Sunday, November 22, 2009

Can Meditation Curb Heart Attacks?

"Can Meditation Curb Heart Attacks?" asked a recent headline in the NY Times. According to staff writer Roni Caryn Rabin, recent research suggests that meditation may indeed be good for the heart. "Findings from a study presented last week at an American Heart Association meeting in Orlando suggest that meditation may have real therapeutic value for high-risk people with established coronary artery disease."

After following about 200 patients for an average of five years, researchers said, the high-risk patients who meditated cut their risk of heart attacks, strokes and deaths from all causes roughly in half compared with a group of similar patients who were given more conventional education about healthy diet and lifestyle.

Among the roughly 100 patients who meditated, there were 20 heart attacks, strokes and deaths; in the comparison group, there were 32. The meditators tended to remain disease-free longer and also reduced their systolic blood pressure by five millimeters of mercury, on average.

“We found reduced blood pressure that was significant – that was probably one important mediator,” said Dr. Robert Schneider, director of the Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention, a research institute based at the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, who presented the findings. The study was conducted at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, in collaboration with the institute.

Dr. Schneider's study focused on the practice of transcendental meditation, but my own experience confirms that the same or similar results manifest from zen meditation (zazen). Before I started practicing, every annual physical I had indicated that my blood pressure was too high and that I needed to reduce my cholesterol. Some routine were these warnings that I had assumed that the guidance values for blood pressure and cholesterol had been set unrealistically low, and that no one could be expected to meet the levels. However, since I started zazen practice, every exam that I've had has shown blood pressure and cholesterol levels at or below the threshold numbers, despite the advancing years. No factor other than zazen, such as changes in diet or exercise, can account for this change.

Dr. Schneider said other benefits of meditation might follow from stress reduction, which could cause changes in the brain that cut stress hormones like cortisol and dampen the inflammatory processes associated with atherosclerosis.

“What is it about stress that causes cardiovascular disease?” said Dr. Theodore Kotchen, associate dean for clinical research at the Medical College of Wisconsin. “Hormones, neural hormones, cortisol, catecholamines — all tend to be elevated in stress. Could they in some way be contributing to cardiovascular disease? Could a reduction in these hormones with meditation be contributing to reduction in disease? We can only speculate.”

Another recent study focusing on meditation, published in The American Journal of Hypertension, focused on a young healthy population. It found that stressed-out college students improved their mood through meditation, and those at risk for hypertension were able to reduce their blood pressure. Dr. Schneider was also involved in that study, which was carried out at American University in Washington and included 298 students randomly assigned to either a meditation group or a waiting list. Students who were at risk of hypertension and practiced meditation reduced systolic blood pressure by 6.3 millimeters of mercury and their diastolic pressure by 4 millimeters of mercury on average.

Use of so-called "brain drugs" such as Ritalin have reportedly skyrocketed among college students trying to get an edge in their competitive quest for graduate, medical, or law school admittance. These drugs reportedly improve their concentration and mental stamina, allowing them to study harder and longer.

I suggest that they consider meditation rather than drugs, just as some students of past generations turned to Zen as an alternative to psychedelic drugs in their quest for ultimate truths.

1 comment:

Night Templar said...

I'd be very careful about taking any research about TM seriously. This org has a long history of deception. In fact, when TM and blood pressure was investigated independently it was shown to be the WORSE form of meditation for lowering blood pressure. It was also the most expensive. TM "true believer" researchers often hide funding sources and consistently utilize controls poorly, in order to manipulate data.

While most of their claims were disputed scientifically and independently decades ago, the Org (not unlike the Scientology org) just keeps putting out more low quality studies. It's amazing that anyone takes them seriously, but they do market the heck out these "studies" to make it look impressive.