Becoming mindful - focusing attention and awareness on the moment - may sound like a New Age mantra, but researchers from Ohio claim that it can lower blood pressure to the extent that it could prevent or delay the need for drug intervention.
The study, published in Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine, shows that patients with borderline high blood pressure following a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program successfully reduced their blood pressure.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 68 million - 1 in 3 - adult Americans have hypertension or high blood pressure, which is commonly known as a "silent killer." Many sufferers are unaware that they have hypertension, as it often presents no warning signs or symptoms.
Researchers from Kent State University say that borderline high blood pressure - or prehypertension - currently affects 30% of Americans and is attracting medical attention because of the associated risks of cardiovascular disease.
Patients may be prescribed medication to treat this condition, but the researchers say MBSR may be a useful alternative to popping pills.
Strategies for reducing stress
MBSR is not a new idea, but one that is becoming increasingly popular among the medical community. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, was one of the first to see its benefits and understand the health implications.
Writing in a commentary in JAMA, he explores the clinical implications and identifies some of the challenges.
Prof. Kabat-Zinn devised this behavioral program to help people cope with stress and be more at ease in their lives. Incorporating techniques such as meditation, mind-body exercises and gentle yoga, MBSR has its roots in Buddhism but is most often taught in a non-religious format.
Joel W. Hughes, PhD and lead author of the study, says:
Prof. Hughes explains that while earlier studies have reported small but significant reductions in blood pressure using Transcendental Meditation, no one had yet tested the success of MBSR for patients with prehypertension.
The study looked at 56 men and women who had been diagnosed with prehypertension but were not prescribed drugs.
The group were randomly divided into two groups - one assigned an MBSR program and the other given lifestyle advice and a muscle-relaxation activity.
Group training sessions
Mindfulness training includes yoga, meditation and body scan exercises.
Individuals in the MBSR group were asked to attend sessions of 2.5 hours for 8 weeks. Here, an experienced instructor led them through three main types of mindfulness training - body scan exercises (where you draw awareness to particular parts of the body), sitting meditation and yoga exercises. They were also encouraged to practice these exercises at home.
At the end of the trial, the researchers compared blood pressure readings between the two groups.
They found that patients in the MBSR group gave lower readings for both systolic and diastolic blood pressure. On average, the systolic reading (the first, higher number) decreased by almost 5 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) and the diastolic reading decreased by nearly 2 mm Hg.
In the control group, the readings showed a less than 1 mm Hg drop in systolic pressure and an increase of 1 mm Hg.
However, it should be noted that in ambulatory blood pressure monitoring, where blood pressure is monitored over 24 hours, no significant difference in blood pressure was noted between the two groups.
Prof. Hughes points out that although the blood pressure reductions were modest, they were about the same as many drug interventions - and potentially enough to reduce the risk of heart attack or stroke.
"Our results provide evidence that MBSR, when added to lifestyle modification advice, may be an appropriate complementary treatment for blood pressure in the prehypertensive range."
The researchers note that further research is needed to see if the blood pressure-lowering effects can be maintained over time.