Two Kent State psychology professors recently completed a study that found mindfulness-based stress reduction, or MBSR, which includes meditation practices, can reduce high blood pressure.
The goal of mindfulness-based stress reduction is to reduce participants’ stress levels and make them more focused on the task at hand or the current moment, said Joel Hughes, associate professor of psychology at Kent State and co-author of the study.
“You learn to cultivate non-judgmental awareness, or mindfulness, where you don’t overreact to everything,” he said.
Hughes and David Fresco, associate professor of psychology at Kent State and co-author of the study, found this mindfulness can help lower blood pressure.
MBSR is a term coined by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor emeritus of medicine and founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
MBSR has been shown to reduce stress and help treat depression, but it had not been previously researched as a treatment for high blood pressure, Fresco said. That was the reason he and Hughes started this study.
“A lot of people believed meditation and stress reduction were naturally good at reducing blood pressure, but it had not been a very scientifically, rigorously tested subject,” Fresco said.
Fresco and Hughes contacted 56 people in northeast Ohio who were considered pre-hypertensive, which means participants had higher blood pressure than normal. None of the participants had clinical high blood pressure requiring medication, but they were predisposed to developing the condition.
“This is that phase where you’re saying, ‘Hey, I need to do something about this,’” Hughes said.
The 56 participants were randomly split into two groups to receive two different kinds of treatment. Half of the group received MBSR; the other half received progressive muscle relaxation, which has been shown to reduce stress but does not lower blood pressure.
Both groups attended eight weekly 2 1/2-hour classroom sessions taught by a skilled practitioner with eight to 20 other participants in the study.
The MBSR participants were taught a variety of skills derived from Buddhist meditation practices, Fresco said. These practices included body scans, in which participants focus on relaxing their entire bodies in different sections; meditation of the breath, in which participants focus on their breathing; sitting meditation; and gentle yoga.
“It trains the neural circuits in the brain to focus,” Fresco said. “It lowers the amount of mind-wandering.”
At the end of the study, Fresco and Hughes found participants in MBSR had lowered their blood pressure.
“We’re beginning to see there are definite brain patterns that emerge in people who practice these skills,” Fresco said. “It strengthens your ability to confront stress. You’re more attentive and more able to take effective action when you’re confronted with something stressful.”
This ability to deal with stress is what results in lowered blood pressure, Fresco said.
A $545,000 grant from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the National Institutes of Health funded the study, which was published Oct. 15 in “Psychosomatic Medicine.” Hughes said this is the first study in the U.S. that looks at meditation to lower blood pressure and still requires testing to prove it is a viable way to lower blood pressure.
He also said this is a preventative treatment. Patients who have been diagnosed with high blood pressure should take medication prescribed by their doctor.
Fresco agreed, saying this is not a replacement for blood-pressure medication.
“It would be medically unethical to ask a person not to get treatment that might help them,” he said.
Rather, Fresco said this may be an option for patients who are still in the pre-hypertensive stage.
“It opens the door to more investigation about whether meditation is an option,” he said. “We may be able to say try meditation first … as opposed to going to a pill. Meditation may be an option for people if they can make the commitment.”
MBSR may also be able to focus on fighting temptations, such as consuming unhealthy foods or overeating, which can increase blood pressure.
“Temptation is one of the dangers of people who are susceptible to high blood pressure,” he said. “What’s strengthened is an ability to avoid temptation.”
Fresco said meditation might be able to be used in conjunction with taking medication for high blood pressure.
He also said it can help patients remember to take their blood-pressure medications.
“If your attention skills are strengthened, you may be more compliant with taking your medications on the regimen prescribed by your doctor,” he said.
Fresco and Hughes are now working on a larger study in partnership with Duke University. This study will include 180 participants and will examine the effects of MBSR of high blood pressure on minorities, especially African-Americans. The grant for the study will be reviewed in November.
Contact Emily Mills at [email protected]