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Can Spiritual Practice Cure Disease? The Science Is Promising

Spirituality offers many benefits for your mind, body, and soul.

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Spirituality provides comfort, clarity, and peace no matter what. This helps you appreciate the simple things in life such as spending time with friends and family. The benefits of spirituality extend even beyond your emotional and mental health. As you gather around your table this Thanksgiving, the antioxidant-rich green beans and sweet potatoes aren’t the only things boosting your health — savoring the significance behind your feast is also adding healthy years to your life, suggests a new Harvard study published in JAMA

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The researchers found that spirituality — the way we find meaning and purpose in life, be it through religion, gratitude, or our connection to nature — is a powerful healer. Says study co-author Tracy Balboni, MD, senior physician at the Dana Farber-Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center at Harvard Medical School, “Our review of over 20 years of research shows that spirituality is closely linked with better health and greater longevity.” Dr. Balboni adds that when our spiritual needs are attended to, especially when facing serious illness, we tend to make better medical decisions. So, here are three simple, inspiring ways to get an even bigger boost from your spiritual practices.

Try ‘active’ prayer for pain.

Prayer is the number-one alternative therapy in the US: Some 61 percent of us pray to ease pain. But the type of prayer is key, says Harvard psychologist Samantha Meints, PhD, “Active prayer (‘God, help me endure this’) rather than passive prayer (‘God, take this pain away’) helps us cope much better with pain. The former gives us a sense of control that leads to better health.” In another study, Catholics and nonreligious people were given painful stimuli while undergoing a brain scan. They then viewed an image of the Virgin Mary. The Catholics felt less pain and had more activity in the brain’s memory center than the nonreligious group, notes Dr. Meints. “This suggests religiosity takes us back to a time when we felt comforted, easing pain in the present,” she says.

Tap ritual for blood pressure.

Attending faith services doesn’t just make your heart feel good, it literally makes it healthier, says Harold G. Koenig, MD, director of the Duke University Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health. In a study he led, participants age 65 and older who attended a service once a week and prayed or read the Bible daily were 40 percent less likely to develop hypertension than those who attended services less than once a week and rarely prayed. “From listening to the sermon to gathering as a group, there’s a wide range of factors that reduce stress and deliver health benefits,” says Dr. Koenig. And it isn’t just group worship that improves health: Private rituals, like loving-kindness meditation, also dial down high blood pressure.

Savor awe for diabetes.

There’s a reason 95 percent of Americans say spending time outdoors is one of the most rewarding activities they engage in: Nature offers the world’s first “cathedrals.” Indeed, the awe we experience in nature is a result of feeling connected to something higher. And that awe is a potent antidote: In a recent study published in the journal Environmental Research, researchers found that spending time in green spaces significantly reduced the risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure. In the end, all spiritual experiences inspire a deep sense of hope, notes Dr. Koenig. That such a profound sensation can ward off disease itself is yet another reason to rejoice this holiday season.

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

This article originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.

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