Meditation is a Powerful Medication: A Cardiologist Explains
On a visit to a cardiologist’s office with your elderly aunt just released from the hospital for heart issues, you carefully take notes. You record the recommendations to avoid smoking, to walk daily, and to eat a Mediterranean style diet. You write down the prescription medications that she is supposed to take each day. As the visit is coming to an end, however, you are taken aback when a strong recommendation is made to meditate 20 minutes twice a day. Do you write this one down? Your aunt receives a handout explaining 2 methods of meditation practice “scientifically proven” to reduce the chances of heart attack, stroke and even prolong life. Is this true?
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 the last 12 months has seen several exciting pieces of information that have led me to practice and teach the benefits of meditation to my patients. A lot 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 persons with heart disease (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23149426?dopt=Abstract). The group was taught either to practice Transcendental Meditation 20 minutes twice a day or received instructions to spend at least 20 minutes on general health education. During an average follow up just over 5 years, there was a 48% reduction in the meditation group for the combined occurrence of death, heart attack and stroke! Blood pressure was on average lower by 5 mmHg and measures of anger were also reduced.
A second style of meditative practice is the kirtan kriya which comes from the Kundalini tradition and is taught by Dr. Dharma Singh Khalsa (www.alzheimersprevention.org). 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 out loud in a song, in a whisper, and silently, while using repeating finger movements or mudras. This is easily taught in the office from a handout that can be printed off from the website.
Dr. Khalsa and a group out of UCLA have shown that compared to general relaxation methods, KKM resulted in different patterns of brain metabolism using PET scanning, resulted in 19 genes being up-regulated and 49 genes being down-regulated resulting in the production of less inflammatory mediators, and increased telomerase activity by almost 50%. In research that resulted in a Nobel Prize in Medicine awarded to another research group, increased telomerase activity has been associated with longer telomeres at the tips of chromosomes and greater longevity. Finally, test scores of depression fell and general mental health increased in the group taught KKM.
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 was 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.