According to the American Heart Association, 121.5 million Americans suffer from one or more cardiovascular diseases, meaning that nearly 50% of adults in the United States are affected (1). One major risk factor in many cardiovascular diseases is stress, which induces some conditions and can exacerbate them (2). People may choose different ways to deal with their stress, including taking time off work, getting more rest, painting, or spending time with loved ones. However, these options may not be feasible for everyone, so some people are turning to another method: meditation. Meditation has been around since at least 1500 BC, but it has become popularized in Western culture in recent years (3). It is more accessible than ever thanks to internet tutorials, guided experiences, and meditation apps. In a world where we are constantly distracted and worried by an onslaught of information from our phones, computers, and televisions, a particular type of meditation called mindfulness has seen an increase in popularity. The Mayo Clinic defines mindfulness as “a type of meditation in which you focus on being intensely aware of what you're sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment.” (4). The focus of mindfulness on self-awareness and examining one’s feelings can become a powerful tool in helping those who suffer from chronic illnesses, such as cardiovascular diseases, by allowing them to assess their symptoms and reduce their stress.
Meditation has been shown to decrease the risk of cardiovascular diseases. A study looked at markers of cardiovascular disease risk in Tibetan monks compared to non-meditating Tibetans. They were interested in Tibetans specifically due to their non-stressful lifestyle, therefore, any difference in cardiovascular disease risk would suggest a role for meditation (5). They looked at the major indicators of cardiovascular disease risk such as total cholesterol levels, and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. They found that meditating Tibetan monks had lower levels of these risk indicators than their non-meditating counterparts. This suggests that meditation can be a direct cause to help mitigate cardiovascular risk.
One of the leading causes of cardiovascular diseases is hypertension, an elevated blood pressure over a prolonged period of time. Therefore, it is important to take preventative measures to avoid hypertensive inducers. Stress is well-documented to be one of the most prevalent inducers of hypertension (2). Therefore, meditation-based practices were adopted in the clinic to help manage hypertension by reducing stress. One such method is meditation-based stress reduction, an 8-week program that adopted meditation practices that were shown to have efficacy in a wide range of physical and psychological disorders among which is hypertension (6). In a clinical trial, scientists have examined the efficacy of meditation-based stress reduction in managing hypertension in early-stage prostate cancer and breast cancer patients. The study found that blood pressure decreased after the 8-week program which shows the practical use of meditation as a non-drug intervention (7).
Despite the well-documented efficacy of mindfulness meditation to help manage blood pressure, there is still a lack of knowledge about its mechanism of action. One possible mechanism through which mindfulness acts to reduce the risk of hypertension is the reduction of stress since stress is known to elevate lipid markers associated with hypertension and cardiovascular disease risk. A study shows that meditation affects a part of the autonomic (non-voluntary) nervous system that is responsible for the fight or flight response (8) and the regulation of the stress hormone cortisol. Meditation is shown to decrease the secretion of cortisol through the autonomic nervous system (8). Another study involving 20 participants assessed long-term meditation (about 264 months) and meditation-based stress reduction program (8 weeks), both of which showed decreased levels of cortisol which in turn decreases the potential for cardiovascular disease risk (9).
Mindfulness has also been studied as a tool to improve symptoms in cardiovascular disease patients. A study of African-American males with Chronic Kidney Disease, a common comorbidity of heart failure, exhibited significantly lower blood pressure and heart rate than a control group after practicing a 14-minute long session of mindfulness meditation at two study visits (10). Additionally, researchers in Buffalo found that participants in a mindfulness mediation program reported improvement in their chest pain, heart palpitations, and nausea caused by pulmonary hypertension, although they did not experience a significant increase in overall quality of life (11). Mindfulness meditation can also be used to provide acute relief to those undergoing painful treatments for cardiovascular disease. A pilot study conducted at Nanjing Medical University found that a mindfulness meditation app helped alleviate patient’s discomfort during a radiofrequency catheter ablation procedure for atrial fibrillation (12).
Studies have shown a direct correlation between mindfulness and decreased risk of cardiovascular diseases through the management of stress and hypertension. Hence, the available evidence strongly suggests that meditation is a safe and effective approach for both prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease. However, to obtain the benefits of mediation, like with anything else, consistency is the key as it is most effective when implemented in day-to-day life. Despite its benefits, there are still not enough rigorous studies about the physiological mechanisms involved in mindfulness. That is in part because there are several types of meditation with no consensus on duration, frequency, or specific techniques on how meditation should be carried out. More insight into the mechanisms of meditation is essential for it to be a more potent practice in clinical settings. Until then, use mindful meditation to obtain a serene sanctuary for our minds, a place where we can find solace, gather our thoughts, and refuel our inner flames, ultimately igniting a brighter and healthier path forward.
Written by Camryn Sellers-Porter, BS and Mariam El-karim, BS and edited by Aldrin V. Gomes, PhD and Stephanie Palacio PhD
1) Cardiovascular diseases affect nearly half of American adults, statistics show. American Heart Association. (2021, November 23).
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7) Carlson, L. E., Speca, M., Faris, P., & Patel, K. D. (2007). One year pre–post intervention follow-up of psychological, immune, endocrine and blood pressure outcomes of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) in breast and prostate cancer outpatients. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 21(8), 1038–1049.
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10) Park, J., Lyles, R. H., & Bauer-Wu, S. (2014). Mindfulness meditation lowers muscle sympathetic nerve activity and blood pressure in African-American males with chronic kidney disease. American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, 307(1).
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