Could sitting in a chair with your eyes closed and your mind alert reduce your blood pressure as effectively as a hypertension drug? New research shows that if you're practicing transcendental meditation (TM) in that chair, it just might.
A study published the January issue of the American Journal of Hypertension compared transcendental meditation with health education classes and progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), another stress reduction technique, in 150 African Americans being treated for hypertension. The study participants had an average blood pressure reading of 142/95 mmHg in the beginning of the study. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, 120/80 mmHg is considered a normal blood pressure reading.
"In one year's time, people with mild high blood pressure—which is still damaging to the heart—had reductions in diastolic blood pressure with TM similar to reductions seen with drugs," said study author Robert Schneider, MD, FACS, director of the Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention at the Maharishi University of Management in Iowa.
After one year in the TM group, the top number in the blood pressure reading (systolic), which reflects blood pressure when the heart beats, dropped by 3 mmHg, while the lower number (diastolic), which reflects blood pressure at rest, dropped by almost 6 mmHg. The results were pronounced in women, possibly, the researchers theorized, because they practiced TM more regularly. Less significant reductions in blood pressure were seen in the PMR and education groups.
As a result of the reductions in blood pressure in the TM group, about 25 percent of the participants in that group were able to lower their blood pressure medication dosages and some went off of their medication completely.
It's theorized that meditation lowers blood pressure by affecting the part of the nervous system that responds to stress, leading to lowered levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and norepinephrine, relaxing the muscles in your blood vessels and lowering your heart rate. Studies on TM have also shown an association with risk reductions in heart disease.
Choosing a Meditative Method
In the study, the participants in the progressive muscle relaxation group learned to pay attention to the tensing and relaxing of different muscle groups to achieve deep relaxation through the body. The physical relaxation then allows for mental relaxation.
In the TM group, people learned how to achieve a state of "restful alertness."
"Transcendental medicine is an effortless technique practiced about 15 to 20 minutes twice a day to allow a person to attain deep rest on the level of the body and the mind," Dr. Schneider explained. "It allows the mind to experience quieter and quieter states of thinking until one experiences a state of not thinking while being wide awake." He added that this ancient Indian technique must be learned from a trained practitioner who can provide feedback.
Dr. Schneider argued that this study and others on TM demonstrate that the approach you use to reduce your stress and your blood pressure matters.
Yet Pamela Yee, MD, who practices integrative medicine and internal medicine at the Meridian Medical Group in New York City, said that while TM is the most studied blood-pressure lowering technique, there are many different ways to achieve a state of mindfulness, from focusing on a word or your breath to observing yourself in a activity as mundane as dishwashing. Achieving a state of mindfulness, she said, breaks the cycle of stress because you are living in the present moment rather than worrying about the past or the future.
"It's important for someone to choose a way of slowing down, a way of coming back to the present moment in a way that resonates with them," Yee said. "You can learn to meditate in the shower or during an activity. I've had patients who can't sit still, so for them I recommend movement meditation like yoga or tai chi."
Both doctors recommend that people with high blood pressure consider stress reduction techniques as well as medication, though people should not simply swap medication for meditation. Instead, discuss your plans with your doctor. Also, research shows that lifestyle modifications such as weight loss, a heart healthy eating plan, exercise, limiting alcohol and quitting smoking have a major impact on blood pressure, so these changes should be considered as well.
"My advice to people with hypertension mirrors the National Institutes of Health guidelines: the first approach to the treatment of blood pressure is a non-drug approach because blood pressure medications have adverse side effects and, for many, a high cost," Dr. Schnieder said. "If you're already taking a medication, try the non-drug approach for an added benefit."