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Spirituality, Faith, Religion and Health
by Dr. Karen Wolfe

What is Health?
The root meaning of health is "wholeness". The word health comes from the same Anglo-Saxon root that gives us whole, hale and holy.

Western medical doctors have narrowed their view of health and pay most attention to the physical body and the material aspects of illness. Many doctors would define health as the absence of disease.

With the emergence of Complementary and Alternative medicine (which I prefer to refer to as Integrative Medicine), spiritual and religious influences upon health have re-emerged as important factors for scientific inquiry. I say re-emerged because throughout recorded history, healers were often the tribal or community leaders that were religious figures. Health is now being embraced as a dynamic and harmonious equilibrium of all the elements and forces making up and surrounding a human being.

What Are Spirituality and Religion?
Concepts of spirituality and religion have much in common. Both address a search for the sacred and fundamental, eternal issues - issues about meaning, the use of our time, the nature of our relationships and our community with one another. Both acknowledge the transcendent, that which is outside of ourselves, and both offer methods for coping with suffering, meaninglessness, loss and issues of guilt and shame.

Even though spirituality often overlap, their differences are significant. Spirituality is not synonymous with religion. Broadly defined, spirituality is an inner sense of something greater than oneself, a recognition of a meaning to existence that transcends oneís immediate circumstances. It includes values such as gratitude, love, faith, hope, forgiveness, altruism and a diminished focus on oneself. Religion refers to the outward, tangible expression of spirituality in the form of a specific practice.

More objective and measurable to the outside observer Less objective and measurable to the outside observer
More formal in worship Less formal in worship
More behavior-based, focused on outward practice More emotion-based, focused on inner experience
More authoritarian, with patterns of prescribed and proscribed behavior Less authoritarian, with few prescriptions or proscriptions
More orthodox and systematic in doctrine Less orthodox and systematic in doctrine

Source : The Faith Factor by Dale. A. Matthews, M.D. with Connie Clark

What Is Faith?
Webster defines faith as belief, trust, confidence. If we consider faith, or belief, from a medical, nonreligious point of view, we see overwhelming evidence that our beliefs can affect our health. Dr. Herbert Benson established the medical importance of our beliefs, stating in his book, Timeless Healing, "Our brains are wired for beliefs and expectancies. When activated, the body can respond as it would if the belief were a reality, producing deafness or thirst, health or illness."

If we believe that a certain pill will make us better, chances are good that it will, regardless of its ingredients. This is "the placebo effect," which formed the basis for much of medical practice until the twentieth century. The effectiveness of many medical treatments depended upon the patientsí expectations of positive benefits. Such belief is an important form of faith, but it does not address the larger questions such as the meaning and purpose of life. People grapple with these questions largely through spirituality and religion, which can also significantly affect physical and mental health.

Healthcare Needs
In the Journal of family Practice in 1994, the results of a survey on patient spiritual needs was published. In the survey, 203 adult inpatients of family practitioners in North Carolina and Pennsylvania were asked about their beliefs and attitudes about faith healing and prayer. Seventy seven percent felt that doctors should consider patientís spiritual needs.

(King,D., and Bushwick,B. (1994) Beliefs and attitudes of hospital inpatients about faith healing and prayer. Journal of Family Practice, 39(4):349-52.)

Health Professional Needs
Medical professionals are beginning to acknowledge the need to include spiritual and religious concerns in clinical care due to a growing body of scientific evidence. A leading force in this movement is the National Institute for Healthcare Research (NIHR). This is a private non-profit organization in Rockville Maryland. NIHR is also introducing spirituality into the curriculum of the nationís leading medical schools and organizes conferences on spirituality and medicine.

Medical Research
In 1997, Dr. Michael McCullough wrote that a review for NIHR had found nearly thirty published studies on religion in peer-reviewed scientific literature, dating over the last twenty-five years. In these studies, religious participation was found to be protective against death from respiratory disease, cancer, heart disease, suicide and stressful medical procedures. This protective effect was found in both men and women who came from different religions, ages, ethnic groups and cultures. (McCullough,M.E. (1997). How religious commitment may promote longer life. Faith and Medicine Connection, 1(3):3.) However, McCullough cautions that fewer than a dozen of the studies were designed rigorously enough to draw firm conclusions.

In The Best Alternative Medicine, published in 2000 by Kenneth Pelletier, there are examples of some of the well-designed studies.

At the Duke University Medical Center, Dr. Harold Koenig, director of the program on Religion, Aging and Health, conducted nearly a dozen studies. In a 1992 review, Dr. Koenig concluded that devout religiousness helps enhance health and well-being, and helps protect against anxiety and depression.

At the Dartmouth Medical School, a 1995 study by Dr. Thomas Oxman found that, among 232 older adults undergoing heart surgery, patients who were religious were three times less likely to have dies six months after surgery than those who were not religious.

(Oxman, T;et al (1995). Lack of social participation or religious strength and comfort as risk factors for death after cardiac surgery in the elderly.. Psychosomatic Medicine, 57:5-15.)

How Do Spirituality, Religion and Faith Influence Health?
One practical advantage of many religions is that they encourage healthy lifestyles among their members. Proscriptions against gluttony, drug use, smoking and alcohol use reinforce health, as does the social communion among church members.

However, the health benefit of religion is not all derived from healthy lifestyles. Much of the benefit appears to stem from the physical impact of belief systems and attitudes. Qualities such as faith, hope, forgiveness and love have demonstrable effects upon health and healing, even among people who do not attend religious services.

As a medical doctor, interested in matters and conclusions of science, I am learning everything possible about how faith affects health from a scientific point of view. As with other areas of medicine, mystery will always remain. Of course, we will never really know how the faith factor works, because the transcendent dimension of life cannot be fully understood by finite human beings.

What we do know about the faith factor consists of a number of sub-factors or components. In the Faith Factor, Dale Matthews identifies twelve healing elements of the faith factor.
  • Stress Reduction - Overcoming the Wear and Tear of life
  • Promotion of Healthy Lifestyles - Honoring the Body as a Temple of the Spirit
  • Aesthetic medicine - music, art, beauty
  • Adoration - worshiping with our whole Being
  • Renewal - Confessing and Starting Over
  • Community
  • Unity - Strength through Shared belief
  • Ritual - Comfort in Familiar Activities
  • Meaning - Finding a Purpose in Life
  • Trust - letting Go and Letting God
  • Transcendence - Connecting with Ultimate Hope
  • Love - Caring and Being Cared For
  • Bibliography
  • Matthews, Dale (1998) The Faith Factor Ė Proof of the Healing Power of Prayer, Penguin Putman, NY
Copyright Dr. Karen Wolfe. All Rights Reserved.

Karen Wolfe is a national and international speaker, author and coach. She is the author of:
  • Medicine From the Inside Out - 7 Keys to Unlock Your Natural Healing Wisdom
  • Menopause - Renewal in Midlife,
  • From Stress to Strength
  • Successful Aging
  • A Wise Womanís Approach to Healing and Cancer
  • Awaken Your Healer Within
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