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The Proof That Prayer Works

There is ample proof that prayer works. Many scientific studies have been conducted that validate this observation.

A 1993 Israeli survey following 10,000 civil servants for 26 years found that Orthodox Jews were less likely to die of cardiovascular problems than "nonbelievers." And a 1995 study from Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., monitoring 250 people after open-heart surgery concluded that those who had religious connections and social support were 12 times less likely to die than those who had none.

In an attempt to understand the depression that often accompanies hospitalization, Duke University researchers assessed 1,000 hospital patients from 1987 to 1989; patients who drew on religious practices, including prayer, were found to cope far better than those who didn't.

NIH recently convened a panel to determine the merits of integrating conventional medicine with behavioral and relaxation therapies to treat hypertension. The team found that the conflation of therapies, of which prayer was a key component, "can lower one's breathing rate, heart rate, and blood pressure."

The University of New Mexico in Albuquerque is studying the power of prayer to heal alcoholics. And there is a prayer-and-healing study in progress at Bastyr University in Seattle, Washington, the nation's leading naturopathic-training institute. Certainly, following a spiritual or religious lifestyle might lead to better health; the devout may be less likely to succumb to the hazards of smoking, drinking, and sleeping around. However, for the non-believers, it is hard to understand how intercessory or non-local prayer works. This is thew situation when the sick persons are prayed for and don't even know it.

In the most widely publicized studies of the effect of intercessory prayer, cardiologist Randolph Byrd studied 393 patients admitted to the coronary-care unit at San Francisco General Hospital. Some were prayed for by home-prayer groups, others were not. All the men and women got medical care. In this randomized, double-blind study, neither the doctors and nurses nor the patients knew who would be the object of prayer.

The results were dramatic and surprised many scientists.The men and women whose medical care was supplemented with prayer needed fewer drugs and spent less time on ventilators. They also fared better overall than their counterparts who received medical care but nothing more. The prayed-for patients were:

Even more outrageous experiments in distance healing involve nonhuman subjects. In a survey of 131 controlled experiments on spiritual healing, it was found that prayed-for rye grass grew taller; prayed-for yeast resisted the toxic effects of cyanide; prayed-for test-tube bacteria grew faster. "I adore these experiments," says Larry Dossey, M.D., perhaps the world's most vocal expert on prayer and medicine. "Because they don't involve humans, you can run them with fanatical precision and you can run them hundreds of times. It's the best evidence of all that prayer can change the world. And it operates as strongly on the other side of the Earth as it does at the bedside."

In his 1994 book, Healing Words, Larry Dossey, M.D., co-chair of the Panel on Mind-Body Interventions of the Office of Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C., reviewed over 100 experiments, most published in parapsychological literature ' on the effects of prayer/visualization. More than half showed an effect on everything from seed germination to wound healing.

These experiments have shown that prayer can take many forms. Results occurred not only when people prayed for explicit outcomes, but also when they prayed for nothing specific.

The experiments showed that a simple "Thy will be done" approach was quantitatively more powerful than when specific results were held in mind.

A simple attitude of prayerfulness, an all pervading sense of holiness and a feeling of empathy, caring, and compassion for the entity in need, seemed to set the stage for healing.

Experiments also showed that prayer positively affected:

The subjects in these studies included:

The processes that had been influenced by prayer were:

It did not matter whether the praying person was with the person who was prayed for the power of prayer to work. You can pray for someone who is far away and still will have an influence on the outcome.

Nothing seems to block or stop the effects of prayer - the object in one study was placed in a lead-lined room and in another in a cage that shielded it from all known forms of electromagnetic energy, the effect still go through.

Given the scientific evidence, Dossey and several other researchers now admit that withholding prayer from an ailing patient is downright irresponsible. "It became an ethical issue for me," says Dossey, who defines prayer as "communication with the absolute."

At a Boston conference sponsored by Harvard Medical School, one of the participants predicted that in just 10 years patients will be questioned about not only their personal medical history but also their spiritual belief system.

Certainly, the idea of distance healing is catching on even today. Cyberspace is full of fellow believers who post their requests on daily prayer chains. Those who believe in distance healing are not sure how it works, though theories abound. Some say it involves sending some kind of subtle, as-yet-unidentified energy to the person in need. Others, including Dossey, say quantum physics may play a role, or what Cambridge-trained biologist Rupert Sheldrake calls "morphogenetic fields," unabounded by space or time.

In the absence of hard data, it remains a mystery or a miracle.

The other kind of prayer, in which sick people pray for their own recovery, is far easier for science to explain. Given the proven health benefits of meditation — lowering blood pressure, reversing heart disease — it's not difficult to see how prayer, which can be equally meditative and relaxing, might induce the same effects.

According to Koenig of Duke University, "when prayer uplifts or calms, it inhibits cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine - hormones that flow out of the adrenal glands in response to stress. These fight-or-flight chemicals, released over time can compromise the immune system, upping the odds of developing any number of illnesses, including heart disease, stroke, peptic ulcers, and inflammatory bowel disorder (IBS)." Many experts feel that the immune system is strengthened and nourished by a sense of peace, which can be transferred from one individual to another or used inwardly. Of course, the ancient stories of the Bible and seminal works of Eastern religions link healing with faith.So, it is reasonable to assume that something such as prayer that provides comfort and peace would influence the propensity for you to get disease or how you recover from a disease.

Recent scientific investigation shows that prayer can be used as an alternative therapy as successfully as meditation, exercise, or herbalism. A study of 91,000 people in rural Maryland showed that weekly church attendees had 50 percent fewer deaths from heart disease than non-churchgoers and 53 percent fewer suicides. Churchgoers have lower blood pressure levels than nonbelievers, even after smoking and other known risk factors are taken into consideration.

Many doctors believe that if they prayed with their patients before and after surgery or before administering a course of powerful drugs, this treatment might assist in the patient's recovery. Thirty medical schools in America are now offering courses in faith and medicine.

"Prayer works," says Dr. Matthews, associate professor of medicine at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C., and senior research fellow at the National Institute for Healthcare Research in Rockville, Maryland. Dr. Matthews has reviewed more than 200 studies linking religious commitment and health, cited in his book, 'The Faith Factor'.

Dr. Matthews cites studies suggesting that people who pray are less likely to get sick, are more likely to recover from surgery and illness and are better able to cope with their illnesses than people who don't pray. Some evidence indicates that sick people who are prayed for also fare significantly better than those who aren't. In fact, some physicians report that people who are prayed for often do better even if they don't know they're being prayed for.

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