Can Your Religion Influence Your Treatment?

by Ryan Winter on January 13, 2010

religion_healthcare_faith_spiritual_soliantMore than anything else, people who pray, pray for good health. But are religion and spirituality relevant to treatment? If so, do they have a positive or negative effect?

A recent study published in the November 2009 issue of the journal Social Problems suggested that religion can be both a bridge and a barrier when it comes to medical treatment. (source)

According to the study, for every case where religion was a barrier (i.e. religious belief prevented consent for a proven treatment), there was another instance where it was a bridge – for example, a case where the family of a terminally-ill child could suggest answers where medicine couldn’t.

Another study, this one by Zogby International, suggested that born-again Christians were 14% less likely to get the H1N1 vaccination than people who did not identify themselves as such. (source)

Can religion make you healthy?

So does being religious help or hinder your health?

Intuition says that a little faith couldn’t hurt your health, though some medical professionals smile politely at suggestions that religious belief might be able to influence our well-being.

religion_healthcare_faith_soliant_praying_woman

But now, a growing collection of scientific evidence suggests that religious faith may bring us health: More than 6,000 studies surrounding medicine and religious belief have been published in the last ten years. And many of those claim – with peer-reviewed evidence – that religion breeds good health.

A 1988 study out of San Francisco General Hospital found that heart patients who were prayed for did better than those who were not. However, a larger Harvard University study in 2005 challenged that finding, reporting that complications arose in 52% of heart-bypass patients who received prayer and 51% of those who didn’t.

What’s going on in there?

Though it’s a scientific fool’s errand – behaviorists say – to try and nail down faith or quantify prayer, as it pertains to its effect on medical treatment, there are a few suggestions science can make as to how good vibes sent out into the universe can help our health in ways medicine can start to explain:

Frontal lobe and concentration – This is the part of your brain that likely takes the lead in prayer, as it governs concentration and focus. Some studies have noted that this part of your brain goes for a lunch-break when subjects claimed to have “spoken-in-tongues” – which makes sense when such people claim they aren’t in control of their own speech. Also, for what it’s worth, power-meditators (especially those who have been meditating regularly for more than 15 years) have highly-developed frontal lobes.

Parietal lobe and the biology of faith – If you’ve ever meditated or prayed “so hard” that the outside world, even your own body, felt like it disappeared, your parietal lobe was likely affected. This clump of tissue that processes sensory input actually powers-down during especially “deep” prayer.

Thalamus – Another region of your brain responsible allowing for “spiritual” thoughts and feelings: People who identify themselves as very spiritual tend to have a particular irregularity in their thalamus (some medical professionals theorize that people who claim to be highly religious already have this irregularity in common.)

Can faith heal your body?

Skeptics argue that the reflection that comes from prayer or church attendance helps mellow the body and mind, guarding both against stresses known to leave you vulnerable to disease. They could say that people praying for themselves or being prayed for feel better because they know they are being prayed for (a simple placebo, perhaps.)

But could there be other explanations (quantifiable or not) as to how religious belief sometimes goes hand-in-hand with healthier-than-average people?

Science hasn’t proven, for example, that it helps to know that you or other people are praying for your good health…but several studies have shown that this almost always leaves a patient in better health. When it’s all said-and-done, it certainly can’t hurt.

What do you think about the connection (or lack) between medicine and religious belief? Leave a comment below…

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Amber Storment 01.21.10 at 3:23 pm

i tolally agree. i think it would be great to see more prayer offered. like you say “what would it hurt”.

nerdse 01.21.10 at 6:24 pm

I have offered to pray for patients if they seemed to need something I hadn’t yet provided, but always with a respectful, “Would you be offended if I prayed for you? If you would rather I didn’t, that’s OK; I just wanted to offer, not offend.” Some decline, and I ask what would help them. Sometimes, it’s just some time holding their hands and being there without trying to leave or feeling a need to speak. Even patients who later told me they were adamant atheists understood that the offer came in a spirit of attempting to help, but I also think that telling them it was OK if they didn’t want it offered them the freedom to be honest, plus opened the door to more dialog and finding a way to meet patients’ needs.
I am a born again Christian – via doing heavy research into most of the world’s religions; being agnostic, atheist, even the occult & witchcraft – in NONE of those modes did I want to hear one thing about Christianity. Pushing it was a total turn off. I am enthusiastic about my faith, but pushing it on others pushes them away from listening. And if you don’t listen, you can miss something important – plus, if you don’t know something about other religions, you’ll always wonder if you have the right one. While I recommend study & learning instead of trying to practice things one after the other (often without guidance), I do know that most people need some reassurance that they believe because they believe, and not because they’re afraid of going to the smoking section for eternity or because someone told them to. Some feel the confirmation in their spirit and that’s enough for them. It’s very individualized. I guess that’s why I approach it the way I do.
I still believe I’ve chosen the right path, but I have to respect others’ deeply held beliefs – or lack of same. If you really care about people eventually hearing about Jesus, you have to let them come in their own time.

Ryan Winter 01.25.10 at 10:50 am

Amber and nerdse, thank you for your insight.

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