Some people pray for health when faced with a grave illness. Others start going to religious services. Faith can give some people strength to help cope with illness, but can it boost your chances of getting well or even prevent sickness?
Research suggests there is a link between religion and better mental health and well-being. Some spiritual practices may reduce stress. This may also ease symptoms and help offset the harmful effects of stress on the immune, endocrine, and cardiovascular systems. Some studies have shown that people of faith recover faster from depression, grief, and anxiety disorders.
On the other hand, there is no proof that worship can slow the course of cancer or cure other diseases. Studies on the impact of prayer on healing are mixed. And relying solely on faith can make an illness worse if it makes someone refuse standard medical care.
When religion and health mix
Ever notice that most hospitals have chapels and clergy? In a survey of 1,144 U.S. doctors published in a leading medical journal, 85 percent said that religion and spirituality have a positive effect on health. In addition:
- 76 percent said faith can help people cope with illness.
- 74 percent said it helps ill people think in a positive way.
- 55 percent thought religious groups provided good emotional and practical support to the sick.
- 54 percent believe that at times, a supernatural being intervenes in health care.
That said, only 6 percent of the doctors polled think that being religious or spiritual can change a medical outcome.
Some data do suggest, though, that people of faith may live longer. And another study found that those with religious ties were 3 times more likely to survive open-heart surgery. But much more research is needed to see if this relationship is valid.
The extra benefits of worship
The most consistent health data on the benefits of religion surrounds attendance of services. Frequency of attendance has been linked in many studies to longer life and better mental and physical health.
These studies suggest that the faithful tend to have higher levels of hope and optimism.
Religion may help promote this outlook. People who attend religious services may find that sharing spiritual experiences with others benefits their health. Many houses of worship also offer wellness programs that support a healthy lifestyle and getting proper care. Knowing that people care and will help them in their time of need can increase a person's feelings of well-being, too.
Have faith... in your own way
Having religious beliefs may help you feel more in control if you're sick. Praying may reduce anxiety and instill hope. Belief in a higher power can give people a sense of purpose. It can strengthen the will to live and comfort the dying. Faith may also help you cope better with being disabled or chronically ill.
At the same time, there is no proof that a lack of spirituality will increase your health risks or keep you from coping with hardship. If you aren't a spiritual person, there are many other ways besides religion to reduce stress, improve your mental outlook, and promote wellness.
Created on 07/22/2008
Updated on 05/25/2011
- Duke University Center for Spirituality. Latest religion and health research at Duke.
- American Cancer Society. Spirituality and prayer.
- Curlin FA, Sellergren SA, Lantos JD, Chin MH. Physicians' observations and interpretations of the influence of religion and spirituality on health. Archives of Internal Medicine. 2007;167(7):649-654.
- Duke University Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health. Religion and health: Effects, mechanisms, and interpretation.