You take your aunt to the doctor and after asking a series of questions and completing the examination, turns to you both and says “in view of the fact that your medical history includes a prior heart attack and anxiety, I recommend you learn to meditate”. Your aunt receives a handout explaining several methods of meditation that have been “scientifically proven” to reduce the chances of heart attack, stroke and add years to her life.
Could this be true? Meditation heals?
The idea that a meditation practice has measurable effects on heart health, measures of anxiety, and supports general health is not well known in the halls of most hospitals and clinics. However, there are several exciting pieces of information that support this notion and have led me to practice and teach the benefits of meditation to my patients in my cardiology practice.
Much of the research on the medical benefits of meditation for heart patients, particularly transcendental meditation (TM), has come from Dr. Robert Schneider and his team at the Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention. The TM method involves using a sound or mantra repeated effortlessly over and over for 20 minutes twice a day. Students are taught in formal 4 day session lasting about 90 minutes each. It is taught by certified teachers and a fee is charged. It is a non-religious practice for relaxation, personal growth, and stress reduction.
Dr. Schneider and fellow researchers completed a study on 201 people with heart disease and prior heart attack. The group was taught either to practice TM 20 minutes twice a day or received instructions to spend at least 20 minutes learning about health. During a follow-up just over five years, the group that meditated saw a 48% reduction in the combined occurrence of death, heart attack and stroke! One would be hard put to find a pharmaceutical agent with the same ability to reduce cardiac events.
Kirtan Kriya A second style of meditation is the kirtan kriya, which comes from the Kundalini tradition and is taught by Dr. Dharma Singh Khalsa. I had previously read Dr. Khalsa’s books on food and meditation as medicine, but recent publications from his research unit are impressive. He teaches a 12-minute kirtan kriya meditation (KKM) consisting of repeating the mantra sa-ta-na-ma aloud in a song, in a whisper, and silently, while using repeating finger movements or mudras. This is easily explained from a handout that can be printed off his website.
Dr. Khalsa and a group out of UCLA have shown that KKM resulted in different patterns of brain metabolism compared to other general relaxation methods. Using PET scanning, they saw that KKM resulted in 19 genes being up-regulated and 49 genes being down-regulated, resulting in the production of fewer inflammatory mediators, and increased telomerase activity by almost 50%. Why do we care about telomeres? Well, for starters, the Nobel Prize in Medicine was recently awarded to another research group, which found a connection between increased telomerase activity and greater longevity. Finally, the group taught KKM also had higher scores of mental health and lower depression.
Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction
A popular approach to meditation is the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) popularized by Jon Kabat-Zinn. According to Kabat-Zinn, the basis of MBSR is mindfulness, which is considered a moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness. During the program, participants are asked to focus on informal practice as well by incorporating mindfulness into their daily routines. Focusing on the present is thought to heighten sensitivity to the environment and one’s own reactions to it, consequently enhancing self-management and coping. A recent review of 9 studies on MBSR involving 578 subjects demonstrated reductions in stress, depression, and anxiety.
Although more research is needed due to the small number of research subjects in these studies, why wait to begin these practices?
With the potential benefits of health and longevity, the time has come to teach meditation more widely in medical and other settings. How wonderful would it be if meditation breaks were routine in the workplace? What if meditation were taught in doctor’s waiting rooms on the cable TV? Imagine if meditation classes were beamed into patient rooms on a health channel while they were healing in their beds?
Meditation is a medication of a powerful nature with no apparent side effects.