Our beliefs are important; for millennia, humanity has striven to reconcile the pain and suffering of life with its miracles and inexplicable joys. It is not surprising, then that many people turn to prayer or meditation to alleviate suffering or to bolster faith. Furthermore, these individuals swear to the health benefits of their practice. Within the extremes of joy and suffering, there is some debate about the relationship of religion and spirituality to health, but compelling research is tipping the scale in in favor of the positive impact on health.
While religion and spirituality overlap, they are not the same. Both focus on the sacred and divine, however, spirituality includes all forms of expression, while religion must be linked to a formal institution. Of course, a single individual may identify as both spiritual and religious, as one or neither.  Religion and spiritual practices may bolster health through myriad ways. Religious groups can provide supportive social networks and encourage doctrines that deter individuals from unhealthy behaviors such as excessive alcohol use or risky sexual behaviors. Belief in the divine- however this is conceptualized- can be psychologically beneficial as it emboldens hope and optimism in the face of significant health problems  and provides us with meaning, purpose and perspective. These effects can be physiological; Herbert Benson, a physician who studied transcendental meditation in the 1960s, found that 10 to 20 minutes of meditation daily slowed metabolism, heart, respiratory rates and brain waves, all healthy bodily changes.  More recent research shows that older adults who regularly attend religious services have a decrease in all causes of mortality and are less likely to have elevated levels of IL-6, a potent marker of the inflammatory response.  Religion is also beneficial to those recovering from significant disease; one study followed patients who underwent heart transplants and found that those who attended religious services and rated religion as important in their lives were more likely to comply with follow up treatment and had better physical function one year after surgery.  It is important to note, however, that religion can have adverse health effects if practiced in a setting of authoritarianism, conflict or superficial rigidity  such as in the case of refusal of modern medical care, domiciliary violence and child abuse or neglect.
Religion and spirituality can be deeply uplifting practices for humans and this is borne out in multiple areas of our health. It is not difficult, then to understand the “power of prayer” in changing our lives for the better.
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