meditation and heart disease

Does meditation have health benefits?

wildmind meditation newsFred Cicetti, LiveScience.com: Meditation definitely reduces stress. And too much stress is bad for your health.

There is some research that indicates meditation may help with: Allergies, anxiety, asthma, binge eating, cancer, depression, fatigue, heart disease, high blood pressure, pain, sleep difficulties and substance abuse.

I started meditating in 1976, when Dr. Herbert Benson published his book, “The Relaxation Response.”

The techniques he advocated work. In the years since, I’ve found that, when I forget to meditate, I get a stress buildup. As soon as I meditate, I feel better. And the effects of the meditation carry through the day.

I studied Zen Buddhist …

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The science of happiness and compassion (Day 41)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

Compassion is becoming a “hot topic” in scientific research, and the good news is that compassion has been shown to be innate, and that it makes us happier, more popular, and healthier.

1. Compassion is wired into us

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology observed two-year-olds’ reactions to seeing an adult who needed help because he or she had dropped an object and had trouble picking it up. The children’s pupil size increased — a sign of heightened concern — when they saw the adult in distress. Their concern decreased if they were allowed to help (and 10 out of 12 children chose to do so) or if they saw a second adult come to the rescue. However their signs of concern increased if they were prevented from helping and no one else did so.

Despite popular views of evolution as favoring competition and “survival of the fittest” (a phrase Darwin never used, incidentally), we humans have clearly evolved to cooperate and to be concerned for one another. As Darwin suggested, “communities which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.”

2. Compassion is spontaneous, selfishness is calculated

In a recent paper in Nature researchers detailed a study in which people had to decide how much money to contribute to a common pool. The less time people had to think about their decision, the more generous they were — giving on average 15% more than those with more time. In a second study participants either had to make the same decision in less than ten seconds or were given more time. Again, those given longer to deliberate were stingier.

These studies strongly suggest that people have an initial impulse to behave cooperatively, and that selfishness is a more deliberate and secondary phenomenon.

3. Compassion makes you cool

Psychology researcher Kristin Layous of UC Riverside and a colleague from British Columbia asked nine to eleven-year olds either to perform three acts of kindness – like sharing their lunch or giving their mom a hug when she felt stressed – or to keep track of three enjoyable places they visited each week. Both groups of students improved in well-being over the four weeks of the study, but those students who performed kind acts experienced significantly bigger increases in peer popularity than those students who went visiting.

The authors noted that “Increasing peer acceptance is a critical goal, as it is related to a variety of important academic and social outcomes, including reduced likelihood of being bullied.”

4. Compassion makes you healthy

If compassion increases your social connectedness, then it likely also boosts your health. Research by psychologists Ed Diener and Martin Seligman suggest that our levels of social connectedness predict how long we’ll live, how quickly we’ll recover from disease, how much happiness and well-being we’ll have, and how much purpose and meaning there will be in our lives.

One major study showed that a lack of social connectedness is worse for your health than smoking. You’d expect compassion, which emotionally connects us with others, boosts our immunity against ill health. And in fact a study by Thaddeus Pace of Emory University School of Medicine, and colleagues, showed that those study participants who did most compassion meditation showed the least distress when subjected to stress tests, and a reduced level of Interleukin-6, which is a chemical linked to stress, heart disease, arthritis, osteoporosis, type-2 diabetes and certain cancers.

A recent study by Barbara Frederickson, of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, investigated the effect of compassion meditation on “vagal tone,” which is a measure of the degree of healthy activity in the vagus nerve. The vagus regulates how efficiently our heart rate changes with our breathing. The greater the tone in the vagus, the higher our heart-rate variability and the less we’re at risk for heart disease. The vagus is also thought to play a role in regulating glucose levels our immune response.

5. Compassion makes you happy

Neuroscientist Jordan Grafman from the National Institutes of Health carried out a brain-imaging study which found that the brain’s “pleasure centers” which light up when we experience pleasure or experience rewards are just as active when we’re giving money to charity compared to when we’re given money.

