Putting faith in medicine: Medical establishment moves toward a more holistic model of health care

Published: Saturday, Jan. 12 2013 5:00 a.m. MST

In addition to these positive relationships, significant inverse relationships are found in a majority of studies examining RS and depression, suicide, substance abuse, delinquency and crime, marital instability, risky sexual activities, exercise, healthy diet, coronary heart disease, hypertension, cancer and mortality.

Viewed in such a light, Americans’ declining involvement in religious practices could bode ill for the country’s collective health, Koenig said.

“People with no religious affiliation, not engaged with any religious practices, have worse health — both cross-sectionally and prospectively. They don’t live as long.”

Your brain on religion

Dr. Andrew Newberg is a neuroscientist and Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. A pioneer of neurotheology, he published one of the first studies on meditation and the brain. By his estimates, there are now about 50 such studies.

“What we’ve come to learn in the last 20 years is the rich interconnectedness of the mind and body,” he said.

Newberg has studied brain scans of Pentecostals speaking in tongues, Franciscan nuns praying, and Sikhs, Sufis, Buddhists and others engaged in spiritual practices.

One of the findings of his research, stated in his 2009 book “How God Changes Your Brain,” is that spiritual practices “enhance the neural functioning of the brain in ways that improve physical and emotional health.”

In addition, “contemplative practices strengthen a specific neurological circuit that generates peacefulness, social awareness, and compassion for others.”

Newberg said that these practices engage the brain in ways that other attentional tasks — such as focusing on a math problem — do not.

“They’re similar in that they both activate the frontal lobes, but the meditation will change the thalamus as well. It seems to get more parts of the brain involved in the process.”

Another factor in the level of brain activity, Newberg said, is the degree to which the person believes in the practice.

“In our studies, when we asked atheists to contemplate God, they really didn’t activate their brain very much. It was almost as if they’d hit a cognitive dissonance. As opposed to the nuns, for example, who really activated their brain in all different kinds of ways when they focused on God.”

Toward a holistic model

Ten years ago, Rozanne Weissman nearly died when her ruptured appendix was misdiagnosed as ovarian cancer. She lay in a hospital bed for four days before the mistake was discovered. Peritonitis, or inflammation of the abdominal wall, ensued.

During her six-week stay at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C., she asked friends to bring spiritual and healing tapes for her to listen to. She also asked surgeons to draw a diagram of her organs so she could visualize them healing.

“The doctors laughed and said, ‘Surely, you don’t think tapes and visualization will work,’” Weissman said. “They definitely did not encourage it. It was only their stuff that was going to work.”

Family and friends of various faiths visited, prayed for her, lit candles and performed acts of kindness with her in mind. Eventually she made a full recovery.

Weissman said that it took all of those people and all of those acts to bring it about. “It’s not just the doctor. It’s the patient, their friends, their family, who all lend to healing or not healing. It cannot hurt to enlist spirituality, religion.”

Newberg said there’s growing interest in a more holistic approach and that more physicians are recognizing its importance. “Where the lag is, is they don’t always have the knowledge to implement it,” he said.

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