How mind-body therapies may improve health
By Natasha Persaud
If your blood pressure is above normal (and for one in three Americans, it is), try these soothing mind-body practices to help lower it. Here, naturopathic doctor Ather Ali, N.D., M.P.H., postdoctoral fellow and assistant director of Integrative Medicine at the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center in Derby, CT, shares his insights.
Can yoga or meditation improve high blood pressure?
"There is good evidence showing that poor emotional health and stress contribute to the incidence of high blood pressure,” says Dr. Ali. “By calming the body’s response to stress, also known as the fight-or- flight response, yoga or meditation helps to lower blood pressure.”
In his 2007 study, presented at a conference of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians, Dr. Ali demonstrated that yoga lowered both systolic and diastolic blood pressure in people with high blood pressure, while meditation significantly reduced systolic pressure. In a blood pressure reading (120/80, for example), the top number is the systolic pressure (when the heart contracts) and the bottom number is the diastolic pressure (when the heart relaxes).
“The magnitude of change in both the systolic and diastolic blood pressure numbers from yoga was comparable to the leading blood pressure medications,” says Dr. Ali, who adds that it is important not to stop taking your medication, since it could be dangerous. Follow your doctor's advice.
“Mind-body therapies are a great addition to what’s already known about lowering blood pressure,” he says. And because these therapies are neither medications nor foods, drug interactions or side effects are not an issue. People with prehypertension who are not yet candidates for medication may benefit from these lifestyle interventions.
Yoga involves controlled breathing, under the guidance of an instructor, as well as standing, sitting, lying and bending in certain postures. There are several different kinds of yoga, some more physically challenging than others.
In meditation, you breathe calmly while you direct your mind away from day-to-day life by focusing on a repeated word or phrase, an object or your breathing, or on something else that brings you peace (e.g., a scene you imagine, such as balloons drifting in the wind). “Many spiritual traditions have a meditative aspect; some are very active, while some are very calm,” says Dr. Ali.
Although you can meditate or do some yoga on your own, “it’s best to have an instructor teach you proper technique at first,” he says. Meditation instruction may be available through religious or spiritual institutions. You can find yoga classes at many fitness and wellness centers. Dr. Ali suggests daily practice for best results.