Can meditation decrease your risk of heart disease? Maybe, according to a recent statement from the American Heart Association — if you pair the practice with proven strategies like a healthy diet and regular exercise.
“Overall, studies on meditation suggest a possible benefit on cardiovascular risk,” the AHA explains, though they caution that the evidence is far from conclusive, due to the limited number of participants involved, and the questionable quality of some of the research. Still, given the low costs and low risks, they conclude the practice is worth a try for people who are interested.
How does it work?
While Canadian expert groups haven’t weighed in on the subject, the Heart and Stroke Foundation lists mindfulness meditation as one of several methods of managing stress.
“There’s considerable research showing that excessive, recurrent, or prolonged stress in a person’s life increases the chances of developing first-time cardiovascular disease, and recurrent heart conditions or heart attacks,” notes Peter Prior, a clinical psychologist at the St. Joseph’s Hospital Cardiac Rehabilitation and Secondary Prevention Program in London, Ont.
While we don’t know for certain why this is the case, the direct physiological effects of stress — things like higher levels of circulating hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol — are thought to play a role. (For example, some research has linked heightened activity in the amygdala — the part of the brain involved in gauging and responding to stress — with the release of white blood cells involved in the artery-narrowing inflammation that predisposes a person to heart attack.) Also, people who are stressed sometimes cope in unhealthy ways, such as drinking more alcohol, eating fat- and sugar-laden foods, and letting go of exercise.Subscribe To Our Newsletters — And Kick Your Health Into High Gear
There’s some evidence that meditation may influence some of the direct effects of stress (for instance, some studies have found mindfulness meditation dampens excess activity in the amygdala), but it may be that meditation benefits heart health in a more indirect way. When a group of researchers at McGill reviewed 19 studies on mindfulness techniques — including meditation — and weight loss, they found mindfulness was largely effective in reducing obesity-related eating behaviours. (Obesity and an unhealthy diet are both risk factors for heart disease.)
Dr. Sheldon Tobe, a kidney and high blood pressure specialist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, often recommends a technique called mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) to his patients. (MBSR is the most standardized, rigorously studied form of meditation.) When a study probing the effects of MBSR on blood pressure in people with hypertension was “spectacularly unsuccessful,” Tobe and his colleagues reviewed similar studies to try and figure out why. In all trials where mindfulness didn’t lower blood pressure, patients weren’t taking medication; in all studies demonstrating a benefit, participants were already taking antihypertensive drugs. Since faithfully taking these medications is the single most powerful step you can take to control high blood pressure, and many people take them intermittently or stop, Tobe says these results suggest that “mindfulness based stress reduction helps people cope so they’re more likely to do healthy behaviours that control blood pressure, including taking medications as directed.”
What is the goal of mindfulness meditation? And how can I get started?
The aim of mindfulness meditation isn’t to simply relax, or make your mind go blank, but to tune into the present moment, and cultivate skills to deal with unpleasant feelings in a healthy way — for example, by short-circuiting negative self-talk that can cause your emotions to spiral downward.The 5 Best Diets For Optimal Heart Health — And Not A Fad Among Them
Dr. Susan Abbey, psychiatrist-in-chief at Toronto’s University Health Network, suggests taking a group class in MBSR through your local hospital, health unit, or Canadian Mental Health Association office. “Most communities will have groups or courses, and it’s better, I think, if you can be with other people,” at least at first, she says. (Let your instructor know beforehand if you have a history of severe trauma, chronic pain, anxiety attacks or other mental health issues, since they may make you more prone to having an unpleasant response to meditation, and modified techniques may help prevent such problems.)
Can’t get to a class? You can test the waters with an app like Headspace, a book (Abbey suggests The Mindful Way Workbook), or free downloadable guided meditations you can find online. “There are some great ones at marc.ucla.edu,” Abbey says. “The longest one is 12 or 13 minutes, so they’re very easy to start with.”
While learning some mindfulness skills takes practice, one of the payoffs of paying attention to the present moment may be more immediate. “A lot of the time we miss pleasant moments because we’re so off in our heads,” says Abbey. “If we can actually tune into the delightful little thing that’s happening right now — like the scent of our tea, or the feel of a favourite pen in our hand as we write — it helps against all of the bigger stresses that we’re dealing with.”