Black adolescents with high normal blood pressure who practice transcendental meditation improve the ability of their blood vessels to relax and may reduce their risk of becoming adults with cardiovascular disease, researchers say.
After eight months of meditation, these adolescents experienced a 21 percent increase in the ability of their blood vessels to dilate compared to a 4 percent decrease experienced by their non-meditating peers, says Dr. Vernon A. Barnes, physiologist at the Medical College of Georgia's Georgia Prevention Institute and lead investigator on the study.
"Our blood vessels are not rigid pipes," says Dr. Barnes. "They need to dilate and constrict, according to the needs of the body. If this improvement in the ability to dilate can be replicated in other at-risk groups and cardiovascular disease patients, this could have important implications for inclusion of meditation programs to prevent and treat cardiovascular disease and its clinical consequences.
"We know this type of change is achievable with lipid lowering drugs, but it's remarkable that a meditation program can produce such a change," the researcher says.
In the April 2004 issue of the American Journal of Hypertension, Dr. Barnes and his colleagues reported that 15 minutes of twice-daily transcendental meditation steadily lowered the blood pressure of 156 black, inner-city adolescents and their pressures tended to stay lower.
This new study, being presented during the 63rd Annual Scientific Conference of the American Psychosomatic Society held March 2-5 in Vancouver, focused on 111 of those adolescents, 57 who meditated and 54 controls.
MCG researchers found among the meditators an increased ability of the blood vessel lining, called the endothelium, to relax. "Dysfunction in the ability of the endothelium to dilate is an early event in heart disease, a process that starts at a young age," says Dr. Barnes.
At four months and again at eight months, researchers used echocardiography to measure the diameter of the right brachial artery, the main artery that feeds the arm, before and after a blood pressure cuff was inflated for two minutes. They found essentially no difference in the ability of that vessel to relax after stress in either group at four months. But by eight months, EDAD or endothelial-dependent arterial dilation, was significantly improved in the meditators, says Dr. Barnes, noting that as with all lifestyle changes, the full benefits of meditating may take a while.
"Change can't be expected overnight," he says. "Meditation and other positive lifestyle habits such as exercising and eating right have to become part of your life, like brushing your teeth." Long-term studies are needed to determine the long-term impact of meditation on the risk of heart disease, he says.
Doctors already know that smoking, high blood pressure and cholesterol, and cardiovascular disease are all associated with decreased EDAD. "With the high prevalence of heart disease we have in our country today, this is something that should be considered," he says of meditation, which is inexpensive and has no side effects.
The obesity epidemic in the United States, he says, likely is the primary contributor to the increasing blood pressure rates in children. But obesity appears to be part of an unhealthy cycle where the stresses of everyday life – such as poverty and not feeling safe at home – contribute to bad habits such as overeating and/or eating high-fat comfort foods and not exercising. Stress also may impair sleep, preventing the body – and blood pressure – from resting and recovering.
It appears that meditating – allowing the mind to settle to minimal activity for 15 minutes twice daily – may help the meditator and his blood vessels relax in the hectic world around him.
Dr. Frank Treiber, director of MCG's Georgia Prevention Institute, and Dr. Surender Malhotra, cardiology fellow at MCG, are co-authors on the study which is highlighted as one of 10 abstract submissions to the conference viewed as having the highest potential to change clinical practice from the perspective of screening, diagnosis or treatment.
The research was funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.