Despite medical advances, heart disease remains the number one cause of death for both men and women in the United States.
This is a startling reality, especially given how preventable the condition is for those of us who are not genetically predisposed to it. Stress, along with smoking, sedentary habits, and a poor diet are some of the main lifestyle-related risk factors that increase one’s chance of developing the condition.
February is National Heart Disease Awareness Month. So what better time than now to take a hard look at your lifestyle choices?
As an integrative medicine practitioner, I know the importance of stress management for heart health and overall wellness. Here, I'll explain why stress is a risk factor for heart disease and share why meditation is a natural and proven method to mitigate its effects.
How the Stress-Response System Works
Whether it’s related to work, health, money, relationships, or some other life situation, stress eventually finds its way into all our lives.
Thankfully, our bodies are well-equipped to handle stressful situations thanks to the autonomic nervous system, which is dedicated to regulating the often subconscious processes, such as increased heart rate and shallow breathing, that kick in when stress or anxiety is present.
The stress-reaction process is truly an amazing and efficient one: when the body is under stress, the amygdala in the brain fires up and sends an alert that there's a stressor. Then the sympathetic nervous system is activated and prepares the body to “fight or take flight.” The adrenals go to work, supplying the body with cortisol and adrenaline, completing the trifecta of the stress-response process.
When the stressor is gone, cortisol and adrenaline levels typically subside, and stability is restored to the body. However, when the stress-reaction process is repeated multiple times over a relatively short period, stress becomes chronic and the system breaks down.
This is called “allostatic load,” and it can result in an increase in physiological issues that compromise the immune system and even accelerate some disease processes, such as heart disease.
Why Meditation for Stress Relief Can Help Your Heart
In recent years, meditation for stress relief has become more widely accepted as a complementary treatment to conventional medicine.
As research continues to affirm its positive psychological and physiological effects on the body, the attitude of “it can’t hurt” has slowly shifted to “it can help.” According to a 2012 National Institutes of Health survey, meditation is the third most used mind-body therapy (next to yoga and osteopathic manipulation), with more than 18 million people in the U.S. engaging in some type of practice.
Here's what the science says about how a regular meditation practice can play a role in reducing cardiovascular disease:
1. It lowers blood pressure.
When left untreated, high blood pressure can lead to stroke and heart disease. One 2013 study showed that a regular mindfulness-based stress-reduction program was able to reduce both the systolic and diastolic blood pressure of participants over a period of eight weeks.
2. It releases feelings of stress and tension.
Meditating quietly even for just a few minutes a day can restore feelings of calm and peacefulness. In a 2015 study on nursing students, participants reported significant reduction of anxiety and stress after engaging in mind-body techniques, such as meditation and biofeedback, over a period of time.
3. It improves sleep.
Increasing evidence shows that mindfulness meditation can be successfully used for the treatment of insomnia, with good patient acceptance and durable results.
4. It boosts the immune system.
After an eight-week period of mindfulness meditation, the researchers in a University of Wisconsin, Madison, study reported “demonstrable effects on brain and immune function.”
5. It reduces inflammation.
Inflammation plays a major role in heart disease. Chronic inflammation is involved in all stages of atherosclerosis, the process that leads to cholesterol-clogged arteries. Research shows that practicing a mind-body therapy such as meditation, along with dietary and exercise programs, can help reduce underlying inflammatory processes.
The bottom line: Meditation is a practice that can be done anywhere at any time, alone in the privacy of your own home, or in the company of others.
As with many things in life, getting started is the hardest step. Private consultations with a trained practitioner can be a wonderful way to take that first step or to enhance an existing practice.
In the battle against stress and even heart disease, there is a lot you can do! By being proactive now, you can bring about changes that can make a significant difference in how you feel, both physically and emotionally, in the very near future.