Meditation and Heart Disease, Stroke

Updated:Jun 3,2013

Adult Couple MeditatingLower stress, cardiovascular disease risk by meditating.

Taking a few minutes to relax each day could help you lower your risks of cardiovascular disease.

Meditation is a practice — often using deep breathing, quiet contemplation or sustained focus on something benign, such as a color, phrase or sound — that helps you let go of stress and feel peaceful and maintain a relaxed state of mind.

“Think of it as a 20- or 30-minute vacation from the stress in your life,” said Richard A. Stein, professor of medicine and director of the exercise and nutrition program at New York University’s Center for Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease.

Stress is your body’s natural alarm system. It releases a hormone called adrenaline that causes your breathing to quicken, and your heart rate and blood pressure to rise.

But that “fight or flight” response can take a toll on your body if it’s sustained over a long time.“When we were cavemen, that adrenaline helped us be ready if a tiger was going to attack,” Dr. Stein said. “Today, all the tigers are in our heads.”

For people with cardiovascular disease, meditation provides a technique for reducing stress and focusing on things they can do to be healthier, Dr. Stein said. “Meditation is a way of allowing you to come to balance in your life,” Dr. Stein said. “It can also help you to sleep better, which is a very important restorative part of physical health.” 

Recent studies have offered promising results about the impact of meditation in reducing blood pressure. A 2012 study showed African-Americans with heart disease who practiced Transcendental Meditation regularly were 48 percent less likely to have a heart attack or stroke or die compared with African-Americans who attended a health education class over more than five years.

Find the Method That Works for You
There are countless types of meditation, so it’s important to find an approach that you feel comfortable with, Dr. Stein said.

“Find what works for you,” Dr. Stein said. “Maybe it’s just listening to your favorite music while you walk at a moderate pace.”

Dr. Stein encourages his patients to find local classes on meditation to get started, get recommendations from friends or read books on different forms.

Transcendental meditation is a technique that allows your mind to focus inward, maintaining alertness to other thoughts or sensations without allowing them to interfere. It’s done seated with your eyes closed for 20 minutes, twice a day.

Mindful mediation may use sound or touch, for example the ringing of a bell, chanting, beads or a simple object to help the mind to focus. Relaxation response meditation uses a single word to focus on.

Not all mediation is done sitting down with your legs crossed like many people believe. For example, tai chi, also called “moving meditation,” incorporates gentle movements that require deep concentration and balance. Yoga is an ancient practice of stretching and breathing used to prepare the body for long periods of meditation.

Prayer can also be a form of mediation, Dr. Stein said.

While meditation can offer a technique for lowering stress, and your risk for heart disease, Dr. Stein said it can’t replace other important lifestyle changes like eating healthier, losing or managing weight, reducing salt or getting regular physical activity. It’s also not a substitute for any medication your doctor may have prescribed as part of your treatment plan.

 “Meditation should be an adjunct to prescribed medications and dietary and exercise programs, not a replacement,” Dr. Stein said. 

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