Another study found that those who gave were actually happier than those who received. Elizabeth Dunn, of the University of British Columbia, gave money to participants in a study. Half of the participants were asked to spend the money on themselves, while the other half were asked to spend the money on others. At the end of the study, those who had spent the money on others felt significantly happier than those who had spent the money on themselves.

And again, this starts young. Another study in which Dunn was involved, along with lead author Lara Aknin, found that even before the age of two, toddlers showed greater happiness when giving treats to others than receiving treats themselves. And the more they sacrifice, the happier they become. Children who forfeit their own resources in order to benefits other kids are happier than when giving the same treat at no cost.

The bottom line

Compare the above findings to the received “wisdom” that we’re inherently selfish. Economic models are based on the assumption that we’re motivated by self-interest, and entire political ideologies are founded on that same notion. And yet clearly compassion is an inherent part of our nature, and exercising it enhances our health and enriches our emotional well-being.

What’s more the level of compassion we have is not a fixed quantity, but can be developed through practice — including meditation.

PS. You can see a complete list all the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Meditation might cut risk of heart attack, stroke in blacks

Steven Reinberg, HealthDay: For black Americans suffering from heart disease, meditation might help prevent heart attacks, strokes and early death, a small new study suggests.

These benefits appear to be the results of meditation’s ability to lower blood pressure, stress and anger, all of which have been linked to increased cardiovascular risk, researchers say.

“This is a whole new physiological effect on top of conventional treatment,” said lead researcher Dr. Robert Schneider, director of the Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention in Fairfield, Iowa. “People can prevent heart disease reoccurrence using their own mind-body connection. People have this internal self-healing ability.”

An outside …

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Mindful eating helps with lowering weight and reducing blood sugar

Eating mindfully is just as effective as adhering to nutrition-based guidelines in reducing weight and blood sugar levels in adults with Type 2 diabetes, a new study at Ohio State University suggests.

In a comparison study of the effectiveness of the two types of behavioral interventions, participants lost about the same amount of weight – an average of between 3 1/2 and 6 pounds – and lowered their long-term blood sugar levels significantly after three months.

One treatment group followed an established diabetes self-management education program, with a strong emphasis on nutrition information. The other group was trained in mindful meditation and a mindful approach to food selection and eating. Both interventions, involving weekly group meetings, also recommended physical activity.

“The more traditional education program includes general information about diabetes, but with more emphasis on nutrition and food choice: What are different types of carbohydrates and fats and how many am I supposed to have? What should I look for when I read a food label? What are healthy options when dining out? That was the traditional diabetes education program,” said Carla Miller, associate professor of human nutrition at Ohio State University and lead author of the study.

“We compared it to an intervention where mindful meditation was applied specifically to eating and food choices. This intervention group did not receive specific nutrition goals. We said we want you to really tune into your body before you eat. Take a few minutes to assess how hungry you are and make conscious choices about how much you’re eating. Stop eating when you’re full.

“We studied two very different approaches, and we found they both worked. This means people with diabetes have choices when it comes to eating a healthy diet,” Miller said.

The research is published in the November issue of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Participants were adults between age 35 and 65 years and had been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes for at least one year. To be eligible, they had to have a body mass index, a measure of weight relative to height, of 27 or more, indicating they were overweight, and a hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c) reading of at least 7 percent. HbA1c measures blood glucose levels in the previous two to three months; normal HbA1c is 5.6 percent or lower.

Study participants were randomly assigned to a treatment group. Twenty-seven completed the mindful eating program, and 25 completed the traditional diabetes self-management program called “Smart Choices.” Each intervention involved eight weekly and two biweekly 2 ½-hour sessions with trained facilitators.

Trainers of the mindfulness program encouraged participants to cultivate “inner wisdom,” or mindful awareness related to eating, and “outer wisdom,” which referred to personal knowledge of optimal nutrition choices for people with diabetes. Each session included guided meditation oriented toward participants’ experiences and emotions associated with food. Participants received CDs for help with home meditation practice.

“We have so many environmental cues to eat in America that we’ve tuned out our normal physiological signals to eat. Being mindful means stopping long enough to become aware of these physiological cues,” Miller said. “We also tried to generate awareness, staying in the moment, and living and eating in response to hunger instead of habits and unconscious eating.”

