As a meditation teacher, I find that one of the most common reasons why people want to learn how to meditate is to lower their blood pressure. New meditators often tell me that at their last checkup their doctor was surprised to find that their blood pressure had come down into the normal range.
More and more Americans are being diagnosed with hypertension: a shocking 1 in every 3 adults. Another 30 percent have pre-hypertension (higher than 120/80 but lower than 140/90); for these people, doctors may be hesitant to prescribe medication and are looking for preventative options.
The demand for alternative treatments is on the rise. Doctors acknowledge that many patients are reluctant to take medication these days and that patients are asking about other measures -- such as diet, yoga, herbal supplements and meditation.
Happily, this conversation has prompted the American Heart Association (AHA) to more closely consider alternative approaches. The AHA released a report in April informing physicians about alternatives that can be recommended to patients.
Modern Medicine Responds to Public Demand
The report, "Beyond Medications and Diet: Alternative Approaches to Lowering Blood Pressure: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association," aims to identify which approaches have been shown by research to be safe and effective -- and which may not be effective. The study looked at research on yoga, biofeedback, aerobic exercise, mindfulness meditation, acupuncture, relaxation therapies and the Transcendental Meditation technique.
Robert Brook, M.D., chair of the expert panel that authored the report, noted that the impetus for the new study came, in part, from patients themselves. "A common request from patients is, 'I don't like to take medications, what can I do to lower my blood pressure?' We wanted to provide some direction."
What Heath Professionals Should Know
The AHA report is helpful for physicians and health professionals because it clarifies that the various alternative approaches -- while they may yield benefits in specific areas -- are not all equally effective at lowering blood pressure. The highest level of evidence was for aerobic, dynamic resistance and isometric hand grip exercises. Among behavioral therapies (such as yoga, meditation and relaxation modalities), biofeedback and Transcendental Meditation were found most beneficial.
Considering the latest scientific evidence on different types of meditation, the report states that there is insufficient evidence to recommend forms of meditation other than the Transcendental Meditation technique: "Because of many negative studies or mixed results and a paucity of available trials, all other meditation techniques received a 'Class III, no benefit, Level of Evidence C' recommendation. Thus, other meditation techniques are not recommended in clinical practice to lower blood pressure at this time."
An Integrative Approach
The AHA also advised that "alternative therapies not replace proven methods to lower blood pressure -- including physical activity, managing weight, not smoking or drinking excess alcohol, eating a low sodium balanced diet and taking medications when prescribed."
Yet for millions of people with hypertension, the report suggests, an effective alternative therapy may bring blood pressure into the normal range or prevent the need for hypertension medication, with its attendant side effects and costs.
Noel Bairey Merz, M.D., professor of medicine at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and director of the Barbra Streisand Women's Heart Center, comments on the report: "We are gratified that our research demonstrating the efficacy of Transcendental Meditation on blood pressure is being recognized and hope that this consensus will result in its wider use in clinical practice."
A clinical trial published last year in the journal Circulation showed that TM practice not only reduces high blood pressure, but is associated with significantly lower mortality rates from heart attack and stroke among patients with coronary heart disease.
Robert Schneider, M.D., FACC, principal investigator for several NIH-sponsored research studies on the TM technique and cardiovascular disease, explains the mechanism: "TM practice balances brain activity, reduces activation of the sympathetic nervous system and stress hormones, and thus helps normalize the functioning of the cardiovascular system, including blood pressure."
The AHA report also suggests that alternative approaches may provide a range of health or psychological benefits beyond lowering your blood pressure or reducing your risk of cardiovascular disease. This seems to be the common experience of meditators: Most of my students who learn meditation to bring down blood pressure soon discover that reducing stress and alleviating hypertension are just the side effects of a deeper healing and transformation.
Video: Meditation for High Blood Pressure
Brook RD et al., "Beyond Medications and Diet: Alternative Approaches to Lowering Blood Pressure. A Scientific Statement from the American Heart Association." The report has been published in print form in Hypertension, 2013; 61:1360-1383, and was published online before print (April 22, 2013).
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