When he was just 17 years old, Nick Fitts was on the brink of hypertension, with blood pressure readings that put him on the high end of normal.
Don't miss these Health stories
More women opting for preventive mastectomy - but should they be?
Rates of women who are opting for preventive mastectomies, such as Angeline Jolie, have increased by an estimated 50 percent in recent years, experts say. But many doctors are puzzled because the operation doesn't carry a 100 percent guarantee, it's major surgery -- and women have other options, from a once-a-day pill to careful monitoring.
- Larry Page's damaged vocal cords: Treatment comes with trade-offs
- Report questioning salt guidelines riles heart experts
- CDC: 2012 was deadliest year for West Nile in US
- What stresses moms most? Themselves, survey says
- More women opting for preventive mastectomy - but should they be?
High blood pressure is not something high school students normally have on their minds, and Fitts was surprised to learn his own pressure was elevated. Then he was asked to do something that came as even more of a surprise: meditate.
Researchers at the Medical College of Georgia (MCG) in Augusta were conducting a study to see whether transcendental meditation, or TM, could help high schoolers lower their blood pressure. TM is one form of meditation, a practice intended to still the everyday flux of the mind and allow a person to be in a restful, yet alert, state.
Effect on body functions
Some researchers believe the effects that meditation has on the nervous system can alter a range of body functions, such as respiration, blood vessel dilation and stress-hormone regulation. And that, studies suggest, could translate into lower risks of disease, including cardiovascular disease.
Of the 156 teens who were eventually included in the MCG study, about half were randomly assigned to learn TM and practice it for 15 minutes, twice a day, every day. The rest of the students took health education classes.
Fitts was part of the TM group. When the four-month study was over, he found that his blood pressure was indeed lower. Overall, the study — published last year in the American Journal of Hypertension — found that meditators’ blood pressure dipped by an average of three or four points, while that of students in the health education group was unchanged.
Fitts, now a 22-year-old college student, still practices daily meditation, calling it a “rejuvenation” that helps him focus on his studies.
“My blood pressure’s not a problem anymore,” he says.
A heart-healthy habit?
Dr. Vernon Barnes, a research scientist in the pediatrics department at MCG, was the lead author on that study. He says the overall body of research on meditation suggests it may help both prevent and treat cardiovascular disease. More than 600 studies have been published over the past three decades on the potential health effects of TM, the most studied form of meditation.
Barnes points to recent studies that have found a number of effects that could protect against heart disease and stroke; besides lowering blood pressure, meditation may reduce cholesterol, improve the functioning of blood vessel walls, and possibly reduce atherosclerosis — the buildup of plaques in the arteries that can lead to heart attack and stroke.
Most recently, researchers reported in the May issue of the American Journal of Cardiology that such benefits may make for a longer life. They analyzed results from two studies that included 202 older adults with mildly elevated blood pressure who were randomly assigned to practice either TM or another stress-reduction technique, such as progressive muscle relaxation.
Men and women who practiced TM were 30 percent less likely to die of cardiovascular disease over the next eight years compared to their peers. Their risk of dying from any cause was 23 percent lower.
That study’s lead author, Dr. Robert H. Schneider of Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, says the findings, coupled with previous studies, “give strong evidence” that meditation is a heart-healthy habit.
'Something deeper going on'
Maharishi University was founded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Indian guru who introduced TM to the West. Schneider directs the university’s Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention, a center funded by the National Institutes of Health to research the health effects of TM and other forms of “natural” medicine.
Exactly how meditation may bestow health benefits is not completely clear. There is general agreement that regular practice can ease psychological stress, but Schneider believes there is also “something deeper going on.”
Meditation works better than other practices like muscle relaxation, he asserts, because it may awaken the body’s innate ability to “self-repair.” Meditation, both Schneider and Barnes say, is physiologically different from resting or sleeping because practitioners become still mentally and physically, but remain awake and aware.
Heart attacksDifferent types of meditation take different routes to this state. In TM, practitioners sit comfortably, with their eyes closed, and silently repeat a mantra — a sound, word or phrase — to quiet their mental activity. Advocates of the practice say it doesn’t require any particular religious belief or lifestyle change, though TM is rooted in Hinduism.
Other forms of meditation — which go by names like mindfulness meditation and relaxation meditation — encourage people to quiet their minds through methods other than a mantra, such as by bringing their attention to their breath or gazing at an object like a candle flame.
Fitts says that becoming mentally and physically still was a hard task at first. “It took a lot of discipline,” he recalls. “If you don’t do it regularly, you won’t get the maximum benefit.”
For those with heart disease or risk factors for it, Schneider says it’s important to stick with your doctor’s advice on treatment. Nor does meditation negate the importance of a healthy diet, exercise and other lifestyle measures that do a heart good.
Still, Barnes says, “We need to do something for the mind as well as the body.”
© 2013 MSNBC Interactive. Reprints