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Could This Drug-Free Practice Help Prevent Heart Disease?

Could This Drug-Free Practice Help Prevent Heart Disease?

It can help you relax and feel happy—and now, for the first time ever, the American Heart Association says it might have other benefits, too.

Meditation is a great way to relax, focus your thoughts and clear your mind. Once considered mainly a religious practice, it has gone mainstream, with health professionals recognizing its ability to elevate mood and make patients feel calmer. And while meditation is considered by many doctors to be a low-cost, low-risk intervention for heart disease, its potential for helping reduce heart disease risk has caught the attention of the American Heart Association (AHA).

The American Heart Association’s statement about meditation
In September 2017, the AHA released a statement saying that although more research is needed, in addition to traditional treatments such as medication and lifestyle changes, meditation might lower your odds of cardiovascular disease. Some cardiologists, like Poorna Nalabothu, MD, from St. Mark’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah, are encouraged. “The statement by the AHA just positively reinforced advice I already give my patients,” she says.

To reach a consensus, the AHA reviewed data from 57 mediation studies. It didn’t include those that involved a physical movement component, like tai chi and yoga, since exercise has added heart benefits. Researchers looked at the practice’s effects on stress, smoking cessation, blood vessel health, blood pressure (BP), metabolic syndrome and resistance to insulin.

The studies suggested that meditation can have positive effects on brain physiology and your mental state—for example, how your your body responds to stress. That may, in turn, explain the apparent heart health benefits.

The statement went on to explain how the practice affects cardiovascular disease—both in terms of primary prevention (people at risk but who have not developed it) and secondary prevention (people who already have it):

  • Primary prevention: Two short term-studies reported reductions in mortality. However, because there was limited overall evidence, no conclusions could be drawn about the benefits of meditation.
  • Secondary prevention: In patients who already had coronary artery disease, meditation was somewhat beneficial. Because there was limited-follow up on these studies, there is more evidence supporting its reduction of cardiac risk factors and psychological factors than reductions in deaths or heart attacks.

The data showed that while there might be some heart-related benefits to meditation, larger scale studies and additional research is still needed.

Meditation as part of a heart-healthy lifestyle
Although Dr. Nalabothu supports meditation, she adds, “You have to combine it with some other activity.” Since research on heart health and the effects of meditation is still evolving, in addition to taking your medications as prescribed, mix the practice with these healthy habits:

Check your cholesterol and BP. “You should know your numbers to help reduce your risk of disease,” says Nalabothu.

  • The AHA suggests getting your cholesterol checked every four to six years after age 20. People who already have cardiovascular disease or are at higher risk might need their cholesterol checked more often.
  • Blood pressure can be taken by a doctor, or you can monitor it at home with devices and trackers. The US Preventive Services Task Force recommends an annual BP screening for adults age 40 and over, or anyone at increased risk for high BP. Before that, screening every three to five years is suggested.

Consume a colorful diet. Eating the rainbow—meaning, a variety of richly hued fruits and vegetables—can help provide you with essential vitamins and antioxidants, which can help protect against heart disease. For example, blue and purple fruits such as berries and grapes may help reduce your risk of atherosclerosis because they have anti-inflammatory properties.

Move more. For optimal health benefits, try at least 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity physical activity or 75 minutes a week of more vigorous activity.

Eat less salt. The AHA recommends watching sodium intake to help keep your blood pressure low, and suggests that adults limit their salt to no more than 1,500 milligrams per day. Be extra conscientious of food labels and choose low-sodium foods.

How to get your Om on
Meditation can come in many forms, and everyone has their own method of meditating. According to Nalabothu, there’s no wrong way to do it. “But for better results, I would recommend long-term meditation,” she says. Often, benefits of meditation are only apparent in those who meditate at least 20 minutes daily, and in some instances twice daily. And while the AHA grouped all kinds of meditation types together in their analysis, most meditation studies focus on one type. Transcendental Meditation (silent mantra meditation), for example, has been shown to lower blood pressure in single studies.

If you’re not sure how to meditate, you can buy a book, listen to a podcast or head to a local yoga or tai chi class. Apps can be just as effective as group mediation—and some are free. “The whole idea is to get to a point where you’re not thinking about anything and feel peaceful,” says Nalabothu.

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