness, and compassion for others.”
Newberg said that these practices engage the brain in ways that other attentional tasks — such as focusing on a math problem — do not.
“They’re similar in that they both activate the frontal lobes, but the meditation will change the thalamus as well. It seems to get more parts of the brain involved in the process.”
Another factor in the level of brain activity, Newberg said, is the degree to which the person believes in the practice.
“In our studies, when we asked atheists to contemplate God, they really didn’t activate their brain very much. It was almost as if they’d hit a cognitive dissonance. As opposed to the nuns, for example, who really activated their brain in all different kinds of ways when they focused on God.”
Toward a holistic model
Ten years ago, Rozanne Weissman nearly died when her ruptured appendix was misdiagnosed as ovarian cancer. She lay in a hospital bed for four days before the mistake was discovered. Peritonitis, or inflammation of the abdominal wall, ensued.
During her six-week stay at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C., she asked friends to bring spiritual and healing tapes for her to listen to. She also asked surgeons to draw a diagram of her organs so she could visualize them healing.
“The doctors laughed and said, ‘Surely, you don’t think tapes and visualization will work,’” Weissman said. “They definitely did not encourage it. It was only their stuff that was going to work.”
Family and friends of various faiths visited, prayed for her, lit candles and performed acts of kindness with her in mind. Eventually she made a full recovery.
Weissman said that it took all of those people and all of those acts to bring it about. “It’s not just the doctor. It’s the patient, their friends, their family, who all lend to healing or not healing. It cannot hurt to enlist spirituality, religion.”
Newberg said there’s growing interest in a more holistic approach and that more physicians are recognizing its importance. “Where the lag is, is they don’t always have the knowledge to implement it,” he said.
There are indications of progress, though. According to Koenig, in the 1990s only a handful of medical schools addressed spirituality in their curriculum. Today, 90 percent do.
That's not to say there isn't room for improvement, as just 7 percent have a dedicated, required course on religion, spirituality and medicine, and only one-third offer even an elective.
Koenig said one place that’s getting it right is Loma Linda University, the Seventh-day Adventist health sciences institution in Southern California.
“They’re actually doing what we think ought to be done.”
Elaborating on what that entails, he said that health care professionals should take a spiritual history on all patients with serious or chronic medical illness or psychiatric problems. Only 10 percent of doctors currently do this. They should also learn what role that person’s religious beliefs play in helping them to cope — or possibly create — stress in their life.
Once they’ve identified a patient’s spiritual needs, they should connect the patient to someone who can address those needs, usually a chaplain. Considerable evidence shows that taking these steps improves patients’ satisfaction and quality of life while reducing the cost of health care.
“People with unmet spiritual needs are more likely, especially toward the end of life, to demand high-cost, life-preserving therapy in medically futile situations,” he explained.
May is optimistic that the medical establishment is starting to see the light.
“Some doctors pooh-pooh (the relationship between spirituality and health), but many are now getting on board with this because they know — they see it.
“My doctors were wonderful and the medical model is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. It needs to take into account the psychological and spiritual aspect of a person, the holistic aspect.”
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