Long believed to be a calming activity, a new study provides evidence of the benefits of mindfulness in reducing high blood pressure.

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A recent study uses mindfulness to address hypertension.

There is anecdotal evidence that meditation and mindfulness training may be able to reduce high blood pressure and hypertension. However, clinical confirmation of these claims has been scarce until last month, when researchers published a new study in the journal PLOS One.

The authors report the results of a Mindfulness-Based Blood Pressure Reduction (MB-BP) program specifically designed to "evaluate acceptability, feasibility, and effects on hypothesized proximal self-regulation mechanisms."

Participants who enrolled in the MB-BP program experienced significant reductions in blood pressure levels that were still in effect at follow-up examinations 1 year after the trial.

Hypertension is a significant risk factor for heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the United States and globally. However, doctors can find hypertension challenging to treat.

"We know enough about hypertension that we can theoretically control it in everybody — yet in about half of all people diagnosed, it is still out of control," according to lead author Eric Loucks, associate professor of epidemiology, behavioral and social sciences, and medicine at Brown University in Providence, RI.

The blood pressure challenge and MB-BP

When doctors diagnose someone with high blood pressure, they typically recommend more healthful eating, which includes reducing salt intake, as well as regular exercise and weight loss. However, some people may find such permanent lifestyle changes difficult to maintain. Doctors might also prescribe medication to help control blood pressure.

In some people, hypertension has a genetic component, and lifestyle changes do not bring blood pressure down into the normal range.

The MP-BP curriculum incorporates mindfulness to address high blood pressure directly and to help people strengthen their ability to maintain the healthful habits that can keep it under control.

Loucks and his colleagues developed a 10-session program that followed 43 participants with high or elevated blood pressure for 1 year. More than 80% of participants had hypertension, with blood pressure readings of 130 millimeters of mercury (mmHg) systolic over 85 mmHg diastolic or higher. The other people had systolic readings of between 120 mmHg and 130 mmHg, with a diastolic measurement of at least 80 mmHg.

According to Loucks, the program was "a deliberately multimodal intervention" that taught participants a variety of techniques. These included mindfulness training and explanations of how behaviors can contribute to high blood pressure. They also encouraged the participants to take medications as prescribed by their doctors consistently.

The effect of the MB-BP curriculum

After 1 year, the participants' blood pressure was still lower than at baseline. In addition, their self-management skills remained strong. Participants who had struggled to follow healthful lifestyle recommendations before the study had maintained lifestyle changes.

The participants who benefited most from the program were those with stage 2 uncontrolled hypertension, which is characterized by a systolic measurement of over 140 mmHg. These participants saw a mean reduction in their blood pressure of 15.1 mmHg.

Additional testing is now underway through a randomized control trial involving a larger cohort of 200 participants. "Future trials," Loucks says, "could involve a dismantling study, where we would take out some of the health education, for example, and see if mindfulness training still had significant effects. That's certainly something we're looking at doing in the long-term. But mindfulness training is usually designed to be integrated with standard medical care."

Loucks is hopeful that the study's results can change lives: "I hope that these projects will lead to a paradigm shift in terms of the treatment options for people with high blood pressure."

"The hope is that if we can start mindfulness training early in life, we can promote a trajectory of healthy aging across the rest of people's lives. That will reduce their chances of getting high blood pressure in the first place."

Eric Loucks