Minding Heart Disease
Can meditation lower blood pressure and clear arteries?
June 5, 2000 -- Now that he's hit middle age, Lawson English is entering the heart-disease zone. Because he's overweight and only moderately active, the Tucson, Ariz., computer programmer is a prime candidate for problems. Factor in his family history of heart disease, and his odds of developing ticker trouble climb even higher.
But English says that, at the age of 44, his cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and heart rate are perfectly normal. "My blood pressure and heart rate are so low that my doctor doesn't even bother to admonish me to lose weight," he says.
He may just be lucky of course, but English attributes his good heart health to his long-time devotion to transcendental meditation (TM), a practice popularized in the 1970s by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and the Beatles. Twice a day, TM devotees like English find a quiet place, sit comfortably, and focus their minds on a single word, or mantra. For 15 to 45 minutes, they enter a state of conscious relaxation often described as "restful alertness."
Matters of the Heart
When English took up the practice in the 1970s, he had no idea that it might stave off heart disease. Neither did anyone else. But over the past few years, impressive evidence that TM can reduce heart disease risk factors has been published in mainstream medical journals. The latest finding, published in the March 3, 2000 issue of the American Heart Association's journal Stroke, found that African- Americans who practiced TM two times per day for seven months reduced the amount of fatty deposits in their arteries, as measured by ultrasound. The study was the first to look specifically at TM and atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries.
What's more, previous studies have shown that TM can lower blood pressure, another major risk factor for heart disease. In 1995, for instance, the same group of researchers published a study in the journal Hypertension reporting that middle-aged and elderly African-Americans using transcendental meditation lowered their blood pressure more than those who adopted tried-and-true lifestyle changes such as diet and exercise programs. (These studies, which the authors describe as preliminary, focused on African-Americans because of their high risk for hypertension.)
In other articles published around that time, researchers reported that people practicing TM had lower blood levels of stress-related biochemicals, including serotonin and adrenaline, and were much less likely to be hospitalized for heart problems.
Although the Hypertension studies did not look at exactly how TM improves cardiac health, one of the lead investigators has a theory. Robert Schneider, MD, of the College of Maharishi Vedic Medicine in Fairfield, Iowa, says that TM "may trigger self-repair mechanisms in the body."
Medicate and Meditate
The fact that this research was conducted by researchers at the Maharishi College might be expected to raise eyebrows in the mainstream scientific community. But the studies, says Richard Stein, MD, American Heart Association spokesman and cardiologist, "seem to be done honorably."
In fact, when Schneider's study came out, the AHA distributed a press release recommending that "People with high blood pressure may want to medicate and meditate." And Stein adds that people whose blood pressure is just beginning to rise into the danger zone might be able to avoid going on medication by practicing TM. That's good news for people who can't tolerate side effects, like drowsiness, that come with some high blood pressure medication. "There is no downside to relaxation techniques," Stein says.
Until recently, anyone who wanted to try an alternative approach to health care had to rely on folk wisdom and anecdotal evidence. University of Michigan cardiac surgeon Steven Bolling, MD, who is conducting a study of qigong, a Chinese "energy healing" technique, thinks doctors will be more comfortable trying these approaches now that researchers are beginning to publish the results of well-designed clinical trials in prestigious journals.
Grant-makers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) think the TM findings are intriguing enough to merit further attention. In September 1999, the NIH's National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine gave the Maharishi center a $7.5 million grant to study cardiovascular disease and African-Americans. New studies will examine just what TM does to the circulatory system that decreases atherosclerosis.
Schneider thinks that meditation and some other forms of alternative medicine will eventually become a routine option for patients trying to dodge heart disease. Meditation's New Age patina shouldn't scare off people who might want to try it, Schneider says. The practice requires no adherence to any religious philosophy and can be performed without spending hours in the lotus position. "We found that TM is easy to learn," he says. "It's 15 or 20 minutes twice a day." (For more detailed instructions on how to get started, check out Duke (University) Meditation Group's "Quick Guide to Meditation".
As for Lawson, the latest findings are simply one more reason to continue the practice that has been a part of his everyday life for the past 25 years. "I didn't learn TM for my heart," he says. "But I think it has made a difference."
Tinker Ready is a freelance health and science writer based in Cambridge, Mass. She writes for The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, Nature Medicine, and The Utne Reader.
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