Despite medical advances, heart disease remains the number one cause of death for both men and women in the United States. This is a startling reality, especially given how preventable the condition is for those of us that are not genetically predisposed. Stress, along with smoking, sedentary habits, and a poor diet are some of the main lifestyle-related risk factors that increase one’s chance of developing the condition.
This article looks specifically at stress as a risk factor for heart disease, and meditation as a natural and proven method to mitigate its effects.
How The Stress-Response System Works
Whether it’s related to work, health, money, relationships, or some other life event or situation, stress eventually finds its way into our lives. Thankfully, our bodies are well equipped to handle stressful situations thanks to the autonomic nervous system, which is dedicated to regulating the often subconscious processes, such as increased heart rate and shallow breathing, that kick in when stress or anxiety is present. The stress-reaction process is truly an amazing and efficient one: when the body is under stress the amygdala in the brain fires up and sends an alert that there is a stressor, then the sympathetic nervous system is activated and prepares the body to “fight or take flight.” The adrenals then go to work, supplying the body with cortisol and adrenaline, completing the trifecta of the stress-response process.
Typically the stress-response system is self-limiting, and when the stressor is gone, cortisol and adrenaline levels subside, and allostasis or stability is restored to the body. However, when the stress-reaction process is repeated multiple times over a relatively short period, stress becomes chronic and the system breaks down. This is called “allostatic load,” which often results in an increase in physiological issues that compromise the immune system, inducing illness, and even accelerating disease processes such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.
Why Meditation for Stress Relief Can Help Your Heart
In recent years the practice of meditation for stress relief has become more widely accepted as a complementary treatment to conventional medicine. As research continues to affirm its positive psychological and physiological effects on the body, the attitude of “it can’t hurt” has slowly shifted to “it can help.” According to an NIH survey done in 2012, next to yoga and osteopathic manipulation, meditation is third most used mind-body therapy with over 18 million people in the U.S. engaging in some type of practice.
How Lowering Stress Promotes Heart Health
A regular meditation practice can play a role in reducing cardiovascular disease by:
- It lowers blood pressure.When left untreated high blood pressure can lead to stroke and heart disease. This 2013 study shows how a regular Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction program was able to reduce both the systolic and diastolic blood pressure of participants over a period of 8 weeks.
- It releases feelings of stress and tension. Meditating quietly even for just a few minutes a day can restore feelings of calm and peacefulness. In a study on nursing students, researchers reported significant reduction of anxiety and stress after engaging in mind-body techniques such as meditation and biofeedback over a period of time.
- It improves sleep. Increasing evidence shows that mindfulness meditation, delivered either via MBSR or MBTI, can be successfully used for the treatment of insomnia with good patient acceptance and durable results.
- It boosts the immune system. After an 8-week period, the researchers in this study in Psychosomatic Medicine reported “demonstrable effects on brain and immune function.”
- It reduces inflammation. Inflammation plays a major role in heart disease. Chronic inflammation is involved in all stages of atherosclerosis, the process that leads to cholesterol-clogged arteries. Practicing a mind-body therapy such as meditation, in adjunct with dietary and exercise programs, can help reduce underlying inflammatory processes.
The bottom line: Meditation is a practice that can be done anywhere at any time, alone in the privacy of your own home, or in the company of others. As with many things in life, getting started is the hardest step. Private consultations with a trained practitioner can be a wonderful way to take that first step or to enhance an existing practice.
Below you’ll find some additional studies that demonstrate the positive effects of meditation, and also yoga (which incorporates many of the wonderful elements of meditation,) on cardiovascular health.
- Association Between Mind-Body Practice and Cardiometabolic Risk Factors: The Rotterdam Study.
- Meditation and coronary heart disease: a review of the current clinical evidence.
- Systematic Review of Yoga Interventions to Promote Cardiovascular Health in Older Adults.
- Yoga as an Alternative and Complimentary Therapy for Cardiovascular Disease: A Systematic Review.
In the battle against stress and even heart disease there is a lot you can do! By being proactive now, you can bring about changes that can make a significant difference in how you feel, both physically and emotionally, in the very near future.
This article first appeared in Dr. Kaplan’s column on MindBodyGreen.com.