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Meditation for Heart Health

separator When you hear the term “meditation,” what do you think of? A flaky person in 60s clothing sitting cross-legged and chanting? In fact, all it takes to meditate is quiet and a little time. No special clothes, no special chants, no burning incense.

Meditation can help your heart. It has a similar calming effect on your body and mind that prayer can have. If you already have a religious or spiritual practice, you probably know what we mean. But if this type of practice isn’t already part of your life, and if you’re thinking you might want to spark something like it, you may want to take a look at meditation.

Researchers in the field of meditation believe that practicing regular meditation, or what many call “the relaxation response,” can lower blood pressure and heart rate, help with sleep problems, reduce feelings of anger and hostility and help alleviate some types of depression.

How does it help your heart? Stress is one risk factor for heart disease. And meditation can work wonders when it comes to managing and reducing stress. Here are some effects regular meditation can have, according to studies:

  • It can lower your blood pressure
  • It can decrease the risk of developing hardening of the arteries
  • It can help people who want to improve their eating habits and stop smoking
  • It can help people feel more in touch with their spiritual side, which in turn can help reduce feelings of anger and hostility

A new study is producing new information that sheds more light on how meditation works. It’s tested a theory that says people who are feeling stressed out, anxious or depressed have a higher level of activity in the right frontal cortex of the brain. The flip side of the theory is that people who tend to be more calm and happy have greater activity in the left frontal cortex.

The study, conducted at the University of Wisconsin, looked at “stressed out” volunteer participants who worked at a high technology firm in Madison. Researchers split the volunteers into two groups, a meditation group and a non-meditation group. At the outset, all the volunteers had EEGs performed, which tested their brain waves. Twenty-five were placed in a meditation group, and 16 in the non-meditation group.

The meditators took an 8-week course. At the end of the eight weeks, both groups got EEGs again. The brains of the participants in the meditation group showed a “pronounced shift” toward the left frontal lobe, leading researchers to believe that regular meditation may be able to cause a change in the brain’s “set point.” 

Regular meditation doesn’t have to take a lot of time. Some teachers and practitioners suggest that two 15- or 20-minutes sessions per day can provide a lot of benefit. It can be difficult to start meditating on your own, although it’s not impossible. You may find it most helpful to take a class or to learn one-on-one with an instructor. Regular classes and lessons not only provide you with good information about how to begin. They also help keep you motivated to continue on, much the same way doing a yoga class just once a week keeps you practicing on your own at home on the days you don’t go to class.

If you’re interested in learning more about meditation, ask your doctor or any of your healthcare providers to point you in the right direction. If they can’t help you, you can try looking under “meditation” in your local yellow pages. Or go to the nearest health food store, yoga center or t’ai chi class and see whether there’s a bulletin board. Reliable instructors often put flyers in places like that.

American Journal of Cardiology, 15 April 2002; The Australian Family Physician, February 2002; Stroke, March 2000; Journal of Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation, July-August 1999
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