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February 1, 2017
Show Your Heart Health Some Love

In February, the focus turns to matters of the heart; both the figurative and the literal. This month is also American Heart Month, a time to review and learn about reducing risks and sequalae of heart disease. Despite the awareness of diet interventions and management of the most common risk factors (high blood pressure, cholesterol, and smoking), heart disease has become the leading cause of death for both men and women. This has led to frustration by many physicians, and opened the door for research into alternative interventions. The most compelling research that has emerged is in the field of meditation. In fact, the American Heart Association has included meditation in its recommendation for heart health.

What’s the connection between heart health and meditation? The answer is stress. The effects of stress on physical health, including cardiovascular disease, are well documented. In truth, after a heart attack, many practitioners will tell their patients to limit the amount of stress in their lives. Yet, telling a patient to decrease their stress might not be enough when it comes to heart health. In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, most people have become numb to the stresses placed on them by work, family, and even social relationships. Physiologically, stress increases cortisol and is a normal and useful response. Cortisol is the hormone that helps us run away from the metaphorical tiger and keeps us alert to potential dangers during said chase. It increases heart rate, slows digestion, and shunts energy to the muscles and brain for action. Though feedback loops, cortisol release is dampened when the sense of danger is no longer detected, and our bodies can shift into a calmer physiological state. However, what happens when we don’t reset to that calm state and continue to perceive stress, as in a job that requires daily deadlines and quotas that must be met? It is this kind of stress that has been linked to heart disease. Emerging research in meditation may be a key component to helping patients reset.

A randomized control trial reported in 2012 evaluated the use of transcendental meditation (TM) compared to health education (HE) in patients identified with at least 1 coronary artery with >50% stenosis. The results were staggering as the TM program group was “associated with 48% reduction in the composite of mortality, nonfatal MI, and nonfatal stroke” compared to the HE group. Additionally, this study also reported average systolic blood pressure (BP) reductions of 5mm Hg in the TM group compared to 1.6 mm Hg in the HE group. In another report, mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) was used to evaluate cardiovascular and cortisol responses during an acute stress challenge. 88 participants were assigned to either the MBSR group or a control. Diastolic and systolic blood pressure, as well as salivary cortisol levels, were measured before, during, and after the stress intervention with the MBSR group demonstrating decreases in systolic and diastolic BP when compared with controls. Additionally, salivary cortisol levels were significantly lower in the MBSR group when compared with controls, demonstrating a positive correlation with MBSR. Other research has suggested that meditation may boost heart rate variability, a sign the heart muscle itself has resilience in dealing with day to day stress. Moreover, meditation has also demonstrated the ability to dampen the body’s fight-or-flight response, decrease anxiety, depression, and pain.

In patients who report stress as a symptom, consider testing diurnal cortisol and neurotransmitter levels. If HPA axis dysfunction and elevated catecholamines are identified, meditation may prove to be an efficient tool in protecting heart health.

  • Meditation and Heart Health. (n.d.). Retrieved January 31, 2017, from
  • Nyklíček, I., Mommersteeg, P. M., Beugen, S. V., Ramakers, C., & Boxtel, G. J. (2013). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and physiological activity during acute stress: A randomized controlled trial. Health Psychology,32(10), 1110-1113. doi:10.1037/a0032200
  • Schneider, R. H., Grim, C. E., Rainforth, M. V., Kotchen, T., Nidich, S. I., Gaylord-King, C., . . . Alexander, C. N. (2012). Stress Reduction in the Secondary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease: Randomized, Controlled Trial of Transcendental Meditation and Health Education in Blacks. Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes,5(6), 750-758. Retrieved January 31, 2017, from

All information given about health conditions, treatment, products, and dosages are for educational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice

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