As a brain doctor and mindfulness teacher, I am here to introduce you to a different type of prescription for heart health: meditation.
Your wife, girlfriend, sister or daughter finally dragged you to the doctor’s office. Despite the fact that I am a physician, I frequently have this conversation with all the men in my life. You feel fine, so you don’t know why you need an annual check-up? No news is good news, right? The last thing you want is to have a diagnosis, pills to swallow, and a need for more tests (especially if you have a large deductible for your health insurance).
Unfortunately, heart disease is still the number one health problem facing men in the United States. Two of the risk factors that contribute to heart attacks are silent killers–high blood pressure (hypertension) and high blood sugars (diabetes). You could be walking around for months or years “feeling fine” while the abnormally high blood pressures are wreaking havoc on your blood vessels, heart, brain, and kidneys.
As a brain doctor and mindfulness teacher, I am here to introduce you to a different type of prescription for heart health: meditation. I never started a meditation or yoga practice with the intention of teaching and writing about these mindful practices. However, when I was facing physical and mental symptoms of career burnout, meditation helped my mood and improved my physical pain symptoms, dramatically.
As an analytical neurologist, I spent the last few years researching the science behind why these mindfulness-based techniques work on improving our overall health. I found a wealth of published science-based literature that exists touting the benefits of meditation, including the benefits of meditation for reducing high blood pressure.
Change your lifestyle to improve your health.
In the last two-three years, articles touting the benefits of meditation are abundant in the news media, but labeled as “alternative medicine.” I argue that meditation should not be considered an alternative method, but a necessary addition to a lifestyle change.
In integrative medicine, mindful techniques are used along with medications and surgery when needed. The foundation of reclaiming health is addressing meaningful lifestyle changes.
There are two important lifestyle changes that are known to prevent high blood pressure and will reduce the amount of medications needed:
- Nutritional changes to consume food rich in whole, unprocessed foods that are naturally low in salt, sugar, and fat.
- Embarking on an individualized exercise program.
From a holistic health perspective, a meditation practice can also be prescribed to this lifestyle changing plan.
Science weighs in about the power of meditation.
In early 2013, the American Heart Association released a scientific statement, which concludes that alternative treatments that include the Transcendental Meditation (TM) technique are recommended for consideration in treatment plans for all individuals with blood pressure greater than 120/80 mm Hg.
Transcendental Meditation is one of the most studied types of meditation, with medical studies appearing in the respected medical journals for more than 30 years. There are other methods of meditation, including mindfulness meditation. Newer studies also site the benefit of mindfulness-based stress reduction to help lower blood pressure.
How Does Meditation Lower Blood Pressure?
The control center for the heart beat and blood pressure originate in the brain’s autonomic nervous system (ANS). In times of stress, the fight or flight response is activated in the ANS and the entire body to go on high alert. During this flight or fright response, there is an increase in heart rate and blood pressure. With chronic stress, the resting heart rate, and blood pressure remain elevated leading to high blood pressure. With a regular meditation practice, the opposite of the flight or fight response is elicited, known as the relaxation response. The relaxation response was discovered and researched by Dr. Herbert Benson at Harvard Medical School, and it is the protective mechanism that helps to lower the heart rate and blood pressure.
Know that by choosing meditation within your individualized treatment, this does not mean it can replace a proper nutrition and an exercise regimen. The goal is that by using all three lifestyle changes in your life, the blood pressure will normalize leading to a reduction of medications needed, as prescribed by your physician.
Meditation is medicine for the mind and healing for the soul.
Personally, I also have found that implementing a consistent mindful meditation practice; I find myself paying attention and am aware of choices I make in my diet. Being mindful also helps tune into the body and the natural yearning to move and exercise. Meditation is not a “quick fix,” but it is a sustainable practice that can lead to a natural reduction of stress, medications, and moodiness.
Photo: Flickr/ Mitchell Joyce