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Is Meditation Good for Your Heart?

When work and family obligations threaten to send your stress levels to DEFCON 1, it might be time to turn to meditation. Not only can it help you relax, it may also lower your risk of cardiovascular disease.

The Jury’s Still Contemplating

“Preliminary evidence supports the use of mind-body therapies like meditation, yoga and tai chi for certain conditions,” says Dr. Aditi Nerurkar, an integrative medicine primary care physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Medical Director of the Cheng-Tsui Integrated Health Center.

However, Dr. Nerurkar also says that the impact of meditation on cardiovascular disease appears to be mostly indirect and mainly linked to stress reduction. To date, only one study shows a direct link between meditation and improved cardiovascular health. In this study, African-American patients who practiced Transcendental Meditation for 20 minutes twice a day cut their risk of heart attack and stroke by 48 percent.

An Alternative History

Back in the mid-1960s, cardiologist Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School observed that his patients’ blood pressures were higher during visits to his office than at other times. Wondering if this might be due to stress, he started studying the link between stress and hypertension.

When a group of seasoned Transcendental Meditators heard about his research, they contacted him, telling him that they could lower their blood pressure just by meditating. When Dr. Benson proceeded to study them during a “sitting,” he found significant physiological changes. Their metabolism, heart rate and breathing slowed. Their bodies used less oxygen. Even their brainwaves were different.

Dr. Benson — who was affiliated with Beth Israel Hospital from 1977-1987 — coined the term “the relaxation response” to describe these changes. And he proposed that they could be used to counter the harmful changes that occur in the body as a result of its “fight or flight” response to stress. In 1975, he published a book that would become a best seller for decades, The Relaxation Response.

Dr. Benson’s work helped bring meditation out of the ashram and into the mainstream. It has since become a staple of many stress reduction programs, including mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), developed by John Kabat-Zinn and used at the Cheng-Tsui Integrated Health Center.

But is Meditation Heart-Healthy?

Until more research is done, however, it would be imprudent to make claims about cardiovascular benefits and meditation. Other than the 2012 study cited above, there’s no research that shows a direct link between meditation and improved cardiovascular health — and that study was limited to Transcendental Meditation alone. A special report published in Circulation, the journal of the American Heart Association, calls for further research to ensure the proper use of complementary and alternative therapies such as meditation.

However, research has shown that stress is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease — and that stress reduction methods like mindfulness meditation and Transcendental Meditation may help manage that risk. They may also be helpful in the management of hypertension.

Just the Facts

“Discussing stress in a primary care setting is like opening up Pandora’s Box,” says Dr. Nerurkar. “Nearly 60 to 80 percent of all people who see their primary care doctors are there because of a stress-related component to their medical issue. But we found that only percent of PCPs counsel patients on stress management.”

She hopes to change that. Dr. Nerurkar (right) offers stress management evaluations, using a metric that allows her to track changes over time. In a perfect world, she says, all patients would experience the many services offered by integrative approaches to health.

Dr. Nerurkar describes a patient with hypertension who was on a daily regimen of three drugs. She learned meditation and changed her eating habits. After a year or so of practicing these techniques, she was down to one medication. Says Dr. Nerurkar, “The meditation helped her handle her stress. She felt better, so she had the energy and motivation to change her eating and start exercising. It was a ripple effect, and meditation helped as the catalyst for change.”

Just Breathe

Though meditation may not be the cardiovascular magic bullet you were looking for, its stress reduction benefits are plentiful. If you’re interested in starting a meditation practice of your own, there are many resources out there to help you get started. Hospitals and community centers often offer low-cost courses. You can get books at your local library or bookstore. And, if you’re looking for a more high-tech approach, you can choose from several apps, including Headspace, Mindfulness, and MentalWorkout.

Of course, says Dr. Nerurkar, you may also want to visit the Cheng-Tsui Integrated Health Center for a stress-management consultation. Patients may refer themselves, though an order from a physician involved in your care is required. Some services (such as acupuncture) are covered by some insurers.

You might not be able to eliminate all of the sources of stress in your life, but meditation will help you handle it better — one breath at a time.

Above content provided by the CardioVascular Institute at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.