The mindful intervention also included basic information about what is known as medical nutrition therapy: the relationships among calories consumed, carbohydrate and fat intake, weight regulation and high blood sugar.

In contrast, the Smart Choices program focused specifically on the condition of diabetes itself, including factors that can lead to the diagnosis, common complications (which include heart disease, kidney and nerve damage, eye problems and stroke), the importance of blood sugar control, and appropriate food choices when blood sugar levels spike. Every session included a medical nutrition therapy discussion such as calorie-intake goals, percentages of carbohydrates and fats in an ideal diet, and portion control. Many sessions included a 15- to 20-minute walk to further emphasize the recommendation for regular physical activity. Problem-solving regarding choosing healthy foods in high-risk situations, such as the holidays, were a focus of the program.

The interventions took place over three months. Researchers assessed participants’ health measures and dietary habits immediately after the programs concluded and then again three months later at the study’s end.

Miller said that because nutrition education is particularly important to people with a new diabetes diagnosis, she sees the mindful meditation and eating option as a potential supplement to basic diabetes education that patients need.

She also said that participants adapted well to the concept of mindfulness even though it is generally considered an alternative health practice.

“One of the things we were evaluating was how well this was accepted by people who had no experience with it. It was very well accepted by participants in that group,” she said. “And this tells us that people with diabetes have choices.

“The fact that both interventions were equally effective suggests that we should let people choose. If mindful meditation is appealing and people think that approach is effective, then it very well could be the best choice for them.”

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The science of lovingkindness

on practice

Right at the very beginning of my meditation practice I was introduced to both mindfulness of breathing and the development of lovingkindness meditation. It was explained to me that both of these practices were equally important, that they were complementary, and that alternating these practices prevented imbalance in our approach. It was stressed, in fact, that sometimes lovingkindness practice is more important than mindfulness practice — especially for people who have a tendency toward being angry or over-critical.

I’ve never had cause to doubt any of that advice.

There are many meditators, however, who only practice mindfulness meditation, and often lovingkindness practice is seen as second-best. Generally in western Buddhist practice, there is a heavy emphasis on particular forms of mindfulness meditation. And no doubt because of this arguably narrow emphasis, that’s the form of Buddhist meditation that’s been most commonly studied in the burgeoning research on the effects of meditative practice.

But beside mindfulness there are traditionally many forms of meditation practice, with one common list — the kammaṭṭhānas (literally “places of work”) including no less than forty forms of meditation. And in the Buddhist scriptures generally, there is a heavy emphasis on lovingkindness (mettā) meditation, especially as part of the four brahmavihāras, or sublime abodes.

Lovingkindness, fortunately, is becoming better known, and researchers are now studying the effects of practicing that form of meditation, showing that they positively affect health and well-being.

Here are a few highlights:

  • A study done at Stanford University used a brief lovingkindness meditation exercise to examine whether social connection could be created toward strangers in a controlled laboratory context. Compared with a closely matched control task, even just a few minutes of lovingkindness meditation increased feelings of social connection and positivity toward strangers on both conscious and unconscious levels.
  • A Duke University Medical Center pilot study tested an eight-week lovingkindness program for chronic low back pain patients. Patients were randomly assigned to practice lovingkindness or were given standard care. Standardized measures assessed patients’ pain, anger, and psychological distress. There were significant improvements in pain and psychological distress in the lovingkindness group — even after the study had ended. There were no improvements in the usual care group. An analysis of patients’ diaries showed that more lovingkindness practice on a given day was related to lower pain that day and lower anger the next day.
  • Researcher Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill took working adults and assigned them randomly to a lovingkindness meditation group or to a control group. Her study found that lovingkindness practice increased daily experiences of positive emotions, which in turn produced increases in a wide range of personal resources, including increased mindfulness, a sense of purpose in life, social support, and decreased illness symptoms. These increments in personal resources predict increased life satisfaction and reduced depressive symptoms.
  • In a study by Richard Davidson, scans revealed significant activity in the insula – a region near the frontal portion of the brain that plays a key role in bodily representations of emotion – when long-term meditators were generating compassion and were exposed to emotional vocalizations. The insula is extremely important in detecting emotions in general and specifically in mapping bodily responses to emotion – such as heart rate and blood pressure – and making that information available to other parts of the brain.
  • The same study showed increased activity in the temporal parietal juncture, particularly in the right hemisphere. Studies have implicated this area as important in processing empathy, especially in perceiving the mental and emotional state of others.
  • Compassion meditation has been shown to reduce reactions to inflammation and distress. An Emory University study showed a strong relationship between the time spent practicing meditation and reductions in inflammation and emotional distress in response to stress. Those who practiced the most meditation showed reductions in inflammation and distress in response to stressors when compared to the low practice group and the control group. As one of the researchers noted, “If practicing compassion meditation does reduce inflammatory responses to stress it might offer real promise as a means of preventing many conditions associated with stress and with inflammation including major depression, heart disease and diabetes.”
  • A review by researchers in the US and Germany suggested that Lovingkindness and compassion meditation “may provide potentially useful strategies for targeting a variety of different psychological problems that involve interpersonal processes, such as depression, social anxiety, marital conflict, anger, and coping with the strains of long-term caregiving.”

