Even more telling: Of those people who said they prayed for health reasons, 70 percent said that prayer was helpful. Why? Seems as though it may work through several different mechanisms:
It relaxes. A form of meditation (no matter what your religious preferences), prayer helps to slow breathing and brain activity, and reduces heart rate and blood pressure. All relaxing, all good.
Its positive. Lets face it: When you pray, you typically dont finish feeling as though you want to rap somebodys ankles with a wooden spoon. Afterward youre filled with peace, joy, and other emotions that are worthy of being printed on holiday cocktail napkins. Theres some evidence that these emotions lead to positive physiological responses throughout the entire body. Our stress hormone levels prepare for a peaceful existence. Perhaps more important, our immune system becomes less agitated so that chemicals such as pro-inflammatory cytokines, which act like kerosene on a fire, are not driving our joints and arteries to overreact to every biologic stress inside us. The result: a less inflamed, more beautiful place to live.
Its better than nothing (i.e., the placebo effect). Wed be remiss in our reporting if we didnt say that some of the benefits derived from prayer can be accounted for simply because the person feels as if its helping, whether its helping physiologically or not. (Placebo responses account for as much as 70 percent of the beneficial effect of some medical procedures and drugs. Our stance here is that thinking youre doing something to help yourself is a big part of prayer anyway).
Its supernatural. Perhaps the hardest reason to quantify, its also one of the most powerful. Praying people believe in supernatural forces and in a gods ability to heal, and that seems to have a strong effect on their health even if the real mechanism of effectiveness is through one of the three previous reasons. Now, no two mystics describe their otherworldly experiences in the same way, and it can be difficult to distinguish among the various types of mystical experiences, be they spiritual, traditionally religious, or simply awe-inspiring moments. If youre an atheist and you live a certain kind of experience, you will relate it to the magnificence of the universe. If youre a Christian, youll associate it with God. The point, for us, isnt the differences between the spiritual experiences but rather the similarities and that we can get to that place in lots of different ways. We think its likely that future tests and studies will continue to show the relationships between health and silent meditation. In fact, we feel that understanding these mysterious energies is the next big frontier in medicine. That is, we define life at the level of the cell. As long as the membrane maintains an energy gradient between the inside and outside world, our cells are alive. When you aggregate cells into organs and then put them in the right spot to make a human, you have life. Thats why were interested in adjusting energy in the body through such vehicles as acupuncture, homeopathy, pulsed electromagnetic fields (which can reduce pain by 90 percent through nitric oxide), and hard-to-explain methods like Reiki and prayer. After all, the things that matter in life like love cant always be measured with blood, machines, and complex calculations. Theyre measured in the way you live.