“The foundations of a person are not in matter but in spirit.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson, American poet
You know the tenets of good health include nutrition and exercise, but what about spirituality? Are there really physical health benefits of spirituality? During challenging periods of your life, you might have turned to prayer, journaling, meditation, traditional ceremonies, or any type of practice that invoked a sense of clarity or peace. The need to reach out and find some sort of guidance to help navigate life is instinctive. A spiritual practice fulfills this purpose and much more, including being a catalyst for good health and well-being.
The Meaning of Spirituality
There are many different interpretations of spirituality—all of them are correct. What works for one person may not work for you. At its core, spirituality is steeped in meaning and the desire to understand one’s purpose, both about one’s life and also the relationship with everything and everyone. It often leads to the belief or feeling that something bigger than yourself is at work.
A spiritual practice can look like many things, both religiosity and spirituality. It could be a contemplative practice (journaling, prayer, mindfulness, meditation, walking). Maybe it’s linked to church, temple, synagogue, or mosque. It could mean finding comfort through a personal relationship with a higher power. Connection to nature or art also inspires a sense of spirituality.
What does spiritual health and wellness look like to you? Think about practices that make you feel alive and expanded.
The Importance of Spirituality
In addition to providing meaning to your life, spirituality has the potential to improve physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Those who are more religious or spiritual are better able to cope with stress. This isn’t surprising as spirituality in its many forms has been a source of comfort and relief from stress for thousands of years.
Stress is the leading cause of many chronic illnesses, in addition to mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. Relationships, activities, news, and more in your world constantly vie for your attention, making it difficult to connect to your true needs and desires—or even remember that it’s important to do so.
Religion and spirituality have always been an intrinsic part of human existence. It’s readily available, plus spiritual wellness can help your body in addition to your mind. Research shows what many have always known, that there are both physical and mental health benefits of spirituality. Spirituality helps you by allowing you to:
- Bring meaning to your life, which can lead you to greater happiness
- Feel more gratitude
- Experience more compassion
- Improve social connections
- Better cope with stress
- Develop and grow more positive relationships
These experiences are a natural result of a spiritual life and are often accompanied by numerous health benefits. Here are some of the health benefits to help inspire your spiritual practice.
1. Stronger Immune System
This body is an intelligent system and it knows how to heal itself. Any number of reasons, however, can block this flow of healing, creating an imbalance. Spiritual practices such as meditation or mindfulness have the potential to trigger the body’s healing ability by encouraging a state of balance, both in the body and mind.
This study, done at the University of California at Los Angeles, showed that HIV-positive patients who meditated slowed down the decline in their immune cell count. Another study found that “mindfulness meditation produces demonstrable effects on brain and immune function,” suggesting that meditation may change the brain and immune function in a positive way.
2. Lower Risk of Depression
Spirituality helps encourage an exploration of your inner world, connecting you on a deeper and more meaningful level with yourself and those around you. The strong need to find some sort of connection with others is vital to support mental health. Your body and mind are interconnected. Spiritual practices can help build the strength and alleviate the effects of depression or other mental illness, which in turn affects physical well-being.
Dealing with a chronic illness, pain, or disability is stressful and often leads to depression. Spirituality can help in coping with the stress of illness. In a 100-person study at the University of Alabama Medical Center in Birmingham, with patients about to undergo cardiac surgery, 95 percent of patients reported using prayer and 70 percent found that it was very helpful for coping with the challenges of surgery. In addition, researchers have studied Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and its effect on loneliness, concluding that MBSR “may be a novel treatment approach for reducing loneliness and related pro-inflammatory gene expression in older adults.”
3. Stress Reduction
Stress is a natural part of life, but health issues arise when it becomes chronic. Many studies have been done on meditation and its various impacts on stress. Spiritual practices like yoga, meditation, and walking can help a great deal in managing stress and encouraging more positivity. It’s easy to get caught up in looking for one answer that will solve all your problems. The reality is that it’s a combination of things, such as eating nutritious food, physical activity, therapy, and, of course, spirituality, that all work together to help you maintain a good and healthy life.
A study conducted at a Chopra Center event found that after a six-day meditation retreat, new meditators experienced significant reductions in stress and depressive symptoms lasting 10 months after the retreat. Meditation is one of the most accessible and effective spiritual tools to put into practice.
4. Lower Blood Pressure
When you get stressed, your body receives is a flood of hormones that are meant to help fight off the situation causing such a disturbance. The body increases blood pressure (BP) by causing the heart to beat faster and your blood vessels to narrow. Over time, repeated stress and BP elevations can lead to hypertension.
A spiritual practice can serve as a great complement to any type of treatment to lower blood pressure because not only does it help to heal the physical body, it also supports the mental and emotional body. It’s easy to want to seek the magic pill to cure all chronic illness and health problems. For complete healing, however, you not only need to examine the physical symptoms but also acknowledge the mental and emotional aspects of who you are. You can often find the cause of stress there, deep within the realms of your inner space. Spiritualty helps you tap into that pure space within where your truth resides.
This particular study shows the potential of Transcendental Meditation to reduce both systolic and diastolic blood pressure. When you meditate, the body and mind start to gradually return to a state of equanimity, the fertile ground for healing.
5. Better Sleep
Getting restful sleep is a problem for many, yet sleep is so important for maintaining good health. Chronic sleep problems may be a result of lifestyle choices or habits that don’t promote restful sleep. Trauma, major life events, and transitions can trigger a stress response, which also affects sleep. Whatever the cause, steps should be taken to help restore the body’s natural rhythm of sleep-wake cycles.
Meditation practices usually have the side effect of better sleep because they begin to calm the turbulence within. Healing takes place mentally and emotionally, which means you no longer carry this baggage to bed with you. Ideally, the stressful events of the day are processed and released in a healthy way through various spiritual practices such as journaling, exercise, meditation, yoga, or prayer.
These are just a few of the health benefits of spirituality. While it may take some time to experience the positive effects, the results tend to be long-lasting. If needed, there are ways to renew your practice. Remember, spirituality doesn’t have to be demonstrative; it can be done in private and simple ways. Find what works for you.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; it does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programs.