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Prayer, Immune System, & Healing

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Prayer, Immune System, & Healing  

Does prayer really help healing?

Yes. Evidence exists for the healing power of prayer. According to Dr. Barbara Joseph in "My Healing From Breast Cancer," her inspiring book, "If we allow ourselves the belief in the power of prayer and pray for our highest good in the way that comes most naturally to us and with the utmost compassion for ourselves, we can support our healing."[1]

The real force of prayer in preventing and overcoming disease are described in several excellent books:[2-4]

• "Healing Words, The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine" by L. Dossey, M.D.
• "Prayer is Good Medicine: How to Reap the Healing Benefits of Prayer" by L. Dossey, M.D.
• "The Faith Factor" by D. Mathews

Clinical studies have demonstrated that people who pray are:[4]

• Less likely to get sick
• Better able to cope mentally and emotionally with their illness
• More likely to recover from surgery
• More likely to recover from illness

Also, evidence exists for the power of prayer to maintain and improve the function of the immune system. Chemical connections have been identified between molecules produced by the central nervous system and cells of the immune system.[5] Astrocytes, a type of cell in the brain, can produce interleukin-1 (IL-1), a cytokine that affects immune reactions. Furthermore, lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell, contain receptors for many chemicals synthesized by the central nervous system.

Prayer and the psychological factors involved, including suggestion, expectation, anxiety reduction, conditioning, and the hope and will to live may have a positive placebo effect in nourishing the function of the immune system.[6] Clinical trials of the effects of chemotherapeutic drugs on cancers and determination of side effects show that placebo effects occur in the control groups of patients (i.e, those receiving no active drug).

Moreover, the relaxing, altered consciousness, and spiritual effects of meditation and prayer and the resulting inward sense of peace can strengthen the immune system and the body in general.[5-7] According to Harold Koenig, Director of the Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality, Duke University, when prayer uplifts or calms the spirit of people, fewer stress-induced (sometimes termed "fight-or-flight") hormones are produced by the adrenal glands.

Meditation and prayer can:[5-7]

• Decrease stress-induced hormones
• Reduce pre-surgery anxiety
• Lower the risk of development of various serious diseases
• Help the immune system to function

In addition, many recent studies have shown that patients with serious diseases who are prayed for by others actually heal better and faster than do those who are not prayed for by others. Praying for the healing of others is a form of an alternative medicine method known as "distance healing." In prayer by others (termed intercessory prayer), attitudes of prayerfulness and holiness and feelings of empathy, caring, and compassion encourage healing.[5, 7]

Studies show that prayer by people concentrating on the healing of either cells grown in the laboratory or animals with certain ill conditions can reduce the growth rate of leukemia cells in culture, decrease the size of tumors in mice, and speed wound healing in animals.[6, 7] A small, double-blind (meaning that neither the patients nor the doctors knew who was receiving the distance "treatment") clinical study of patients with advanced AIDS demonstrated that distance healing reduced the number of new AIDS-defining illnesses, severity of disease, outpatient visits to doctors, number and days of hospitalizations, and mood.[8, 9]

Some doctors feel that better recovery of the patients could occur if the doctors prayed with their patients prior to and following operations or the administration of powerful medications.[5] Because of the positive research on the effects of prayer and these beliefs about the value of prayer in the healing process, certain medical schools in the U.S. are offering classes in faith and medicine.

However, we should not assume that just our prayer and/or prayer by others will either keep us from getting sick or make us well. Dr. Dossey observes that, "We should understand that prayer does have an impact, but it can’t save us from death or guarantee we won’t get sick."[2, 3]

As with other alternative medicine approaches, meditation and prayer can help us empower our minds with positive energy, aid in the body’s recovery, improve quality of life, and improve outcome. Dr. Dossey recommends, "...don’t wait for the results of more double-blind studies to pray. We can stand to have more extraneous prayer in this world of ours."[2, 3]


1. B. Joseph. My Healing From Breast Cancer." 1996. New Canaan, Connecticut: Keats Publishing.
2. L. Dossey, "Healing Words, the Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine." 1993. San Francisco: Harper.
3. L. Dossey: Prayer is Good Medicine: How to Reap the Healing Benefits of Prayer. 1996. San Francisco: Harper.
4. D. Mathews, "The Faith Factor."
5. Distance healing really works. Jewish Link. Accessed at
6. S. Barrett. Psychoneuroimmunology — the bridge between science and spirit. In "Silver Threads," edited by B. Kane, J. Millay, and D. Brown. 1993. Praeger.
7. Prayer & spirituality: The proof that prayer works. Accessed at
8. F Sicher, et al. A randomized double-blind study of the effect of distant healing in a population with advanced AIDS: Report of a small scale study. "Western Journal of Medicine." 1998; 169(9): 356-63.
9. R.A. Anderson. Psychoneuroimmunoendocrinology review and commentary. "Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients." 04/2002.

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