In some of these studies, the benefits were revealed after only twelve hours of meditation. Hopefully future studies will reveal yet more about the power of lovingkindness and compassion meditation.

If you’re interested in exploring lovingkindness practice in more depth, we have an extensive, free, self-paced guide, which includes audio guided meditations.

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Feeding the wolf of love

A wolf, reflected as a negative image

I once heard a Native American teaching story in which an elder, a grandmother, was asked what she had done to become so happy, so wise, so loved and respected. She replied: “It’s because I know that there are two wolves in my heart, a wolf of love and a wolf of hate. And I know that everything depends on which one I feed each day.”

This story always gives me the shivers when I think of it. Who among us does not have both a wolf of love and a wolf of hate in their heart?

I know I do, including the wolf of hate, which shows up in small ways as well as large ones, such when I get judgmental, irritable, pushy, or argumentative. Even if it’s only inside my own mind – and sometimes it definitely leaks out.

We’ve got these two wolves because we evolved them, because both wolves were needed to keep our ancestors alive.

Until just 10,000 years ago, for millions of years primates, hominids, and early humans lived in hunter-gatherer groups that bred mainly within the band while competing intensely with other bands for scarce resources. Therefore, genes got passed on that promoted better cooperation inside a band and better aggression between bands. The wolf of love and the wolf of hate are stitched into human DNA.

Bands kept their distance from each other, and when they met, they often fought. For example, researchers have found that about 12-15% of hunter-gatherer men died in conflicts between bands – compared to “just” the 1% of men who died in the many bloody wars of the 20th century.

So it’s natural to fear the stranger – who, back in the Stone Age with no police around, was often a lethal threat. The related impulse to dehumanize and attack “them” also worked well (in terms of passing on genes) for millions of years.

Today, you can observe the wolf of hate all around us, in acts of thought, word, and deed. For example, as soon as we see others as “not my tribe,” whether it’s at home or work or on the evening news, the wolf of hate lifts its head and looks around for danger. And then if we feel at all threatened or mistreated or desperate, the wolf of hate jumps up and looks for someone to howl at or bite.

While the wolf of hate was vital back in the Serengeti, today it breeds alienation and anger, ulcers and heart disease, and conflicts with others at home and work.

And at a larger scale, with 7 billion people crowded together on this planet – when a flu mutation in Hong Kong can become a worldwide epidemic, when bank problems in Greece roil the global economy, when carbon emissions in one country heat up the whole world – when we fear or dehumanize or attack “them,” it usually comes back to harm “us.”

How do we feed the wolf?

So what are we going to do?

We can’t kill the wolf of hate because hating the wolf of hate just feeds it. Instead, we need to control this wolf, and channel its fire into healthy forms of protection and assertiveness. And we need to stop feeding it with fear and anger.

Meanwhile, we need to feed the wolf of love. This will make us stronger inside, more patient, and less resentful, annoyed, or aggressive. We’ll stay out of needless conflicts, treat people better, and be less of a threat to others. Then we’ll also be in a stronger position to get treated better by them.

There are lots of ways to feed the wolf of love.

