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Making the Most of Meditation
Joel Khan, MD
Editor: Densie Webb, PhD, RD
Created in partnership with Blue Shield of California
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December 10, 2018

You go to the doctor and after being asked a series of questions and completing the examination, the doctor turns to you and says, “In view of the fact that your medical history includes a prior heart attack and anxiety, I recommend you learn to meditate,”  You receive a handout explaining several methods of meditation that can reduce the chances of heart attack, stroke and add years to your life. You should know that this is unusual.

But could it be true?

That meditation can result in measurable improvements in heart health, measures of anxiety, and support general health is not well known by many health professionals. However, there is exciting information that supports this notion and has led me to teach the benefits of meditation to my patients in my cardiology practice and to practice meditation myself. Here are 3 approaches to meditation. Try them out and see which one works for you.

Transcendental meditation

Much of the research on the medical benefits of meditation, particularly transcendental meditation (TM), for heart patients, has come from Dr. Robert Schneider and his team at the Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention in Fairfield, IA. The TM method involves using a sound or mantra repeated effortlessly over and over for 20 minutes twice a day. Students are taught in formal 4-day session lasting about 90 minutes each. It is taught by certified teachers for a fee. It is a non-religious practice for relaxation, personal growth, and stress reduction.

 

Dr. Schneider and his fellow researchers completed a study on 201 people with heart disease and prior heart attack. The group was taught either to practice TM 20 minutes twice a day or received instructions to spend at least 20 minutes learning about health. During a follow-up just over five years, the group that meditated experienced a 48% reduction in the combined occurrence of death, heart attack, and stroke! Few if any pharmaceutical agents can boast the same ability to reduce cardiac events.

Kirtan kriya

A second style of meditation is the kirtan kriya, taught by Dr. Dharma Singh Khalsa. He teaches a 12-minute kirtan kriya meditation (KKM), consisting of repeating the mantra sa-ta-na-ma aloud in a song, in a whisper, and silently, while using repeating finger movements or mudras. This is easily explained from a handout that can be printed off his website. Recent publications from his research unit are impressive.

Dr. Khalsa and a group out of UCLA have shown that KKM, resulted in different patterns of brain metabolism compared to other general relaxation methods. Using PET scanning, they saw that KKM manipulated genes resulting in the production of fewer inflammatory triggers, and increased telomerase activity (an enzyme that affects DNA) by almost 50%. Why do we care about telomerase? Well, for starters, the Nobel Prize in Medicine was recently awarded to another research group, which found a connection between increased telomerase activity and greater longevity. Finally, the group taught KKM also had higher scores of mental health and less depression.

Mindfulness-based stress reduction

A popular approach to meditation is mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) popularized by Jon Kabat-Zinn.  According to Kabat-Zinn, the basis of MBSR is mindfulness, which is considered a moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness. During the program, participants are asked to focus on informal meditation practice simply by incorporating mindfulness into their daily routines. Focusing on the present is thought to heighten sensitivity to the environment and reactions to it, and ultimately enhance self-management and coping skills. A recent review of 9 studies on MBSR involving 578 subjects demonstrated reductions in stress, depression, and anxiety.

The future?

With the potential benefits of health and longevity, the time has come to teach meditation more widely in medical and other settings. How wonderful would it be if meditation breaks were routine in the workplace? What if meditation were taught in doctor’s waiting rooms on the cable TV? Imagine if meditation classes were beamed into patient rooms on a health channel while they were healing in their beds? Although more research is needed, due to the small number of subjects in studies, why not get a head start on the future with these stress-relieving practices? Meditation is a powerful medical treatment with no side effects.

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