Dean Ornish says faith can boost health

Apart from the latkes, kugel, matzah balls and cheesecake, living a Jewish lifestyle may actually be a boon to your health.

Best-selling author Dr. Dean Ornish is most well known for his dietary tips. But the doctor maintains that without a deeper sense of faith and community, all the jogging and carrot sticks in the world may not make the difference.

"Many, many studies have shown that people who feel lonely, depressed and isolated are much more likely to get sick and die prematurely than those who have a sense of love and connection and community and faith," said Ornish, who will deliver a free lecture Sunday, in Congregation Sherith Israel's Newman Hall. Ornish is a member of the Reform San Francisco synagogue.

"People tend to think that spending time with friends, family or the congregation is a luxury, the thing you do after spending time on the important stuff," he added. "Well, studies teach us that this is the important stuff. If you understand that, you set your priorities differently."

Ornish, a clinical professor of medicine at UCSF, cites a recent study conducted on patients about to undergo open-heart surgery. Prior to the operations, the patients were asked if they drew strength from a religious faith and/or belonged to a group that got together on a regular basis.

Six months later, those who answered no to both questions had a mortality rate seven times higher than those who said yes twice. Patients who split on the questions suffered a mortality rate four times higher.

Why is this? Ornish points out that lonely and depressed people are more likely to engage in unhealthy activities such as smoking, drug and alcohol abuse, overeating and overworking, than those who belong to loving, intimate communities.

"But most studies show that even if you have controls for all of those factors, people who don't have community connections are still many times more likely to get sick and die prematurely," said Ornish, a Sausalito resident. "We understand that this is true — why it's true is a mystery."

In his last book, "Love & Survival: The Scientific Basis for the Healing Power of Intimacy," Ornish writes about a doctor with heart disease and an anger-management problem whom he counseled.

The doctor had recently publicly humiliated the rabbi at his synagogue by loudly upbraiding him in front of a large number of the congregants.

"The teaching on Yom Kippur is that when you've wronged somebody else, you can't just apologize to God for it; you have to deal with that person directly. That's what I counseled him to do," recalled Ornish. "Judaism, like most religions, teaches the power of forgiveness and atonement. What science is beginning to show is that they have real, physiological correlates."

The doctor publicly apologized to the rabbi, and, after additionally learning to use prayer as meditation, reversed his heart disease. He has been pain-free for over four years.

"He's doing great," said Ornish. "I just got an e-mail from him a few weeks ago."

While membership in a synagogue, church "or even a bowling league" will promote intimacy — and, therefore, healing — Ornish points out that family, faith and community are some of Judaism's core elements.

"The fundamental prayer of Judaism is the Sh'ma, 'The Lord is One,'" said Ornish. "It's not 'The Lord is One Big Guy up in the Sky.' On one level, people are separate and different from each other. On another, we're not; something larger connects us all.

"God masquerades in different forms," Ornish continued. "When we have that double vision, duality and oneness, that is the healthiest and most joyful way to live."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.