The umbrella of complementary and alternative medicine is large. Underneath it you’ll find everything from acupuncture to herbal tinctures to infrared therapy and beyond, all of which are founded upon deep tradition, robust research, or both. But one field of alternative medicine that’s been less studied and explored is that of prayer for physical healing. Given how many people pray for specific health outcomes, it’s quite notable how little is actually known about the healing power of prayer — but we do know some things. Read on to learn what the research says about prayer, spirituality and health.
The Challenges of Studying the Healing Power of Prayer
Regardless of religious practices or beliefs, praying for health is incredibly widespread. According to one survey, almost 80% of Americans have turned to prayer for physical healing, and 90% have prayed for the healing of others. Meanwhile, Harvard Medical School found that 35% of adult Americans used prayer in addition to conventional medicine for specific health issues, and that 70% of that group reported prayer to be very helpful. More recently, the Pew Research Center reported that 55% of American adults have prayed for the end of the Covid-19 pandemic.
With so many people using prayer as a means to physical health, it’s disappointing how little solid research there is on the topic. This is the result of various factors, not the least of which is how difficult it is to study the healing power of prayer. For one thing, it’s very difficult to prove that any healing is a direct result of prayer, since we don’t understand the mechanism behind prayer for physical healing; researchers don’t know which pathways to study, which body parts to scan, which levels to measure — the types of things they would rely on to prove the efficacy of, say, a pharmaceutical. If someone gets better after praying, it’s difficult to know if it’s a result of prayer or some other immeasurable factor.
Then there are all the logistical factors that impede studying the healing power of prayer. First, there’s not one established definition of “prayer.” Does it have to be affiliated with a certain religion? Must it be said aloud? Does meditation count? There’s also the fact that researchers studying prayer have to rely on subjects’ self-reports of how often they pray, and the form that prayer takes.
Perhaps most of all, there’s the financial element. The conventional medical community has long been skeptical of religion in general, and as a result, very few researchers and institutions are interested in studying prayer for physical healing. Because of this, there are no established methods for researching the topic, and also a lack of funding. In fact, only about $5 million is spent worldwide on such research each year — compare that to $41.7 billion spent by the National Institute of Health on medical research (i.e, scientific studies aimed at developing new ways to treat, diagnosis, prevent, and understand disease) in the United States alone.
Still, research on the healing power of prayer does exist, and it leaves us with at least some understanding of how and why prayer may affect physical wellness.
The Link Between Spirituality and Health
While prayer and religion are not the same thing, there is a huge overlap. Not everyone who prays is religious or associates with a specific religion, but this is true of many of them. And because it’s easier to study things like church attendance (which can be quantified and verified) than it is to study prayer (which is more nebulous and relies on self-reports), there’s some more solid data on spirituality and health than there is on prayer and health.
Overall, the research suggests that there are health benefits associated with practicing a religion or some form of spirituality and being part of a religious or spiritual community. In one study, researchers found that those who attended church more than once per week were 55% less likely to die during an 18-year follow-up period than those who didn’t attend church. Another study, this one out of Duke University, found that among hospitalized people, those who never attended church had an average stay that was three times longer than those who did attend church, while a Dartmouth study found that heart patients were 14 times more likely to die after surgery if they didn’t participate in a religion.
Of course, these studies only show correlation, not causation, and there are plenty of factors that could be contributing to these results. For instance, religious people tend to live healthier lives than nonreligious people. They’re less likely to smoke, drink, and take drugs, and they’re automatically plugged into the support of a like-minded community, which can provide emotional benefits.
One way that religion may contribute directly to increased health is by giving people a specific worldview that helps them put problems in perspective and cope more easily with life’s challenges. Within this structure, people are better able to maintain a positive attitude when faced with health problems, and this positivity and calm can contribute to better physical health.
Interestingly, this worldview and belief system doesn’t need to come from a specific religion in order to have a positive physical effect. Research around spirituality and health suggests that spiritually-oriented meditation can have more health benefits than its secular (non-religious) counterpart. One study compared secular and spiritual forms of meditation (i.e., meditating on nonreligious affirmations vs. meditating on the idea of a higher power) and found significant differences in the two groups. Those who practiced spiritual meditation were less anxious and more positive, and had a much higher pain tolerance, able to submerge their hands in freezing water for twice as long as those in the secular group.
What Research Says About Prayer for Physical Healing
So putting religion or spiritual practices aside, let’s look specifically at the idea of prayer for physical healing. Right off the bat, it’s important to distinguish between the different kinds of prayer: there’s first-person prayer, which is praying yourself, and then there’s third-person prayer, or intercessory prayer, which is having someone else pray for you. The research on third-person prayer is quite limited and inconclusive (and even contradictory!), so we’ll put it aside for now and focus solely on first-person prayer for physical healing.
With first-person prayer, the research is limited by virtue of the activity itself: people pray privately, in many different ways, and oftentimes people only turn to prayer when something bad is happening, making it difficult to get a representative cross-section of people for studies. However, the research that does exist suggests some positive results from first-person prayer for physical healing.
For example, one study on meditative prayer looked at cardiovascular patients who prayed with the rosary or recited yoga mantras, and found that both groups experienced “striking, powerful” improvement in cardiovascular rhythms as well as increased baroreflex sensitivity, a measure of heart health. Another study on women undergoing radiation therapy for breast cancer showed that after six weeks of spiritual therapy sessions, which included prayer, they had significantly improved quality of life scores as compared with the control group. A study that looked at the healing power of prayer for mental health found that people had lower rates of both depression and anxiety after prayer sessions, compared to a group that didn’t engage in prayer sessions.
