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Meditation and its effect on cardiovascular health

It is relatively well-known that too much stress has significant health implications. Indeed, there is a clear relationship between stress and its contribution to the development of high blood pressure (hypertension). Recognizing the importance of stress in curbing hypertension has thus been an integral part of the clinical management of patients at risk. This is often done through the identification of stressors and subsequent consultation on how to reduce stress and/or anxiety.

Reducing cardiovascular risks through treatments that focus on stress reduction has shown merit in a number of research papers. According to Blom et al, Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT), transcendental meditation (TM) and contemplative meditation have all shown to be efficacious in reducing blood pressure (BP) in patients with hypertension (stage 1).

It is important to answer why this is significant. Blom et al do a great job in highlighting this importance by stating: "Preventing and controlling hypertension is one of the most cost-effective strategies for reducing the global burden of premature cardiovascular disease and death" and estimating that "reducing SBP (systolic blood pressure) by just 3 mm (Hg) in the general population has the potential to reduce stroke mortality by 8% and coronary artery disease mortality by 5%."

Though how exactly meditation can decrease stress will have to evaluated further, Barnes et al discuss the possible effects of transcendental meditation (TM): "TM has been found to be associated with reduced BP reactivity to behavioral stress related to reduced sympathetic nervous system tone. TM has also been shown to have several beneficial hormonal and endocrine effects related to decreased sympathetic nervous system stimulation and decreased hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis dysregulation, as well as decreased cortisol levels, and diminished beta-adrenergic receptor sensitivity." In other words, TM potentially modulates the production and/or reactivity of hormones which are responsible for the cardiovascular changes in response to stress.

Further studies are certainly necessary to validate and determine the extent to which meditation, and which method in particular, can help reduce stress. Though CBT does not involve meditation, all three of the mentioned modalities of stress reduction are unique in reducing/preventing high BP and possibly negate the need for medication in early stages of medical intervention. Indeed, the potential cost-savings of forgoing medication may lead to increased patient compliance to medical management.

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Aria Nouri, MD

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