Baylor research explores relationship between faith and health

Baylor laboratory hosted a Human Health and Behavior at Jones Library Tuesday afternoon. The topic of conversation was the connection between faith and health. MJ Routh | Multimedia Journalist

By Raegan Turner | Staff Writer

Dr. Maria L. Boccia and Dr. Leigh Greathouse are seeking answers to the question: What is the connection between faith and health and well-being?

The two women, both Baylor professors, Dr. Boccia of Child and Family Studies and Dr. Greathouse of Nutrition Sciences and Family Consumer Sciences, and their new research are supported by the Health and Human Behavior Laboratory, associated with the Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences here at Baylor.

They are conducting a research study in order to analyze the link between personal faith and overall health. Previous psychological research has proven connections between people lead to better or worse personal health, however, little inquiry has been done attempting to discover a connection between health, nutrition and a relationship with God.

Boccia explained precisely where the two researchers are aiming their focus in order to discern results regarding faith and health.

“We are looking at general physical and mental health as well as nutrition and body composition because it turns out these are all interconnected,” Boccia said. “What we’re hoping to look at is how to do a more sophisticated analysis of how aspects of faith and a relationship with God relate to these parameters of health and try to start teasing out some of what might lead to understanding mechanisms — by looking at things like oxytocin and markers of information. What we’re hoping to find is patterns of association between types of attachment and certain health outcomes, so we can start to understand what the mechanisms are that govern those behaviors.”

Because nutrition and body composition are such an important factor in the research, Greathouse was brought in to assist in diet analysis, a component that’s been determined as the control factor. Varying diets can significantly impact the research, she said.

“If you’re talking about oxytocin and stress behaviors, some of the outcomes that are associated with health include diet,” Greathouse said. “That can confound that relationship if you don’t carefully control for it. That is what I am helping her with on the study — looking at how we measure diet, measure body composition, and how that mediates the effects between stress and the attachment process in, especially, oxytocin.”

The way that different entities of the body physically ‘speak’ to one another, similar to the way humans communicate with each other, is also an important component of the research. Greathouse iterates this by outlining the specific partnership between the brain and the gut.

“We know now that there is a really strong relationship between the gut response and the brain’s connection. Stress and oxytocin are part of that relationship. We know that our gut picks up stress signals and can relay that back to our brains. Part of that relationship also includes telling us when we’re hungry and when we’re satisfied, so what we eat makes a difference in our gut-brain connection,” Greathouse said.

In addition to providing new information about the affect of faith on health, outcomes of this study could prove to be useful for everyday family life. Boccia explained that if the research proves to be a strong relationship, similar to the attachments formed human to human, the implications would be insightful.

“I believe that God is the Trinity, and He is relational. He made us capable of forming attachments in order to be in relationship with Him. Those attachments are also on the horizontal level which means that if our experience of our parents shapes our view of God, then when parents are parenting their children they’re doing spiritual work to bring their children into a secure relationship with God,” Boccia said.

Many students at Baylor are prime candidates for participation in the study. Boccia and Greathouse welcome interested students that are 18 years or older to contact them by email at either Maria_Boccia@baylor.eduor