Meditation lowers blood pressure as well as drugs

We may not be far from a time when health insurance plans pay for mantras. A new study indicates that people with hypertension who practice the stress-reducing technique known as Transcendental Meditation can experience substantial decreases in blood pressure. The findings, which support those of earlier research, are promising enough that the National Institutes of Health have allocated some $3 million to the further study of meditation's effect on hypertension.

The recently completed project, conducted at California's West Oakland Health Center, involved more than 100 people 55 and older. Those who learned and performed Transcendental Meditation every day for 3 months had an overall drop in systolic pressure (the higher number in a blood pressure reading) that was 11 points greater than the drop in people who simply were counseled on lifestyle changes such as losing excess weight, cutting back on salt, exercising more, and drinking less alcohol. The meditators' diastolic pressure (the lower number) dropped by 6 points more than in the advice-only group.

Comparable reductions in blood pressure achieved with drugs have been associated with a 35 to 40 percent reduction in stroke risk and a 20 to 45 percent lower risk of congestive heart failure. But meditation does not come with the side effects of drugs. Blood-pressure-lowering drugs such as diuretics, calcium channel blockers, and ACE inhibitors can cause a rise in blood cholesterol, impotence, fatigue, dry mouth, nasal congestion, diarrhea, nausea, headaches, and dizziness.

It should be noted that the lower blood pressure occurred not just in hypertensive people who scored high on tests for psychosocial stress. It also occurred in people who were overweight, ate large amounts of salt, or drank a lot. All of these are risk factors for elevated blood pressure.

The researchers are not certain of the physiologic mechanisms by which blood pressure is lowered by meditation. But however it works, by reducing stress meditation could also help people curb unhealthful behavior such as overeating or drinking too much. Indeed, people in the study who were counseled to make lifestyle changes did not make any appreciable alterations in their day-to-day habits, but the meditation group went from roughly 11 drinks a week to 5. "The synergistic effect of Transcendental Meditation combined with improved diet and exercise habits could potentially produce much greater benefits than either one alone," says head researcher Charles Alexander, PhD.

"The West has acknowledged this mind-body relationship for decades," Dr. Alexander comments. "Everybody's familiar with the term 'psychosomatic illness.'" But now, he says, we are beginning a systematic look at what the East has known for centuries: Emotional health and physical health are inextricably interwoven.

Transcendental Meditation, which derives from an ancient practice in India, is not a mysterious or hard-to-practice technique that requires sitting cross-legged on the floor in a loincloth. Rather, it's what study leader and psychologist Charles Alexander calls a "purely mechanical process" whereby a person simply sits for 20 minutes twice a day with eyes closed. He or she repeats a mantra---a soothing sound--which allows the mind body to "settle down" and "release stress."

The result, Dr. Alexander says, is a "deep state of restful alertness in which the body is at rest but the mind becomes more wakeful, or lit from within." This allows a state of balance to be achieved between the mind and the body. It's when the 2 are out of balance, Dr. Alexander comments, that stress occurs, and hypertension can result.

Major cities in the U.S. have local centers, listed in the phone book under "Transcendental Meditation," fiat teach this relaxation technique.

There are also more than a dozen books on various types of meditation. A particularly useful one is Herbert Benson's The Relaxation Reponse (Avon Books, New York, 1975, $6.50). Dr. Benson, a heart specialist affiliated with Harvard University Medical School, has culled the aspects of various forms of meditation that appear to lower blood pressure significantly.

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