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Medicine’s Neglected Spirit: The Positive Therapeutic Effect of Spirituality
Reprinted by permission of Science & Spirit, 2002

Printed 2002: July 1998-We know his face without knowing him. It is the haggard face of terminal cancer. It belongs to a young man who is introduced to us in Think Big, a book by Afro-American neurologist Ben Carson.

Our collective subconscious quickly gives the young man a name: death. Science has identified a mutation in his body – a malignant brain tumor – and we do not question our hasty diagnosis. Science, after all, is absolute. It is the omnipotent force that guides and guards our health. Or so we think.

We are more than our genes, insists Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Project at the United States' National Institutes of Health (NIH). Until recently, this has been a hard concept for the scientific community to digest. Since Rene Descartes pronounced mind and body as separate spheres, rational Western medical circles have derided the ancient belief that psychological factors affect health. The body, medicine has traditionally asserted, can be subdued by the mind and its infinite creations – pills, surgery and secular psychotherapy. We have been told that the interplay between cells, genes, microbes and bacteria are the constitution of our health. In this paradigm the spirit is absent. The fate of Carson's patient exposes the fallacy of such an approach.

The young cancer patient is more than a collection of clotted, functionally abnormal cells. He is not death. He is a survivor. The love and support of his fiancee enabled him to conquer cancer. His health had steadily progressed once his beloved made an appearance at his bedside. Carson's diagnostic and treatment plan was no match for the young man's will to survive, his spirit. Buttressed by his fiancee's love, the patient recovered and left the hospital. He returned a few months later; his fiancee had ended their relationship. The patient soon died. His spirit had faltered.

In Timeless Healing, Herbert Benson writes: "Through my research, I became convinced that beliefs have physical repercussions ... that the human spirit is relevant – indeed influential – in the treatment and prevention of illness." The demise of Carson's cancer patient supports Benson's theory. When spirituality in the form of emotional support and love existed in his life, the patient endured. Spirituality provided what chemotherapy and invasive surgery could not – faith and a reason to live.

The therapeutic effect of spirituality is a controversial topic. Scott H. Frank, director of Case Western Reserve School of Medicine's new course on faith and medicine, observed that the tie between spirituality and health has traditionally been treated with great trepidation. Researchers are now delving into the formerly taboo subject. They are probing the pivotal link between spirituality and health.

Systematic reviews and meta-analyses quantitatively confirm that religious involvement is an epidemiologically protective factor. A study conducted by Duke University Medical Center indicates that older adults who regularly attend church have a healthier immune system than those who do not. The bodies of habitual churchgoers have higher levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6), an immune system protein which fights age-related diseases. Despite demographic and health-related differences among the 1,718 adults tested, the effect remained constant. Their active spirituality had an inverse effect on their physical health.

A study of 62 Muslim patients with generalized anxiety disorder proves the same. Researchers discovered that linking traditional treatment (the use of anxiolytic drugs and supportive psychotherapy) with religious psychotherapy rapidly improved a patient's anxiety symptoms. The use of prayer and readings from the Koran complemented traditional treatment techniques. The patients in the traditional treatment group meanwhile, showed a slower rate of improvement.

C.C. Chu and H.E. Klein had discovered that Afro-American schizophrenics were less likely to be re-hospitalized if their families encouraged them to practice religious worship while in the hospital. Another longitudinal study of 2,812 older adults in New Haven, CT, showed that frequent religious services attendees in 1982 were significantly less likely to be physically disabled 12 years later than infrequent attendees. In a poll of 338 medically ill older adults, 42.3% of them cited their religious faith as their most important coping mechanism. The American Journal of Psychiatry found that depressed patients with a strong intrinsic religious faith recover 70% faster than patients with less religious faith. Mortality rates dive by 25% for regular religious service attendees. The bond between spirituality and health is very clear.

Extra-personal spirituality also affects health. A patient's condition may be reinforced by another person's faith and commitment to him or her. A provoking study by Randolph C. Byrd chronicles the positive therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer. The group analyzed consisted of 393 coronary care patients who were divided into two sections. The control group consisted of patients who were not being prayed for; the other experienced intercessory prayer. Byrd discovered that the health of the latter group was much better than those of the former. In contrast with the control patients, those who were prayed for had significantly less congestive heart failure, fewer cardiopulmonary arrests, used fewer antibiotics and diuretics, had less pneumonia and were less frequently intubated. Even more surprising than the study results however, is the revelation that the patients in the variable group did not know they were being prayed for, nor did their doctors. In addition, the people conducting prayers had no contact with the object of their devotions. Patient and worshipper were total strangers. Byrd's study appears a case of mind over matter. It suggests that religiosity is a kind of antibiotic – a curative force that traditional scientific tools cannot easily decipher. It seems that our minds and the minds of those around us directly impact on our health. The notion is jolting.

"I cannot explain why he's in such good shape," confessed an Indian physician. He is referring to his patient, a Jain monk who has been fasting for 11 months. The monk's daily routine is simple. He meditates for several hours a day, then dozes for three or four. According to the dictates of Western medicine the monk, Sahajmuniji, should be dead. A healthy person rarely survives more than two months without consuming calories. Abstination from liquid for more than 72 hours should lead to dehydration and death. Against these odds, the grocer-turned-swami has survived.

A recent examination in a state-of-the art diagnostic lab in Bangalore, India, confirmed that Sahajmuniji's vital signs are normal and that he is exceptionally alert. The monk himself claims that his senses are sharper. He equates the acidic rumblings of his stomach and his acute hunger pangs with the burning of gold in a furnace. Many devotees have thronged to Sahajmuniji's ashram, where spiritual faith explains what science cannot.

People see that they can live and be happy with nothing, the monk explains. Indeed, his spiritual starvation conveys an important message. It challenges our rigid dichotomy of healthy versus unhealthy. The disease-centered model of medicine which focuses on the biological component of health encourages us to judge the body according to absolutes: the cancerous cells of Carson's patient equal death; a swami's extended fasting equals death and human fabrications equal salvation . In this medical model there is a definite cause and effect. We cannot fathom the force of the human spirit in the game of survival. An emerging patient-centered focus in medicine promises to blow this absolutism out of the water.

Five years ago, only a handful of American medical schools offered courses which discussed or explored spirituality. Forty colleges now offer such courses. Ninety-two percent of the students enrolled in the first year of Case Western Reserve's "Faith and Medicine Area of Concentration Program" voted to retain the curriculum. In March, the National Institute for Healthcare Research hosted a conference on spirituality and health, with the aim of stressing that we must treat patients in the context of their family, culture, belief system and socio-economic status.

A new web site founded by scientists is also indicative of the trend. On high-tech entrepreneurs, science journalists, engineers, and scientists are asking the sort of questions that suggest that science is finally edging into the domain of philosophy and religion. This is a vital and important metamorphosis. Research shows that 33% of Americans consider religion the most important facet of their lives, and that 20% of psychiatric patients believe their condition is the result of sin. Yet religion and spirituality are marginalized in psychiatric training curricula. Medicine's reluctance to tackle spiritual issues may hamper our health.

Spirituality is a basic part of life. It may explain the recovery of Carson's cancer patient and his subsequent reversal. Current research suggests that spirituality divides the healthy from the less healthy. It shapes our experiences, beliefs, behaviors, and illness patterns, a force that science must reckon with. Albert Einstein understood the sentiment: "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind."

Onoyemi Benedict is a graduate of Brown University, Providence, RI, USA, and is presently enrolled at Oxford University, Oxford, UK. She has been a student journalist at both institutions.


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