In moments of stress, ‘take a beat’ to lower blood pressure

Heart Health
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f you have high blood pressure, your doctor might prescribe an ACE inhibitor, beta-blocker, diuretic or other medication. They might encourage you to follow a specific nutrition plan, exercise more regularly or cut back on glasses of wine. They might also prescribe daily meditation.

Previously, the idea of using a practice like meditation for high blood pressure—a risk factor for everything from heart attack and stroke to dementia and diabetes—may have seemed laughable. But medical research from the past decade has demonstrated that regular meditation can go a long way in managing this common health risk.

"For many of my patients, high blood pressure isn't just a result of a poor diet. Now, it's about stress and the daily demands of work and family," says Lankenau Heart Institute interventional cardiologist Mara Caroline, MD

These demands have always been there but our "always on" culture has not. The official workday might still end at 5:00, but emails, texts and phone calls can trickle in during the evening hours. Caring for kids or partners has always been part of life, but many people are now caring for aging parents, too. Facing an ever-growing to-do list, most of us are quick to put ourselves last and rarely find time for the practices and habits that keep us healthy and allow us to manage stress.

Stress alone isn't enough to cause high blood pressure, but the activities we engage (or don't engage) in when we're stressed are. Think: skipping our workouts, having a drink to unwind, reaching for the chocolate or chips. Once in a while, it's okay to reach for the comfort food or postpone a workout. But over time, these behaviors can cause your blood pressure to increase, putting you at risk for heart attack, stroke and other serious health conditions.

How can meditation lower blood pressure?

So, how can meditation help? Blood pressure is a measure of how much blood is passing through your veins and the ease with which it can do so. High blood pressure indicates that your arteries are narrow and that blood is meeting resistance as it tries to move through the arteries.

Meditation and relaxation techniques have been shown to increase the amount of nitric oxide in your body, a compound that can widen blood vessels and make it easier for blood to flow freely when the heart is pumping. 

While meditation itself isn't likely to be a cure-all for cases of high blood pressure, it can effective when used in conjunction with other lifestyle modifications like eating well and exercising.

But, like all things, meditation needs to become a habit for it to be effective. And this can be a hurdle for some.

"Many people wonder how they'll find time in their day to meditate on top of everything else. It might seem counterintuitive…to feel less stressed, add something else to the to-do list," acknowledges Dr. Caroline. "While it should be a commitment, meditation doesn't have to be more than five or 10 minutes of your time every day."

And, even for the busiest among us, five to 10 minutes is possible. That's because meditation can be done anywhere. You don't need to be sitting cross-legged with your eyes closed in a quiet room; meditation might just be repeating a mantra to yourself when you're feeling stressed or frustrated, listening to music instead of talking on the phone or texting, practicing deep breathing when you're waiting in line or during your commute…the opportunities are endless!

"Meditation doesn't allow you more time in your day but it does allow you to be more present and thoughtful during the time you have," says Dr. Caroline. Added up, these moments of meditation can have a positive effect on your health, too.

If you have questions related to your heart health or would like more information about the Main Line Health Women's Heart Initiative, our team of cardiologists and support groups, please call 484.476.3WHI (484.476.3944). Main Line Health is also a proud sponsor of the American Heart Association's Go Red For Women campaign.

Main Line Health serves patients at hospitals and health centers throughout the western suburbs of Philadelphia. To schedule an appointment with a specialist at Main Line Health, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (225.5654).

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