Dr. Phil McGraw and Dr. John Whyte
Most health care professionals know they can’t fully assess patients’ health without looking at social determinants, the nonmedical factors that influence health outcomes. Income, housing, quality of schools, access to fresh produce and other factors play an important role in wellness. But there’s one we don’t fully acknowledge: the role of faith.
Faith, spirituality and a sense of purpose all have a beneficial effect on one’s emotional, physical and mental health.
This connection is well-established by researchers. Belief in a divine plan for one’s life can foster optimism and hope − attitudes that can boost mental and physical health, according to an analysis of more than 40 studies. Spiritual practices, such as prayer, can reduce stress and anxiety.
Spirituality and faith can even affect our physical health. According to a study published in the Journal of Health Psychology, religiosity, spirituality and frequency of prayer have been tied to lower cortisol levels.
Religious observance can boost immune system
In a study of more than 1,700 older adults, researchers at Duke University Medical Center found that those who practice religion had better immune function than those who didn’t. The findings persisted even when researchers adjusted for other factors that could impact immune system function, such as depression or chronic illness. The researchers suggest that the shared promotion of positive thoughts or experience of worship and adoration may help explain the physical health benefits.
Here’s how physicians at the Mayo Clinic sum up research on the topic: “Most studies have shown that religious involvement and spirituality are associated with better health outcomes, including greater longevity, coping skills, and health-related quality of life (even during terminal illness) and less anxiety, depression, and suicide.”
We also know that some health benefits can be more pronounced in organized religion than in belief itself. For example, if you’re a member of a house of worship, you’ve likely noticed that few people attend services alone. Just as important as the internal attitudes religion can foster are the social connections it can bring.
An epidemic of loneliness and a lack of community have contributed to a rapid rise in “deaths of despair” from suicide and substance abuse. Belonging to a faith organization can foster the sense of community that’s missing in so many people’s lives.
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Friendships and social support can lead to better health
People who attend services regularly tend to have more close friendships, which can in turn lead to better health outcomes. One study found that cancer patients who belonged to a church choir reported better vitality and mental health despite no changes in their physical condition. Simply having social support and coming together to sing was enough to improve their sense of well-being.
Harvard researchers have also found that men and women who attend services weekly reduce their risk of dying a death of despair by 33% and 68%, respectively.
This social aspect can apply some positive peer pressure as well. Many healthy behaviors are what psychologists call “socially contagious.”
A recent study found that Black Americans who were more involved with their house of worship had better cardiovascular health partly because their community helped them make lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking or eating healthier. It’s easier to reach your health goals when someone else encourages you and holds you accountable.
Despite the proven health benefits, religiosity is on the decline in America. The fastest-growing religious segment of the U.S. population is now “nones” − those who profess no religion.
We’re not here to evangelize, but as a doctor and a mental health professional, it’s important to note that a decline of religion and spirituality seems to be associated with potentially negative health effects.
You don’t have to join your nearest house of worship to enjoy good health. Your faith or sense of purpose, if any, is on you. But health is as much a matter of the soul as of the body. If you have a sense of faith, cultivate it. If you don’t, seek out places or situations that bring you a sense of connection and hope through meaningful relationships.
Dr. Phil McGraw, Ph.D., is one of the most well-known mental health professionals in the world and the host of one of daytime TV’s top-rated programs, “Dr. Phil.” Dr. John Whyte is chief medical officer of WebMD.