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Keeping The Faith: Can Faith Affect Health Outcomes?

April 3, 2020
Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen

The mind-body relationship is certainly not new to us. We know that physical exercise releases feel-good hormones (“endorphins”) that combat depression and that eating a healthy diet and getting enough sleep help improve both mood and productivity. We know that when our minds are in a good place, our physical ailments sometimes bother us less or dissipate entirely. Further, when we have a big vision or dream, our minds can keep our body going even when they really want to quit. We also know that sometimes physical pain and symptoms are psychosomatic, which means that they are caused by an unhealthy mind. But what of faith?

 

Can faith and religious activity impact the outcome of a disease?

 

Religious people, for whom faith is sacrosanct, believe in a higher power, and their faith guides their actions and thoughts. It follows that if religious people get sick, they immediately turn to their faith to get them through. Prayer is one way in which they express their faith. It’s comforting to be able to turn to a higher power and seek guidance, clarity, and healing. It’s comforting to know that you are not suffering in vain, but that everything happens for a reason because the higher power runs the world. For these people, it’s pretty much a no brainer that faith can improve outcomes in cases of sickness because they also believe that this higher power has the ability to heal them. Of course, they can’t know for sure.

Even people who are not religious often turn to faith in times of crisis. As the well-known saying goes, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” The question is that regardless of who you pray to, can faith–in and of itself–change the course and eventual outcome of your disease? 

 

This question has fascinated rationalists, skeptics, and scientists. As far back as 1897, Émile Durkheim’s Suicide examined the effect of religion on health outcomes. In 2001, Dr Harold G. Koenig, co-authored The Handbook of Religion and Health. At the “Religious Practice and Health: What the Research Says” conference, Dr. Koenig said that the book was based on up to 3,000 studies, most of which reported positive findings. 

 

Koenig quoted studies according to which religious people suffering from HIV/AIDS and religious people after cardiac surgery show better outcomes.

The only instance where being religious can adversely affect outcomes is when the sick person believes that the higher power is punishing them. This is known as negative religious coping. David H. Rosmarin, a Harvard Medical School clinician from the Department of Psychiatry at McLean Hospital, examined the suicidality for religious psychotic patients versus for non-religious psychotic patients. He found that patients who used prayer and acceptance of “God’s plan,” (positive religious coping) performed significantly better in short-term psychiatric treatment than those who did not use it. Secondly, he found that patients using negative religious coping were more likely to commit suicide before treatment.

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As recently as 2005, four scientists conducted a clinical study entitled Does religious activity improve health outcomes? The way the study worked was that they searched MEDLINE (The American National Library of Medicine database) for English language studies between January 1999 and June 2003 describing the effect of religion on health outcomes. It is important to note that this study only focused on religious activity–not spiritual activities like meditation, yoga, or even acupuncture. They discovered that “intercessory prayer may improve success rates of in vitro fertilization, decrease the length of hospital stay and duration of fever in septic patients. Frequent attendance at religious services likely improves health behaviors. Moreover, prayer may decrease adverse outcomes in patients with cardiac disease.” They concluded that it was possible that religious activity could improve health outcomes.

 

Faith gives people something unique to lean on in difficult times; it anchors them at the same time as letting their spirit soar. Whether it’s the rituals that give sick people something to hold onto or their community rallying around the sick person or saying psalms, going to services, or performing acts of loving kindness in their name, faith is extremely powerful and nourishing. Science itself has proven a positive correlation between religious activity and improved health outcomes.

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