Some may think of meditation as navel-gazing, a waste of time, or even boring. When it comes to medicine, Westerners often favor chemistry over contemplation, but what if meditation is medicine?
Robert Schneider, MD, a lead researcher on a recent study that looked at meditation and blood pressure, says that, “It appears that Transcendental Meditation is a technique that turns on the body's own pharmacy to repair and maintain itself.”
In Schneider’s study, participants with heart disease were given a choice between attending a health education class over the course of five years or a Transcendental Meditation stress-reduction program.
Those practicing meditation sat with eyes closed for about 20 minutes twice a day, practicing the techniques of Transcendental Meditation. By contrast, the health education group was asked to spend 20 minutes a day practicing such heart-healthy behaviors as exercise, nutritious meal preparation, and nonspecific relaxation. The groups were assessed at various stages, with researchers taking into account their body mass index, diet, blood pressure, and cardiac hospitalizations.
The meditation group fared better. Only 20 “end point events”—such as stroke, heart attack, or death—occurred in the meditation group while 32 occurred in the health education group. Blood pressure and anger were reduced significantly among the meditators. And while both groups showed beneficial changes in exercise and alcohol consumption, the meditation group also showed a trend toward reduced smoking.
A similar result was seen in a study involving teenagers at risk for cardiac complications. The teens who meditated in the study showed lower left ventricular masses, an indicator of future cardiovascular disease, than the control group.
How does meditation affect our hearts?
One researcher in these studies compares meditation to a “period of deep rest where the activity of the sympathetic nervous system decreases and the body releases fewer-than-normal stress hormones. As a result, the vasculature relaxes, blood pressure drops, and the heart works less.”
In the study with teenagers, there was another interesting side effect: improved behavior at school.
In fact, the benefits of meditation extend beyond the heart to other parts of our body and spirit. In addition to relaxing us, meditation can make us productive. The journal Emotion found that a disciplined meditative practice trains the mind not to wander, giving it unusual focus and sharpening memory. Improved focus and memory help the brain manage information and solve problems. These results emerge with just 12 minutes of meditation per day!
The good news doesn’t stop there. Want to kick painkillers? Meditation works on this level, too. A 2010 study discovered that Zen meditation—the meditation favored by Buddhist monks—can thicken the part of the brain that regulates pain, lowering our sensitivities to it. This even extends to women who might be battling symptoms associated with menopause, such as hot flashes.
But mostly meditation is proving itself in the realm of general happiness and well-being. A study in the journal Neurology asked people with mild to moderate multiple sclerosis to take an eight-week meditation class. Participants saw a 30 percent reduction in depressive symptoms and lower levels of fatigue. The data suggests depression is averted not only because meditation can teach us to focus away from negative thoughts but also because meditation stimulates electrical activity in our brain’s left prefrontal cortex, an area associated with positive mood.
What are you waiting for? Ommmm….
“Meditation May Reduce Death, Heart Attack and Stroke in Heart Patients,” 11/13/12; “Meditation Practice May Decrease Risk for Cardiovascular Disease in Teens,” 6/7/12, www.sciencedaily.com