We can feed it by taking in the good of everyday experiences of feeling seen, appreciated, cared about, even cherished and loved.

We can feed the wolf of love by practicing compassion for ourselves and others, and by letting these experiences of compassion sink into our heart.

We can feed the wolf of love by recognizing the good in other people – and then by taking in the experience of the goodness in others.

Similarly, we can feed the wolf of love by sensing the goodness inside our own heart, and by letting that sense of truly being a good person – not a perfect person, but a good person – also sink in.

Last, we can feed the wolf of love by seeing the good in the world, and the good in the future that we can make together – in the face of so many messages these days that are dark and despairing.

We feed the wolf of love, in other words, with heart and with hope. We feed this wolf by sustaining our sense of what’s good in other people, what’s good in ourselves, what’s already good in our world, and what could be even better in a world we can build together.

We need to stay strong to do this, to hold on to what we know to be true in spite of the brain’s tendency to focus on threats and losses, and in spite of the age-old manipulations of various groups that play on fear and anger – that feed the wolf of hate – to gain or hold onto wealth and power.

So let’s stay strong, and hold on to the good that exists all around us and inside us.

Let’s stay strong, and hold onto the good that can be, that we can nourish and build in this world.

Let’s stay strong, and hold onto each other.

Let’s stay strong enough to take in the good that feeds the wolf of love each day.

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Meditation may help women cope with hot flashes

Drugs.com: An easy-to-learn meditation technique can help ease the hot flashes, night sweats and insomnia of menopause, a new study says.

The University of Massachusetts research showed that mindfulness training, based on a Buddhist meditation concept, reduced the distress associated with hot flashes and improved physical, psychosocial and sexual functioning.

“The findings are important because hormone replacement therapy, used to treat menopause symptoms in the past, has been associated with health risks,” said study author James Carmody, an associate professor of medicine in the division of preventive and behavioral medicine.

About 40 percent of menopausal women suffer from hot flashes and night sweats, which undermine their quality of life, the researchers noted. But since hormone replacement therapy has been linked with an increased risk of heart disease, breast cancer and stroke, Carmody observed that “not only are women looking for alternative treatments, it is an NIH (National Institutes of Health) priority to find behavioral treatments.”

No other treatment has been found to substitute for hormone therapy, according to the study, but mindfulness training appears to allow women to be “less reactive” to menopausal symptoms.

Mindfulness therapy helps focus on the present. Practitioners avoid making judgments and simply accept whatever is passing through their mind while focusing on each breath. The technique is not difficult to learn, but requires some discipline Read the rest of this article…

in the beginning, experts noted.

The researchers aimed to influence women’s reaction to their symptoms, “including psychological distress, social embarrassment and anxiety.”

“We wanted to see if we could affect women’s resilience in response to these symptoms,” Carmody explained. “We were not trying to affect the symptoms themselves, although there was some effect on those as well.”

The study divided 110 women between the ages of 47 and 69 into two groups, one receiving the training, the other “waitlisted” to learn the technique.

Participants filled out questionnaires to determine factors known to influence hot flashes, such as alcohol use, yoga and exercise.

Researchers also measured four dimensions of quality of life: physical, psychosocial, vasomotor (hot flashes), and sexual function. The women rated how much they were bothered by symptoms on a four-point scale ranging from “not at all” to “extremely” bothered. They kept diaries noting the number and intensity of hot flashes and night sweats. On average, the women had five or more moderate to severe hot flashes, or night sweats, a day when the study began.

After taking classes once a week for eight weeks, and a full day of training, the training group women had an average decrease of 15 percent in how much their symptoms bothered them vs. 7 percent for the control group. While hot flash intensity did not differ significantly, the training group reported better sleep, and less anxiety and perceived stress.

At the beginning of the study, which ran from November 2005 to September 2007, participants had “clinically significant” sleep problems. Improved sleep was an important outcome, the study found.

“The thing that surprised us the most was the effect on sleep,” said Carmody, noting that mindfulness training was found to be as effective as hormone replacement therapy in reducing insomnia.

Another expert praised the study for using the “mind-body connection” to help women with serious menopause symptoms with “no side effects.”

