Although meditation has been understood to promote vivacity for millenia by some cultures, its link to robust heart health has only recently received scientific recognition in the West. In 2013, the American Heart Association issued a report showing that transcendental meditation (TM) – a mantra-based practice derived from Vedic traditions which we teach on our center in London – can lower blood pressure. They concluded that TM should be considered in a treatment plan for lowering high blood pressure and managing or preventing cardiac disease.
An extensive and diversifying scientific evidence base has since been built, delineating the ways in which meditation is helpful in safeguarding a well-functioning heart. Understanding the various ways in which meditation can help keep your heart healthy and help manage heart disease is a powerful motivator for incorporating it into your life.
This introductory guide covers some of the key bodily mechanisms which benefit from the stress-diffusing effects of meditation. For anyone invested in boosting their vitality, recovering from heart-related illness or promoting longevity, these heart health benefits are dynamic incentives to embark on a meditative journey.
Stress and cardiovascular disease: what’s the link?
To understand the complex link between practicing meditation and preventing or redressing cardiovascular disease – also known as heart disease – it is necessary to first define cardiovascular disease, a blanket term describing an extensive range of conditions. These include problems with the blood vessels such as narrowing or developing blockages, and issues with the heart’s muscle, valves or rhythm (arrhythmias). These issues can lead to the development of heart-related chest pain (angina) and potentially life-threatening problems such as stroke and heart attack.
Symptoms of heart disease may include shortness of breath, angina – which may involve tightness or the sensation of pressure in the chest – numbness or weakness in the legs and arms due to poor blood circulation, and/or pain in the groin, jaw area, neck or back.
Stress negatively affects all areas of health. It should therefore come as no surprise that living in a state of nervous tension translates into tension within the nervous system, affecting the heart. Not only does being in a constant state of high alert place unnecessary strain on the heart’s delicate mechanism itself, it also increases the risk of other factors that are known to put a strain on the heart developing or worsening. These include hypertension (high blood pressure), high levels of cholesterol, diabetes and obesity.
Meditation and high blood pressure
Blood pressure rises when we are stressed. The body’s automatic stress response sets the heart pumping faster, to send more blood flowing to the muscles. This is primal programming designed to ready us to escape from predators by putting the body in “fight or flight” mode. Repeatedly raising the blood pressure can cause a person to develop hypertension, a condition which strains the heart, in which the blood pressure in the arteries is consistently elevated.
How can meditation lower blood pressure? Meditation lowers the blood pressure by reorganising activity within the nervous system. Although the exact mechanisms by which this effect is achieved are not yet fully understood, it is thought to calm the sympathetic nervous system, preventing the blood vessels narrowing in response to stress. Meditation has also been found to increase activity within the parasympathetic nervous system, which facilitates the dilation of the blood vessels, regulating the speed of the blood flow.
Meditation and cholesterol levels
Experiencing stress aggregates the body’s levels of cholesterol. Cholesterol is a fatty substance found in food and also synthesised by the body itself. While having a certain level of cholesterol in the body is inevitable, it is important to take measures to ensure that your cholesterol intake is mostly good (HDL, or high density lipoprotein) cholesterol, rather than bad cholesterol (LDL, or low density lipoprotein).
Stress is a prime catalyst for the buildup of LDL cholesterol within the body. Being stressed heightens all the risk factors for high cholesterol levels, including increasing the likelihood of having unhealthy dietary habits and a higher body weight. A diet high in trans fats encourages the body to make more LDL cholesterol. Excess cholesterol circulating in the blood contributes to poor heart health in a number of ways, including increasing the risk of high blood pressure, stroke, and angina (pain in the chest).
How can meditation reduce cholesterol levels? Cholesterol – in healthy amounts – helps repair damage to the cells, which is caused by stress. However, when we are stressed, the body over-produces cholesterol to compensate. By calming the nervous system and helping the mind learn to process stressful situations in a way which avoids triggering our ‘fight or flight’ response, meditation directly decreases the body’s cholesterol.
Mediation and chronic inflammation
Numerous studies have been conducted investigating the link between psychological stress, inflammation and the development of various forms of heart disease. The body becomes inflamed when it is fighting off infection, but being stressed can send the body into a state of chronic inflammation. When this occurs, the immune system goes into overdrive, causing inflammation when there is no infection to fight, and the blood vessels and tissues become permanently engorged. The normal functioning of the heart is obstructed, contributing to poor circulation and increasing the likelihood of heart disease.
How can meditation reduce inflammation? Practicing meditation regularly has a modulatory effect on the way our genes are expressed within our body; in particular, regulating the expression of pro-inflammatory genes. Studies have found that meditators have lower levels of biomarkers related to inflammation in their blood, reflective of their decreased propensity to develop inflammation.
Stress and plaque in the arteries
Stress causes changes that promote the buildup of plaque deposits in the arteries by compromising several systems at once. It reduces the efficiency with which the body processes toxins, and also commands the body to produce more of certain cells and substances than needed – for example, cholesterol – which function as harmful agents, forming plaque when there is a surplus.
Stress also causes dangerous changes to the composition of plaque. If it is formed when the body is under stress, it is increasingly likely to contain additional immune cells that cause inflammation, produced by the body under stress. This heightens the risk that plaque deposits will cause an extreme blockage resulting in a stroke or heart attack.
How can meditation prevent clogged arteries? The formation of plaque in the arteries requires several different systems within the body to be compromised by stress, notably our cholesterol production, our ability to process waste and our immune system. By soothing the whole body with meditation, we can ensure that each of the systems that could contribute to the buildup of plaque functions optimally. Meditation thereby offers significant protection against clogged arteries, and with it, peace of mind.
A holistic approach to heart disease: meditation and longevity
Consider the emphasis we place on the heart in terms of defining our emotional make-up. The heart is a nexus that connects our physical and psychological health. From being broken-hearted to wearing your heart on your sleeve, and from being open-hearted to hard-hearted, there are so many ways of feeling which involve the circumstances we find ourselves in tugging on our heartstrings. Life events and the way we process them steer us either to compassion and loving-kindness, or to anger and its steadfastly deadly sidekick, stress – capable of ringing the changes on the physical workings of the heart.
A heart needs to be free from disease to be healthy. The ever-diversifying body of research into meditation and heart disease elucidates the plethora of ways in which our psychological profile directly physically impacts the workings of the body, and in particular our heart health. Learning to manage stress and negative mind states can reduce its effects and help promote a healthy heart – treating the underlying problem that underpins all forms of cardiovascular disease, before it develops.
If you are currently undergoing treatment for a heart condition, discuss integrating Beeja meditation into your treatment approach with your doctor, and find out more about our classes and courses in London.