Black adolescents at risk to be hypertensive adults can lower their blood pressure through daily transcendental meditation, according to research published in the April issue of the American Journal of Hypertension.
A study of 156 inner-city black adolescents in Augusta, Ga., with high-normal pressure showed that teens who practiced 15 minutes of transcendental meditation twice daily steadily lowered their daytime blood pressures over four months and that their pressures tended to stay lower, according to Dr. Vernon A. Barnes, physiologist at the Medical College of Georgia and principal author of the paper.
"Allowing your mind to go to that state of inner quietness and be there for a time has an effect on the physiology by reducing stress hormone levels like cortisol and reducing activation of the sympathetic nervous system which controls the fight-or-flight response," says Dr. Barnes. "In a short time, we can teach this standardized meditation method that has been taught all over the world for 50 years. That technique can then be used throughout a lifetime without side effects or additional expense."
Adolescents in the study who practiced transcendental meditation experienced an average 3.5 millimeter drop in their systolic pressure, the top number that indicates the pressure inside blood vessels that the heart is pumping against, and a 3.4 millimeter decrease in diastolic pressure, the bottom number that indicates pressure while the heart is at rest.
Participants in health education classes, who served as the control groups, experienced no significant change. Heart rate, probably one of the simplest measures of stress level reduction, also dropped in meditating students and remained consistent in the control groups, Dr. Barnes says.
"Even if your blood pressure comes down a few millimeters when you are young, if you can maintain that into adulthood, you can significantly reduce your risk for cardiovascular disease," he says.
High blood pressure affects one in four adults in the U.S. and is a major risk factor for heart attack and stroke, the first and third leading causes of death, respectively, according to the National Center for Health Statistics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "This is not a problem that occurs suddenly at age 45 or 50," Dr. Barnes says. "High blood pressure starts at a young age and it seems it's starting at a younger age than we have previously thought. So we wanted to look at intervention with young people, specifically young African-Americans who likely will have the most severe problems with hypertension when they grow up."
Dr. Barnes first identified students with high-normal pressure based on three consecutive screenings in the Richmond County, Ga., school system, then randomly assigned them to the transcendental meditation program or a 15-minute health education program based on National Institutes of Health guidelines that included no intervention.
The transcendental meditation group meditated for 15 minutes twice daily - once at school and once at home - and twice daily at home during the weekend. To ensure an accurate measure of blood pressure as the adolescents went about their lives, both groups wore 24-hour monitoring devices to check their blood pressure every 20 minutes from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. and every 30 minutes from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. Researchers also looked at parameters such as body mass index, weight, body surface area and environmental stress so that other changes that might affect blood pressure would be noted.
"Once the program stopped, we had a follow-up at four months and their blood pressures were still down," Dr. Barnes says, but long-term studies are needed to see the impact of reduced pressure on disease development.
He noted that underlying physiologic pathways that enable meditation to lower blood pressure are unclear and also need further study. However, the practice that transcends thought has been shown to reduce sympathetic nervous system response and stress hormone levels which ultimately reduces the workload on the heart. "These events may result in improved myocardial and vascular function, leading to decreased (blood pressure) levels, thereby helping to prevent early onset of hypertension," he and his colleagues at MCG's Georgia Prevention Institute write.
He says that the health benefits of transcendental meditation are becoming more accepted in the medical community as these types of studies document its impact on the body and mind. The willingness of the teens to practice meditation is evidence, although perhaps less traditional documentation, of its benefits as well. "How do you get a teen-ager to sit for 15 minutes with his eyes closed twice a day every day for a long period of time? How can you possibly accomplish that?" he asks rhetorically.
The technique, which enables the most settled, relaxed state of mind, is an easy sell once people practice it, says Dr. Barnes, who has used the technique since 1972 and taught it since 1974. "Anyone can meditate and anyone can benefit. You don't have to be under a huge load of stress and you don't have to be hypertensive. There are many benefits in terms of developing your own potential," he says, equating the experience to a mental bath that washes away the stress of the day.
Dr. Barnes' research was supported by funding from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and an American Heart Association Scientist Development Grant. He also acknowledged the support of the Richmond County School System in helping make the research possible.