Let's say you're in a cardiologist’s office with your elderly aunt who's just been released from the hospital for heart issues. You carefully take notes, writing down the prescription medications that she's supposed to take each day. You record the recommendations to avoid smoking, to walk daily, and to eat a Mediterranean-style diet.
And you're taken aback when the doctor recommends that your aunt meditate for 20 minutes, twice a day. Is the doc serious? Should you write this down? Your aunt receives a handout explaining two 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?
OK, so maybe this scenario isn't happening all over the country, but it should be.
The idea that a meditation practice has measurable effects on heart and general health is not well known in the halls of most hospitals and clinics, but in the past year, there have been several exciting pieces of information that have led me to practice and teach the benefits of meditation to my patients.
Much of the research on the medical benefits of meditation has come from Dr. Robert Schneider and his team at the Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention. The researchers completed a study last year on 201 people with heart disease. The group was taught either to practice Transcendental Meditation 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!
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.
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 a meditation break replaced the smoking breaks given to employees in the past?
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.
Let’s spread the word.