Kathleen Burghardt panicked when she heard the diagnosis: a lump in her right breast.
She had just lost two friends to breast cancer the previous year.
But instead of going through the recommended surgery, she consulted a psychiatrist who recommended “guided imagery” to help the body heal itself. Subsequent X-rays have shown only healthy tissue, she says.
“I walked through the Garden of Eden (by imagination) and I heard a voice in my head saying I was healed,” says the Tamarac, Fla., resident, whose story became a segment on TV’s “Unsolved Mysteries” in May. “And I believed it.”
Not everyone in the health-care field is saying “Amen” to such stories. But a coterie of doctors, scientists and others has found strong evidence for Jesus’ saying: “Your faith has made you whole.”
People who pray, meditate, go to church, or simply “let go and let God” tend to live longer, be more resistant to disease and recover from operations more quickly, according to several medical and psychiatric researchers.
“Someday, instead of ‘Take two aspirins and call me in the morning,’ we may be saying ‘Take two prayers,”’ says Dr. David Larson, a psychiatrist and director of the National Institute of Healthcare Research in Rockville, Md. “God is good for you.”
Although numerous studies have been pointing in that direction, only in the past decade have analysts begun specifically to examine the faith-body connection.
But as they see the growing body of evidence, some are being convinced.
“The evidence is overwhelming that religion, spirituality, faith - however you name it - is a protective factor against illness,” says Jeff Levin, an epidemiologist at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, Va.
Since the mid-1980s, Levin has examined more than 200 studies involving more than 100 diseases, from coronaries to cancer to colitis.
Most health studies examine a broad range of factors, like job satisfaction, water hardness, Type A or B behavior, Levin explains. And usually among them is some measure of religion, such as church attendance or belief in God. It is that measure that he sought out and collated with overall health and recovery results.
“I found there was mostly a statistically significant, positive association (between measures of health and religion),” says Levin, who also holds a degree in religion and sociology from Duke University.
What’s more, that association showed up regardless of gender, race or specific religion. Levin found similar results among men and women, blacks and whites, Asians and Hispanics, Jews and Buddhists, as well as Christians.
With such evidence behind him, Levin has persuaded the National Institutes of Health to fund other studies on the spirit-body connection. It has given him three grants since 1987, including a $330,000 five-year project to analyze studies on religion, health and psychological well-being among the aged.
Likewise, Larson and his National Institute of Healthcare have been getting attention for their spirit-body work. He says five of his articles have been published in the American Journal of Psychiatry; another 250 have appeared in psychological and medical journals or as chapters in books. But where Larson bluntly says “God is good for you,” Levin is more restrained.
Levin says he looks at the averages. He agrees that many pious people die of cancer, and many atheists live to ripe old ages.
But how does religion figure into good health?
Levin offers several possibilities:
Healthy lifestyle, especially among Mormons, Amish, Orthodox Jews, Seventh-day Adventists and others with dietary and behavioral rules. Devout people use less tobacco, alcohol and other drugs and, in some cases, less meat and caffeine.
Social support. Churches and synagogues often organize to visit the sick, drive them to doctor appointments or bring in hot meals.
“Stress buffering,” or easing worries through practices such as prayer and worship.
The “attitude of positive expectation.” In other words, just expecting a healing may rally the body’s defenses and produce one.
An energy or force, called chi or kundalini in Asian philosophies, which individuals can tap for healing and good health. Levin admits, though, that no one has yet proved its existence.
Others, however, remain skeptical of the power of faith. More likely, they suggest, is that the faith of believers like Levin and Larson skews the interpretations.
“If people are proponents of a religious approach to illness and health, there could be a research bias,” says Dr. Wallace Sampson, an oncologist at Stanford University.
Dr. Gary Posner, an internist, mentions other studies that suggest social factors other than religion influence health. He cites reports that have found heart patients benefit not only from religion but from community groups like senior centers. Posner, who is also a scientific consultant of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, faults Levin for even suggesting chi or kundalini as a possible health factor.
“When you speculate on powers that are not proved to exist, the burden is on you to provide the proof,” Posner said.
Answering the suggestion of research bias, Levin insists that the 200 studies he examined actually tried to downplay any positive effect of religion.
Medical sociologist Kenneth F. Ferraro of Purdue University agrees.
“Whenever you try to predict who is more or less healthy, religious factors keep coming up. The data are screaming that there is an effect. You’d have to be unscientific to ignore the facts.”