Those who practice spirituality know that saying a prayer can ease your heart and mind. But can praying actually heal your body? Growing research suggests the answer is: yes.
For years, studies have documented a strong correlation between meditation and physical health. Research from 2011 found that those who meditated for 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had measurable changes in gray matter density. A 1999 report found that total peripheral resistance (which plays an important role in the development of hypertension) decreased significantly during Transcendental Meditation. And, perhaps most impressive: in a study comparing the genes of 38 people (half who meditated, half who didn’t), researchers found that genes associated with stress-related illness behaved differently in the two groups. According to study author, Dr. Herbert Benson, “It seems meditators’ genes were essentially telling their body to stress less and age more slowly.”
So what does meditation have to do with prayer?
According to Benson, prayer operates along the same biochemical pathways as meditation and, what he calls the "relaxation response." In a 1996 interview with Time magazine, Benson explains, “Praying affects epinephrine and other corticosteroid messengers or ‘stress hormones,’ leading to lower blood pressure, more relaxed heart rate and respiration and other benefits. Recent research demonstrates that these stress hormones also have a direct impact on the body’s immunological defenses against disease.”
But what about the big stuff? Even if we accept the premise that praying heals the body by lessening the physical consequences of stress, there’s still one major question left on the table: miracles. Are they real? And, if so, is there any scientific support for spirituality’s role in miraculous recoveries? Neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander claims he has firsthand knowledge of the answer.
Alexander, who has worked at both Harvard and Duke University, suffered from a seven-day coma in 2008. During this time, Alexander was under strict medical supervision. His chances of survival were slim to none. However, seven days later, Alexander miraculously awoke – and the story he told shocked him more than anyone else. As Alexander explains, “As a neurosurgeon, I did not believe in the phenomenon of near-death experiences. I grew up in a scientific world, the son of a neurosurgeon.”
And yet, Alexander claims, during his coma he visited heaven and was sent back home. Alexander spoke extensively about everything he saw, describing every aspect of his journey in detail. The toughest of critics had to admit: even if Alexander didn’t visit heaven, the fact that he woke up from his coma with such an elaborate tale was a medical miracle in and of itself. During the time his story was being formed, medical records showed that Alexander’s brain was completely inactive.
Debate over the role of spirituality and prayer in health and healing is sure to continue for quite some time. However, Dr. Jeffrey Levin (who was featured with Benson in Time magazine’s article), suggests an open-minded approach. When asked if the faithful really have God on their side, Levin replied,
“I can’t directly study that, but as an honest scholar, I can’t rule it out.”