For the past 20 years, western medicine in the United States has been exploring uncharted territory: the healing power of spirituality. Now, many medical schools include classes on the subject. And multiple studies point to spirituality as a key element in boosting immune functions and enhancing and accelerating the healing process beyond conventional medical treatment. Producer Zulima Palacio has the story. Carol Pearson narrates.
Praying, being part of nature, meditating or practicing yoga - practitioners say they all have a common element: a strong part of a person's spiritual life and, potentially, a great importance in health and well-being., has been studying the subject for more than 20 years.
"Would you say that your spirituality is important to you in they way you think about your health?” Dr. Puchalski asked her patient.
"Very important because, its like a bad feeling; if you get up in the morning with gloom and doom in your mind, you are bound to have gloom and doom all day," patient responds.
For two decades, 82 year old Vera Thompson has been a Buddhist with strong spiritual practices. Her case, as with many other patients, has provided Dr. Puchalski with great insight about the healing power of spirituality.
Dr. Puchalski says. "People who have spiritual practice tend to recover from depression a little sooner than those that do not. There are studies that look at blood pressure, incredible studies looking at meditation actually that affect blood pressure and resilience to stress."
Dr. Puchalski is the founder and Director of the George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health. She also teaches spirituality and health at The George Washington University Medical School. She says the most significant role of spirituality in health includes the ability to cope with serious illness, with suffering and stress.
Two weeks ago her patient Gwenda Martin had a total mastectomy to treat breast cancer. Martin attributes her quick recovery to the power of positive thinking and the attention of her church community. "I think it had a lot to do with it because when I went into surgery I knew I was going to be fine," Martin said.
When meeting her patients, Dr. Puchalski asks them many non-conventional questions involving their physical, emotional, social and spiritual life. In many ways, she says, she is talking about the power of the mind, "If someone says that spirituality is like a placebo, I think it may be truth because what we are doing is engaging the power of our minds," Dr. Puchalski said.
Many years ago, Robert Balkam had clinical depression when he visited Dr. Puchalski for the first time. Now at 87, he says he is feeling better than ever. "You knew that faith meant enough to me that you knew that that is as important in my recovery as my eating," Balkam said.
Dr. Puchalski says she tries to keep the alliance between mind, body and spirit. She says studies done on Tibetan monks and brain imaging while meditating have established the positive effects of spirituality. However she recognizes that western society is dominated by technology and scientific methods that make wellbeing very hard to measure.