If you want to achieve maximum health, here are a few things that you should do: exercise regularly, eat nutritious and minimally processed foods, drop those extra pounds -- and meditate. That's right, regular prayer and meditation has been shown in numerous scientific studies to be an important factor in living longer and staying healthy.
Prayer is the most widespread alternative therapy in America today. Over 85 percent of people confronting a major illness pray, according to a University of Rochester study. That is far higher than take herbs or pursue other nontraditional healing modalities. And increasingly the evidence is that prayer works.
It doesn't matter if you pray for yourself or for others, pray to heal an illness or for peace in the world, or simply sit in silence and quiet the mind -- the effects appear to be the same. A wide variety of spiritual practices have been shown to help alleviate the stress levels, which are one of the major risk factors for disease. They also are powerful ways to maintain a positive outlook and successfully weather the trials which come to all of us in life.
The relationship between spiritual practices and health has been the subject of scores of double-blind studies over the past four decades. Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardiovascular specialist at Harvard Medical School and a pioneer in the field of mind/ body medicine discovered what he calls "the relaxation response," which occurs during periods of prayer and meditation. At such times, the body's metabolism decreases, the heart rate slows, blood pressure goes down, and our breath becomes calmer and more regular.
This physiological state is correlated with slower brain waves, and feelings of control, tranquil alertness and peace of mind. This is significant because Benson estimates that over half of all doctor visits in the U.S. today are prompted by illnesses, like depression, high blood pressure, ulcers and migraine headaches, that are caused at least in part by elevated levels of stress and anxiety.
Dr. Andrew Newberg, director of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania conducted a study of Tibetan Buddhists in meditation and Franciscan nuns in prayer which showed comparable decreased activity in the parts of the brain that are associated with sense of self and spatial orientation in both groups. He also found that prayer and meditation increase levels of dopamine, which is associated with states of well being and joy.
The effects of spiritual practice appear to be more than just the result of enhanced focus and concentration. Ken Pargement of Bowling Green State University instructed one group of people who suffer migraines to meditate 20 minutes each day repeating a spiritual affirmation, such as "God is good. God is peace. God is love." The other group used a nonspiritual mantra: "Grass is green. Sand is soft." The spiritual meditators had fewer headaches and more tolerance of pain than those who had focused on the neutral phrases.
But are the calming effects of spiritual practice temporary, or do they last even after we get up from the meditation cushion or leave a prayer service to reenter our less than serene lives?
In one National Institutes of Health funded study, individuals who prayed daily were shown to be 40 percent less likely to have high blood pressure than those without a regular prayer practice. Research at Dartmouth Medical School found that patients with strong religious beliefs who underwent elective heart surgery were three times more likely to recover than those who were less religious. A 2011 study of inner city youth with asthma by researchers at the University of Cincinnati indicates that those who practiced prayer and meditation experienced fewer and less severe symptoms than those who had not. Other studies show that prayer boosts the immune system and helps to lessen the severity and frequency of a wide range of illnesses.
A recent survey reported in the Journal of Gerontology of 4,000 senior citizens in Durham, NC, found that people who prayed or meditated coped better with illness and lived longer than those who did not.
But the question remains: By what physiological mechanisms does prayer impact our health? Herbert Benson's most recent research suggests that long term daily spiritual practices help to deactivate genes that trigger inflammation and prompt cell death. That the mind can effect the expression of our genes is exciting evidence for how prayer may influence the functioning of the body at the most fundamental level.
But what about praying for others? On the question of whether intercessionary prayer works, the jury is till out. Slightly over half the research done to date suggests that it helps, wile the rest concludes that there is no measurable effect. Critics of these studies say that there is a big difference between praying more or less mechanically and at a distance for a stranger because a researcher has told you to do so and the heartfelt prayers for friends and relatives which arise spontaneously from within.
Prayer, unlike say the behavior of a rat in a maze, cannot be directly observed, and the subtle effects on self and others are difficult to quantify and assess. Moreover, it would be wrong to view prayer and meditation as merely techniques to heal illness and promote physical health.
Spiritual practice aims to connect the individual with God or a Higher Power, to open one to the Divinity dwelling within the self, and to make one fully present to life in the here and now. These are not goals that lend themselves to being measured in double blind experiments. The sense of deep peace and radiant well being that spiritual practitioners in different religious traditions report are also not testable by scientific means.
What science can tell us is that people who pray and meditate trend to be statistically more healthy and live longer than those who do not. Whether these boons are merely unintended side effects of still deeper spiritual benefits remains a matter of faith.