Pain is one area where prayer might be able to make a big difference, because while pain is indeed physical, the perception of pain is mediated through the brain. Several studies underscore this idea, including two separate studies showing that prayer decreased symptoms of pain after a C-section, while one review of studies determined that prayer is an effective and safe means of pain management for religious people undergoing surgery or painful procedures. In patients with chronic pain, prayer for physical healing was shown to have a positive effect on pain tolerance, though not the actual severity of the pain.
Another compelling finding about first-person prayer comes from Dr. Kelly Turner, and was featured in the documentary Heal. In her work, Dr. Turner studied over 1,500 people who had experienced radical remission from cancer, and identified ten factors that they all had in common. One of those factors? Deepening their spiritual connection.
Potential Reasons Behind the Healing Power of Prayer
The research on the healing power of prayer has one relatively clear takeaway: for those who are open to prayer and have some sense of belief in a higher power, prayer can have health benefits. Of course, the religious among us may say that this is because of the intervention of a divine power; and while that’s of course possible, it’s not something that science can verify.
Most researchers believe that the physical benefits of prayer are spillovers from the mental benefits of prayer. Much like other mind-body practices, like meditation and yoga, prayer can promote better mental well-being, and given the healing power of the mind, this is huge. There are several specific pathways through which prayer can improve mental health, and thus physical health, including:
- Prayer elicits the relaxation response. Prayer helps your body and mind fall into a meditative state, which turns on your parasympathetic nervous system (aka the “rest and digest” system) and turns off the sympathetic nervous system (aka the “fight or flight” system). This inhibits the production of cortisol and other stress hormones, and allows your body to focus on healing and recovery, leading to things like improved immune function and digestion, and better overall physiological functioning.
- Prayer allows people to release control. When people pray, they’re often putting their worries into the hands of something greater than themselves, which could result in lower stress and all the attendant physiological benefits.
- Prayer could trigger the placebo effect. Even if there isn’t an intervention from a higher power, simply believing that one might occur could have similar results. There have been extensive studies on the power of the placebo effect to bring about real healing, and it’s possible that this is at play here.
- Prayer can reduce anger and aggression. Anger and aggression can have a number of different negative health repercussions, from cardiovascular issues to worse lifestyle choices and more, and research has shown that prayer is effective at reducing levels of these feelings.
- Prayer evokes positive feelings. Praying is associated with a whole host of positive feelings, including love, compassion, and gratitude. Experts believe that many of the health benefits of prayer come from the wellness-promoting effects of these positive emotions.
- Prayer gives you a sense of connection, especially when done in a group setting or when praying to someone specific like a loved one who has passed on. A lot of research has shown that social connection is important for your overall health (for instance, loneliness is associated with hypertension and premature death), and prayer can help people connect with others, whether that connection is with a specific religious community, a higher power, or simply all the others who have prayed before you.
When someone experiences health improvements after praying, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how and why this happened. It could have been one of the pathways listed above, it could have been something totally unrelated to prayer, or it could have been the intervention of a higher power. To figure out which will require much more research — if it’s ever knowable at all. The good thing is that there aren’t any side effects or co-pays associated with prayer, so there’s no risk to having a little faith.
The WellBe Takeaway on Prayer and Your Health
There is some research from which we can glean some greater understanding of the relationship between spirituality and health, as well as how we can use prayer to achieve greater wellness. Here’s what to remember:
- There isn’t much research on the effectiveness of prayer for healing. This is in part due to a lack of interest and funding in the conventional medicine community, and in part due to logistical problems with designing studies on prayer. For the latter, this includes problems like defining what prayer means, trusting self-reports of participants, and being able to definitively draw a connection between a certain outcome and prayer.
- The most conclusive research on the topic has to do with how religious participation impacts health. Several studies show that people who belong to a religious community and regularly attend religious services have better health outcomes. We don’t know whether that has anything to do with prayer or religion, or whether it’s because of other factors, like the fact that most people who attend church tend to live healthier lives in general.
- There are two different types of prayer for physical healing: first-person prayer, or praying for yourself; and third person, or intercessory prayer, or praying for other people. The research on both is limited. However, for first-person prayer, the existing research suggests that prayer for physical healing can have a positive effect, especially with pain.
- There are a number of theories for why prayer may lead to positive health outcomes in certain people and circumstances. Prayer elicits the relaxation response, reduces anger, allows people to release control, creates a sense of connection, and may trigger the placebo effect. Of course, it could also truly be the work of something much bigger than us, something that science doesn’t have a way to measure or study!
Have you ever used prayer for physical healing? What was the outcome? Share in the comments below!
- Levin, J. Prevalence and Religious Predictors of Healing Prayer Use in the USA: Findings from the Baylor Religion Survey. J Relig Health. 2016.
- Bruce, M. et al. Church attendance, allostatic load and mortality in middle aged adults. PLOS ONE. May 16, 2017.
- Koenig HG, Larson DB. Use of hospital services, religious attendance, and religious affiliation. South Med J. 1998 Oct;91(10):925-32.
- Bernardi, L et al. “Effect of rosary prayer and yoga mantras on autonomic cardiovascular rhythms: comparative study.” BMJ (Clinical research ed.) vol. 323,7327 (2001): 1446-9.
- Benson, H. et al. Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: A multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer. American Heart Journal, Volume 151, Issue 4, 2006, 934-942.