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Health in the Bible

By Stephen Caesar

We all know that the Bible is a Christian’s best guide to spiritual well-being, but it’s an outstanding guide to our physical health as well. And the examples of scriptural guidelines for health — both direct and implied — stretch from cover to cover. In Genesis, God created the world with people’s physical needs in view. In Revelation, He promises an eternal future without disease or death.

Genesis 2:18, for example, says, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (KJV). The September 16, 1999, issue of the Harvard Gazette reported on a study that showed that people 65 and older can lengthen their lives by engaging in social activities such as attending church or shopping. Thomas Glass, an assistant professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, conducted the study and noted, “Social and productive activities that involve little or no enhancement of physical fitness lower the risk of all causes of death as much as exercise does.”

Glass discovered this after studying 2,761 people 65 and older for 13 years. He reported in the August 1999 issue of the British Medical Journal that even those who are too old and frail to engage in physical activities can benefit from social interaction. In contrast, Glass found that isolation worsened the onset of senility. In a 12-year study of 2,812 people 65 and older, he found that the odds of succumbing to senility were approximately twice as high among those with no social ties as those who had frequent contact with friends and family, who regularly attended religious services, or who routinely engaged in social activities.

Rules found in the Mosaic Law produce equally beneficial results. Consider Leviticus 12:3, which commands that all baby boys be circumcised. Researchers at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program of Northern California studied thousands of boys born in 1996-97 and found a ninefold decrease in urinary tract infections among circumcised babies compared to uncircumcised. Their report, published in the April 2000 issue of Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, stated: “Newborn circumcision during the first year of life is, thus, a valuable preventive health measure, particularly in the first three months of life, when uncircumcised males are most likely to be hospitalized with severe urinary tract infections.”

Leviticus 19:28 forbids tattooing, and with good cause. University of Texas researchers found that anyone tattooed in a commercial facility was nine times more likely to be infected with hepatitis C than someone who never had a tattoo. The virus is most likely transmitted through unsterilized tattooing equipment (reported in Parade, August 5, 2001). In ancient times, there was no concept of sterilization, so these recent findings are particularly relevant to the biblical world.

Deuteronomy 21:20 condemns drunkenness in young people. The toll that drunkenness takes on youth was demonstrated by a test conducted by Duke University neuropsychologist Scott Swartzwelder that involved two groups of people: 21- to 24-year-olds and 25- to 29-year-olds. After three drinks apiece, the learning ability of the younger group was impaired 25 percent more than that of the older group. The reason, noted Swartzwelder, was that “even in their early twenties [young peoples’] brains are still developing.” Michael de Bellis of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center used MRI scans to compare the brains of 14- to 20-year-olds who had abused alcohol with the brains of people the same age who had not. The hippocampus, an area of the brain controlling memory, of a heavy drinker was 10 percent smaller than that of a nondrinker.

A study conducted by the University of California-San Diego and the VA San Diego Health Care System followed alcoholic teens for eight years. Repeated tests demonstrated that the alcoholics performed worse on tests of cognition and learning than nondrinkers. In the experiment, 33 heavy-drinking teenagers were tested against nondrinking teens who were their equals in age, IQ, socioeconomic status, and family history of alcohol use. The teens who drank heavily scored 10 percent worse on tests involving recalling verbal and nonverbal information as well as on tests involving map learning, geometry, and science. “The study,” concluded principal investigator Sandra Brown, “shows that just several years of heavy alcohol use by youth can adversely affect their brain functions in ways that are critical to learning” (as reported in the March 2001 issue of Discover magazine).

Scriptural health advice isn’t always negative. For example, the Bible often recommends or commands fasting (Judges 20:26; Matthew 6:16). In addition to being spiritually cleansing, fasting can be beneficial to one’s health. The New Illustrated Medical and Health Encyclopedia states: “For medical reasons, resting the stomach may aid in the relief of indigestion. Water, taken abundantly during a fast, may serve to rid the body of accumulated waste. A period of fasting is often required of diabetics, as a preparation for undertaking a diet” (p.756).

And the Bible promotes healthy eating. One of the agricultural products of the Holy Land that God promised to the Israelites was olive oil (Deuteronomy 8:8). According to the September 1999 issue of National Geographic, olive oil is a major health food. One study showed that Mediterranean peoples, who consume more olive oil than anyone else in the world, have the lowest rate of heart disease among Western nations. This is most likely because olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fat (“good” fat). Olive oil also contains antioxidants, which help prevent the buildup of lethal plaque in the arteries.

Another study showed that foods fried in olive oil retain more nutritional value than foods fried in other oil. Still another study demonstrated that women who consume olive oil more than once a day have a 45 percent smaller risk of developing breast cancer. Olive oil may also prevent gallstones and have positive effects in fighting peptic ulcers. Up to 80 percent of olive oil consists of monounsaturated fatty acids, which help keep HDL (“good” cholesterol) levels up and LDL (“bad” cholesterol) levels down. It also contains polyphenols and vitamin E, which prevent oxidation of fatty acids in the body. This reduces hardening of the arteries and fights some types of cancer.

Proverbs 17:22 says that “a merry heart doeth good like a medicine.” According to the January 13, 1999, issue of the Boston Herald, Drs. Lee Berk, Stanley Tan and William Fry demonstrated that laughter produces eu-stress (“good” stress), which increases white blood cells and decreases stress hormones. Dr. Berk, who is based at the College of Medicine of the University of California-Irvine, stated that “mirthful laughter modifies the physiology and the chemicals that affect natural cells and increase their numbers and activity.”

Additional evidence was reported in the November 16, 2000, issue of the Boston Globe. In a study of 300 people, half of whom had a history of heart problems, researchers discovered that people with heart disease were 40 percent less likely to laugh in humorous situations than people with healthy hearts. The ones with heart disease were much less likely even to be able to recognize humor. Michael Miller, director of the Center for Preventive Cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center, concluded, “The old saying that laughter is the best medicine definitely appears to be true when it comes to protecting your heart.”

We’ve always known that Scripture teaches us how to arm ourselves against spiritual attacks. It also instructs us how to arm ourselves against the countless attacks the human body has suffered since the fall of Adam. When you apply both aspects of biblical teaching, you’re on a solid road to improved health and fulfilled living.

Stephen Caesar attends Mount Hope Christian Center (Assemblies of God; Robert Crosby, senior pastor) in Burlington, Mass. He serves as adjunct professor of English literature at Newbury College and is the author of the e-book The Bible Encounters Modern Science, published by

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