The Power of Prayer to Heal

Teresa Garden, DVM

by Teresa Garden, DVM

Prayer has been associated with healing for millennia. People pray for good health and for relief from illness, pain, and suffering. Intercessory prayer can be defined as a direct request to a higher power to intercede in a situation and to help bring about a good outcome. Prayer may result in health and healing through one or more of several mechanisms. Prayer can be thought of as a special form of meditation and may, therefore, convey all the health benefits that have been associated with meditation. Meditation has been shown to result in psychological and biological changes that are actually or potentially associated with improved health. Meditation can decrease blood pressure, decrease heart rate, alter levels of melatonin and serotonin, decrease cortisol, and decrease oxidation. It can lower stress, promote positive mood states, decrease anxiety and pain, and enhance self-esteem.

The subject of prayer can be a scientific and religious minefield. Carefully monitored studies of prayer are relatively low. The field is tiny. Only about five million dollars is spent worldwide each year. The efficacy of prayer was studied as early as 1872 by Francis Galton. While some religious groups argue that the power of prayer is obvious, others question whether it is possible to measure its effect. Many scientists have expressed doubt that prayer could ever be subject to empirical analysis. Is the topic even within the realm of science? Intercessory prayer has been the subject of scientific study since at least the 19th century. The first year such studies were published in the English language medical literature was 1965. Some studies on intercessory prayer involved praying for people but some involved praying for animals.

Lesniak studied a group of bush babies with chronic self-injurious behavior resulting in wounds. All bush babies received L-Tryptophan as treatment to help calm them. Then they were divided into 2 randomized groups. One group was prayed for and the other was the control group. Prayer was conducted for 4 weeks. The study concluded the prayer group had a greater reduction in wound size and greater improvement in blood profiles. And since this was conducted in a nonhuman species, the placebo effect was removed. Another study was conducted in July 2000 involving 3,000 human patients with sepsis. One group was prayed for by people who did not know them. One group was not. The study was blind and randomized…doctors and patients did not know which patients were being prayed for. The conclusion of the study found prayed for patients had shorter hospital stays and their fevers went away faster. Cha et al. studied a group of infertile women treated with in vitro fertilization embryo transfer. Half the women were prayed for by groups in various countries. The other half was the control group. Patients and their providers were not informed about the prayer intervention. The study found that the women who had been prayed for had nearly twice as high a pregnancy rate as those who were not prayed for. Also, women who were prayed for showed a significantly higher implantation rate.

A survey of doctors at a meeting for the American Academy of Family Physicians found that nearly all of them felt a personal faith could help the physical healing process. And 75% said they thought the prayers of others might help as well. The Washington Post has reported that prayer is the most common complement to mainstream medicine, far outpacing acupuncture, herbs, vitamins, and other alternative therapies. Many believe it is the oldest form of alternative medicine. Yet, it was not referred to at all during my 4 years of veterinary education. Only recently have veterinarians started to write about the role of prayer in veterinary medicine and in our lives. Veterinarians Marty Becker and Andy Roark have both written beautifully on the subject.

I do not believe we need science to validate our spiritual beliefs, just as I would not use faith to validate scientific data. Body, mind, and spirit are intricately woven together. Therefore, I think the chance of truly healing may occur at the point where medicine and science become intertwined with religion and spirituality. Scores of studies have shown that people who believe in God or in prayer generally fare better than those who do not. A 2015 literature review concluded that prayer changes things. But, more importantly, prayer changes us. Intercessory prayer is now a heavily research and still hotly contested topic. I often pray for my patients. I pray several times a day for God’s hand to guide me to help them. I believe it allows me to be a better veterinarian. My belief is based in faith. Although, it’s nice to have a little scientific data behind it.

Dr. Teresa Garden is owner and chief veterinarian of Animal Health & Healing, a full-service holistic and conventional veterinary practice in the Maplewood/Richmond Heights area. Phone 314-781-1738. www.AnimalHealthandHealing.com