The faith and health connection
Studies show that spirituality and religion effect our mental and physical health in positive ways.
Many factors, such as genetics, toxins, our lifestyle and even where we live, affect our health. Some health factors we have no control over, such as genetics, but others we do (i.e. lifestyle). One factor that might not be obvious is religion/spirituality. Dr. Harold G. Koenig, Duke University Medical Center, reviewed research articles on religion, spirituality and health. He and summarized the findings as they relate to mental health, physical health and healthy behaviors.
Mental Health: Both observational and clinical studies show a positive association between religion/spirituality and better mental health. This may not be surprising as research participants reported a greater sense of well-being, hope, purpose, optimism and self-esteem. Additionally, those who reported being religious/spiritual were less likely to report depression, suicidal thoughts/attempts, anxiety and substance abuse.
Healthy Behaviors: Due to limited article length, the author was only able to look at the impact of religiosity/spirituality on a few behaviors (exercise, diet, smoking and sexual practices). Religiosity/spirituality was positively associated with more physical activity and healthier diets in participants. There was a decline in smoking and risky sexual behavior as involvement in religion/spirituality went up.
Physical Health: Since our mental state also affects our physical function and lifestyle choices, it is no surprise that the literature review found that involvement in religion/spirituality has a positive effect on physical health as well. Coronary heart disease (CHD) is the number one killer of adult Americans according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Religion/spirituality had a positive impact on prognoses and biological risk factors for CHD. A lower cancer risk or a better cancer prognosis was found in those who were religious/spiritual. Over 75 percent of the studies examining the effects of religion/spirituality on mortality found a positive effect on longevity.
The decision to be religious or spiritual is a personal one, and that decision is made based on many factors. Most likely we do not make the choice due to its effect on our health. However, the research has shown that religion/spirituality is another factor that impacts our overall health. For faith-based organizations that are interested in supporting the physical health of their faith community, Michigan State University Extension offers a program called Faithful Families. It is a faith-based program that provides nutrition and physical activity education as well as assistance to faith communities that plan to make changes to support health at their site. Contact your local MSU Extension office for more information.