Fact or Myth: Can Prayer Improve Health?

This is FACT.

More than 55% of Americans pray every day, but can this spiritual practice help heal the body and mind? Research suggests it can.

There isn’t one correct way to pray. Prayer includes meditation, chanting mantras, praying for others, praying for God’s intercession, etc. Scientists separate prayer into 5 categories:

  1. Contemplative, meditative prayer, such as engaging with God or reflecting on spiritual teachings.
  2. Ritualistic prayer, such as repeating mantras, affirmations, or statements.
  3. Petitionary prayer, such as requesting intercession from spirit.
  4. Colloquial prayer expressing gratitude for your life/events/circumstances.
  5. Intercessory prayer, such as praying for the good of others.

Regardless of what type of prayer you practice, prayer can help heal your spiritual, emotional, and even physical health. Research links prayer to a decrease in depression, stress, and anxiety. According to Psychology Today, there are 5 scientifically supported benefits of prayer:

  • Improves self control
  • Makes you nicer
  • Fosters forgiveness
  • Increases trust
  • Offsets the negative health ramifications of stress

How Prayer Impacts Physiology effects of prayer

According to David Larson, MD, MSPH, president of the National Institute for Healthcare Research, a private nonprofit agency, research into the ability of prayer to heal has nearly doubled in the last decade. In fact, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which in the past has refused to touch any study having to do with prayer, is now funding one of its own!

Harvard scientist Herbert Benson, MD has been conducting studies on meditation for over 30 years. Meditation is really just any type of prayer that causes the body and mind to relax and quiet. MRI scans show what’s happening in the brain during this type of prayer:

  • The part of the brain responsible for a person’s space orientation and ability to distinguish between self and the world is activated, which has a quieting effect on the entire brain.
  • The part of the brain that manages time and develops awareness quiets down, creating a softening of the mind/body connection.
  • The limbic system—the part of the brain that regulates the autonomic nervous system, metabolism, blood pressure, and heart rate is activated.

Overall, the body and mind relax, and physiological activity is more balanced. Other studies show that praying helps increase confidence and bolster overall mental health.

Prayer isn’t just for the religious. It’s wonderful to combine spirituality with prayer, but if you are an atheist (or agnostic) you can still enjoy the health benefits of affirmations, meditation, mantras, or a simple gratitude practice—just take a few minutes to sit still and check in with all you have to be grateful for. Slow down your heart rate, focus on your breath, and give your brain and body a break for health.