Meditation can benefit heart health in many ways.
If you’re too stressed out right now to carve out time to hit the gym and make fresh, healthy meals, meditation is one simple thing you can do that may soothe your frayed nerves and also keep your heart healthy.
A study published June 29 in the American Journal of Cardiology examined data from 61,267 adults who participated in the National Health Interview Survey from 2012 to 2017, including 5,851 people (9.6 percent) who said they practiced meditation. These surveys ask about a broad range of health topics, including whether or not people meditate.
Compared with people who didn’t meditate, those who did had a lot of heart health benefits, including:
- 35 percent lower risk of high cholesterol
- 14 percent lower risk of high blood pressure
- 30 percent lower risk of type 2 diabetes
- 24 percent lower risk of stroke
- 49 percent lower risk of coronary artery disease
“Meditation could reduce stress and anxiety — and we can certainly see some signals that meditation is probably beneficial to heart health,” says the study’s lead author, Chayakrit Krittanawong, MD, of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
Even though the study shows a clear association between meditation and better heart health, it has several limitations. The biggest drawback of the study is that researchers lacked data on what type of meditation people did, and different forms may have different benefits. They also lacked data on how often people meditated and for how many months or years, which might also impact the health benefits.
The American Heart Association Recommends Meditation
Still, the study results offer fresh evidence in support of 2017 guidelines from the American Heart Association that endorse meditation to help lower the risk of heart disease — as long as people do it in addition to proven methods for boosting heart health like drugs to lower cholesterol or blood pressure and lifestyle changes like improved eating and exercise habits.
The AHA guidelines suggest that many common forms of meditation have heart benefits, including:
- Samatha Calming the mind through concentration on your breath, an object, or an image
- Vipassana (insight meditation) Emphasizes awareness of breath and tuning in to air as it passes in and out of the nose
- Mindful meditation Techniques that create awareness through focused attention, observation, and acceptance of things without judgment
- Zen meditation (zazen) Focus on awareness of breath and seated posture, with observation of thoughts and experiences in the mind and environment
- Raja yoga A combination of breathing techniques, mantras, and meditation focused on chakras
- Loving-kindness (metta) Sending kindness to yourself, to a friend or loved one, to a stranger or neutral person in your life, to someone who is difficult, and to the universe
- Transcendental Meditation Meditation based on a personalized mantra to help focus your mind inward
- Relaxation response Awareness through tracking breath or repetition of words or phrases, or prayer
These types of meditation don’t involve physical activity — making them possible for people of all fitness and ability levels to try. And, according to the AHA, these methods may be associated with reduced stress and anxiety, fewer symptoms of depression, better sleep, and improved overall well-being.
What Past Research Says About Meditation and Heart Health
Several previous studies have linked meditation to a reduction in several risk factors for heart attacks and strokes, including high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol, as well as better-controlled blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes and coronary artery disease.
A clinical trial published in June 2018 in the Journal of Diabetes Research, for example, randomly assigned 60 people with type 2 diabetes and poorly controlled blood sugar to either practice mindfulness-based stress reduction weekly for eight weeks or join a control group that didn’t meditate. After three months, people who meditated had significantly lower blood sugar than people who didn’t.
Another clinical trial, published in 2018 in the International Journal of Yoga, tested the effect of 10 weeks of twice-weekly group meditation sessions on people with coronary artery disease and found participants in these sessions had lower blood sugar at six months than people in the study who were assigned to a control group that didn’t meditate.
A review of 19 clinical trials published in 2017 in the Journal of Hypertension found both Transcendental Meditation and other forms of meditation caused lower blood pressure.
Why Meditation Can Help Improve Heart Health
There is a general consensus that reducing psychological distress, anxiety, depression, and anger or hostility can all be helpful in preventing heart disease and other chronic illnesses, says Sanford Nidich, a doctor of education and the director of the Center for Social-Emotional Health and a professor of physiology and health at Maharishi International University in Fairfield, Iowa.
“Meditation practice may help reduce psychological distress by lowering the overactivation of the sympathetic nervous system, a prominent biomarker of distress,” says Dr. Nidich, who wasn’t involved in the current study.
When stress puts the sympathetic nervous system in overdrive, it triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response, leading to a surge in stress hormones and inflammatory chemicals in the body as well as spikes in blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygen consumption.
“Reactivity to stressful stimuli creates a sequence of physiological changes in the body as well as in the mind that are counter to maintaining a good, balanced state of health,” Nidich says.
How to Start Meditating
You don’t need a lot of fancy equipment or money or time to give meditation a try. Even five minutes a day, guided by any number of apps available as free downloads, can help novices get started, Dr. Krittanawong says.
“Try 5 to 10 minutes a day to start, but be consistent,” Krittanawong advises. “Any meditation or mindfulness would help reduce stress and anxiety, particularly in the COVID-19 era.”