Dean Ornish calls emotional intimacy potent medicine

In a chapter from his new book "Love & Survival: The Scientific Basis for the Healing Power of Intimacy," Dr. Dean Ornish describes a man who — shortly after an incident where he publicly railed at his rabbi — was diagnosed with heart disease. At Ornish's suggestion, the man apologized publicly to the rabbi and learned to use prayer as meditation. Six weeks later, the man's chest pains were gone.

The author supports his thesis — that emotional intimacy is the most powerful medicine — with numerous such anecdotes, as well as studies.

Ornish is well known for his books and programs for reversing heart disease. But readers, he says, have unfortunately focused attention on the diet aspect while ignoring the beneficial effects of support groups.

One of the studies the Sausalito resident uses to bolster his theory is startling research conducted at Harvard in the early 1950s.

In the project, healthy men were asked to rate their relationships to their parents. Thirty-five years later, those men were tracked to determine which ones had serious diagnosed diseases in midlife, including coronary artery disease, high blood pressure and alcoholism.

The study found that diseases afflicted 100 percent of those who said they weren't close to either parent, 91 percent of those who said they weren't close to their mother and 82 percent of those who weren't close with their father. Of those who said they were close to both parents, only 47 percent suffered from serious diagnosed diseases.

In another study at the University of Texas, a researcher asked men and women who were about to have heart surgery two simple questions: "Do you draw strength from your religious faith?" and "Do you belong to a group of people that meets regularly?"

What he found, Ornish said, was that those who answered `no' to both questions had a seven-times higher rate of death six months after open-heart surgery compared to those who answered `yes.'

"I don't know anything that has a greater effect on health, disease and premature death from all causes than the healing power of love and intimacy," said Ornish in a recent interview.

Ornish is co-founder of the Center for Integrative Medicine at UCSF Medical Center, and a clinical professor there, as well as attending physician at California Pacific Medical Center.

Ornish first conceived the support groups as a way of helping his patients stay on their diet and exercise programs, but he soon discovered that something else was going on.

"The group was not just a way to help people adhere to the other parts of the program. I discovered that the group experience was perhaps the most important component of the intervention," he writes in "Love & Survival."

Intimacy, Ornish argues, comes not only from community but from a sense of wholeness. Ornish advocates meditation as a way to nurture this, and in fact it was through his own experience with meditation that he gained a deeper understanding of Judaism. He began his study of yoga and meditation as a college student. "That journey helped me understand the perennial wisdom, the basic truths present in all religions, which is the direct experience of God," says Ornish, who's a member of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. "The essence of Judaism is the Sh'ma, `The Lord is one.' It allowed me to come back to Judaism and understand to a greater degree the essence, instead of getting stuck only in ritual."

"Love & Survival" is a mix of hard science, anecdotes from Ornish's professional life, and an account of his personal journey from a depressed young man who avoided intimacy, to his marriage to his "beloved" and a new sense of wholeness.

Four times a year, Ornish holds weeklong retreats for anyone interested in living healthier. He's also launching a line of heart-friendly foods, Advantage10, which will be for sale in supermarkets and health food stores.

"We don't learn [about love and intimacy] in medical school, and we don't value it in our culture," says Ornish.

"If we can become more aware of how these ideas matter on a personal level, we may have the courage to open our hearts and on a social level begin reversing some of these social trends, the real deterioration of the social fabric of our culture."

Ornish hopes his book will be a catalyst for this change in consciousness.

"It's my hope that the science that I quoted will motivate people to take these ideas more seriously because they matter a lot, not only to the quality of our lives, but to our survival."