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ind Over Matter

Religious Practice: A Spiritual Foundation of Health

© Barry Bittman MD

The following is one in an ongoing series of columns entitled Mind Over Matter by Barry Bittman MD. View all columns in series
According to the late Norman Cousins, "Beliefs are biology."

These profound words resound in so many aspects of our lives as all of us exist within a continuum of mind-body-spirit health. It often surprises me how we’ve separated the integral components that enable us to be who we are and protect us in times of need.

Over the years as our understanding of the complexities of the human body evolved, the medical profession became the protectorate of our health in this society. Based upon an evolving science growing through its infancy, modern-day medicine has drifted distantly from its spiritual origins.

Yet perhaps it's time to rethink our approach. Actually most of us do at some point especially when health challenges arise. For illness knows no boundaries - it touches every family. And when it does, spirituality often takes precedence in our personal healing process.

For many, however, this doesn't occur until a serious diagnosis becomes a wake-up call to a new beginning - an opportunity to put back into our lives what is missing. Facing our mortality jolts us into rethinking who we are. It also challenges us to rediscover core beliefs that establish our meaning and purpose. The opportunity to rethink our spirituality and reaffirm our belief in God becomes a powerful healing elixir.

Yet why do we need that wake-up call?

Is not the gift of a healthy life a process, a journey, a day to day endeavor that creates our health one moment at a time? Why do we become complacent and ignore the most important beliefs that guide us to health and well-being?

Each person must answer these questions from a personal perspective as spirituality assumes many forms and individual expressions. From a scientific perspective, while it’s extremely difficult to test the health benefits of one's spiritual beliefs, we can actually study practices which serve as the physical manifestations of our beliefs. This is where the concept of religious practice as an expression of spirituality can be, and has been tested. The following conclusions are derived from Dr. Harold Koenig’s visionary work at Duke University. His book, The Healing Power of Faith, published in 1999, provides extensive details and fascinating insights. Let's take a few moments to consider the following:

  • People who regularly attend church, pray individually and read the Bible have significantly lower blood pressure than the less religious.
  • People who attend church regularly are hospitalized much less often than people who never or rarely participate in religious services
  • People with strong religious faith are less likely to suffer depression from stressful life events and are more likely to recover from depression than those who are less religious.
  • The deeper a person’s religious faith, the less likely he or she is to be crippled by depression during and after hospitalization for physical illness.
  • Elderly people with a deep, personal religious faith have a stronger sense of well-being and life satisfaction than their less religious peers.
  • Religious people live longer and are physically healthier into later life than their non-religious counterparts
  • Older people who attend religious services avoid disability longer than their non-attending peers.

Dr. Koenig extensive and highly regarded research is helping us to document what many people already realize. The importance of his research however extends far beyond his findings. It provides the key data needed by the medical profession to more fully understand and embrace the health benefits of spiritual practice.

While researchers cite many potential reasons for such outcomes including God, community, camaraderie, nurturing, support, and a sense of being needed, each person has to draw his or her personal conclusions.

As a strong proponent of whole person medicine, I'm convinced spirituality will become an integral part of the medicine of the future. It's reassuring to know medical students, physicians and healthcare providers are finally learning there's more to prescribe than just the drug. As a result, many people in need will discover the incredible healing power of their spiritual beliefs and practices - Mind Over Matter!

© 2000 Barry Bittman, MD all rights reserved

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About The Author
Barry Bittman, MD is a neurologist, author, international speaker, award-winning producer/director and inventor. As CEO and Medical Director of the Mind-Body Wellness Center, a comprehensive, interdisciplinary outpatient medical facility in Meadville, PA., Dr. Bittman has pioneered a new paradigm for treating the “whole person.” Based upon extensive......more
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