December boasts religious holidays for Buddhists, Christians, and Jews, with one or two pagan festivals celebrated as well. While most faiths emphasize prayer, meditation, or other mindful techniques (such as yoga), many of us find ourselves questioning whether they provide actual results or real value in our lives. Do health benefits result from any (or perhaps all) of these practices?

“The research that we’ve done has shown that if you have positive spiritual beliefs, such as religious faith in a loving God, and if you have support from your congregation, those things are most predictive of better health,” Dr. Brick Johnstone, a professor at the University of Missouri, told Medical Daily. Johnstone's various studies have included patients with stroke and chronic disabilities and more general ailments.

Similarly, a team of scientists working at the University of Wisconsin have established the helpful effects of meditation. In one study, they discovered people who practiced a brief program of “mindfulness meditation” experienced positive effects on both brain and immune function. Another group of researchers, led by Dr. Lisa Jane Miller of Columbia University, studied 130 subjects and discovered those who practiced spirituality had thicker portions of the brain cortices that protect against depression. Because this was especially true of those at higher risk for that particular mental illness, the team suggests people with a strong family history of depression emphasize spirituality or religion in their lives.

Yoga and the Rosary

Generally speaking, though with some exceptions, experiments have proven the positive physiological and mental effects resulting from both meditation and prayer for a wide range of people. A collaboration of Italian and Polish scientists, for instance, found recitation of the rosary in Latin — and also of the yoga mantra “om-mani-padme-om” — slowed respiration and enhanced heart rate variability. Noting the similar beneficial effects from these superficially dissimilar practices, the authors noted, “The rosary was introduced to Europe by the crusaders, who took it from the Arabs, who in turn took it from Tibetan monks and the yoga masters of India.” Such effects “may not be a simple coincidence,” the researchers concluded in their study.

Unlike physiological effects, physical health effects are harder to prove.

“The data on the links between religion and physical health are not as clear, though church attendance is clearly tied to longer life expectancy,” Dr. Kenneth I. Pargament, professor in the department of Psychology at Bowling Green State University, told Medical Daily in an email. That said, he himself has found success in finding evidence of physical results.

In one study of migraine sufferers, Pargament and his co-researchers instructed one group of patients to meditate 20 minutes each day repeating distinctly religious affirmations (such as "God is good. God is love"), while instructing another group to use nonspiritual mantras (such as “Grass is green. Sand is soft.”). The researchers discovered the group using spiritual affirmations had fewer headaches and an increased tolerance of pain. When asked whether the religion of participants might have influenced this outcome, Pargament said, “The religious beliefs of the participants had no effect on the outcome (all participants did believe in God, but that's true for the vast majority of people in the United States).”

On the flip side, Johnstone and his co-researchers have found that “if you have negative spiritual beliefs, such as you feel your poor health is a punishment from God or you feel abandoned by God, you will have worse health outcomes.” Not all prayer and spiritual beliefs, then, offer the same protective results. However, some of their effects are undeniable... and can be tracked.

Neural Networks

Brain scans, whether of Franciscan nuns during prayer or Buddhist monks during meditation, reveal complex activity in the brain and its neural networks. Dr. Andrew Newberg, a physician at Jefferson University Hospital, describes some of his work and his findings in the YouTube video below:

While Newberg suggests it's very clear how meditation and prayer — focused thought, essentially — influences brain activity, not all researchers find it easy to demonstrate their impact when isolated out from all the other variables involved in a spiritual or religious existence. Some researchers go so far as to suggest that any positive health effects experienced by spiritual people might arise from the fact that they tend to drink less, for example, or take better care of themselves than their less spiritual peers. Or, as Johnstone told Medical Daily, he and his co-researchers have never seen prayers, in and of themselves, as “one of the most important variables in our studies.”

His experience is not singular. A recent three-year study, conducted by researchers from six institutions, including the estimable Mayo Clinic and Harvard Medical School, disappointed many a true believer. To measure the influence of prayer, the scientists designed the Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP), which included 1,800 patients undergoing heart-bypass surgery. The night before their operations, church groups of about 70 people began two weeks of prayer on behalf of one set of patients. None of the praying participants knew the patient personally. Meanwhile, a control group of patients received no prayers. Comparing the two groups, the researchers discovered those who had been prayed for showed no differences in survival or complication rates. However, one subgroup of patients — those who knew they were being prayed for — experienced a slightly higher rate of post-surgical heart arrhythmias than all other patients.

Hypothesizing the subgroup patients might have thought, "Am I so sick they had to call in the prayer team," Dr. Charles Bethea, one of the study authors, stated at a press conference, “We know that high levels of adrenaline from the anxiety response can make fibrillation worse.” Let's hope this explains why prayers hurt and did not help some of the patients.

In the end, most of the scientific literature indicates your beliefs, whether they be intensely religious or vaguely spiritual, impact at the very least your mental and physiological health in either constructive or destructive ways. With the holiday season upon us, it might be wise to prune your spiritual convictions and keep only those that will have a positive influence on your health.