“We’ve known about the mind-body connection,” said Dr. Jill M. Rabin. “We’re just beginning to unlock the power of the mind to have an impact on our physiological selves.”

The study authors were “self-critical regarding the limitations of the study,” said Rabin, chief of the division of ambulatory care and head of urogynecology at the Long Island Jewish Medical Center. Among other things, the study lacked an active control group program, they wrote.

Noting that the women were mostly white and had a high level of education, Rabin said more study was needed to see if the results apply to the general population.

“It’s not that the results don’t apply, or will be different for a different population,” she said. “We just don’t know.”

The research is published in the June issue of Menopause.

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How meditation might ward off the effects of ageing

Jo Marchant: High in the mountains of northern Colorado, a 100-foot tall tower reaches up through the pinetops. Brightly coloured and strung with garlands, its ornate gold leaf glints in the sun. With a shape that symbolises a giant seated Buddha, this lofty stupa is intended to inspire those on the path to enlightenment.

Visitors here to the Shambhala Mountain Centre meditate in silence for up to 10 hours every day, emulating the lifestyle that monks have chosen for centuries in mountain refuges from India to Japan. But is it doing them any good? For two three-month retreats held in 2007, this haven for the eastern spiritual tradition opened its doors to western science. As attendees pondered the “four immeasurables” of love, compassion, joy and equanimity, a laboratory squeezed into the basement bristled with scientific equipment from brain and heart monitors to video cameras and centrifuges. The aim: to find out exactly what happens to people who meditate.

After several years of number-crunching, data from the so-called Shamatha project is finally starting to be published. So far the research has shown some not hugely surprising psychological and cognitive changes – improvements in perception and wellbeing, for example. But one result in particular has potentially stunning implications: that by protecting caps called telomeres on the ends of our chromosomes, meditation might help to delay the process of ageing.

It’s the kind of claim more often associated with pseudoscience. Indeed, since researchers first started studying meditation, with its close links to religion and spirituality, they have had a tough time gaining scientific credibility. “A great danger in the field is that many researchers are also meditators, with a feeling about how powerful and useful these practices are,” says Charles Raison, who studies mind-body interactions at Emory University in Atlanta. “There has been a tendency for people to be attempting to prove what they already know.”

But a new generation of brain-imaging studies and robust clinical trials is helping to change that. Scientists from a range of fields are starting to compile evidence Read the rest of this article…

that rather than simply being a transient mental or spiritual experience, meditation may have long-term implications for physical health.

There are many kinds of meditation, including transcendental meditation, in which you focus on a repetitive mantra, and compassion meditation, which involves extending feelings of love and kindness to fellow living beings. One of the most studied practices is based on the Buddhist concept of mindfulness, or being aware of your own thoughts and surroundings. Buddhists believe it alleviates suffering by making you less caught up in everyday stresses – helping you to appreciate the present instead of continually worrying about the past or planning for the future.

“You pay attention to your own breath,” explains Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist who studies the effects of meditation at Massachusetts general hospital in Boston. “If your mind wanders, you don’t get discouraged, you notice the thought and think, ‘OK’.”

Small trials have suggested that such meditation creates more than spiritual calm. Reported physical effects include lowering blood pressure, helping psoriasis to heal, and boosting the immune response in vaccine recipients and cancer patients. In a pilot study in 2008, Willem Kuyken, head of the Mood Disorders Centre at Exeter University, showed that mindfulness meditation was more effective than drug treatment in preventing relapse in patients with recurrent depression. And in 2009, David Creswell of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh found that it slowed disease progression in patients with HIV.

Most of these trials have involved short courses of meditation aimed at treating specific conditions. The Shamatha project, by contrast, is an attempt to see what a longer, more intensive course of meditation might do for healthy people. The project was co-ordinated by neuroscientist Clifford Saron of the Centre for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis. His team advertised in Buddhist publications for people willing to spend three months in an intensive meditation retreat, and chose 60 participants. Half of them attended in the spring of 2007, while the other half acted as a control group before heading off for their own retreat in the autumn.

It sounds simple enough, but the project has taken eight years to organise and is likely to end up costing around $4m (partly funded by private organisations with an interest in meditation, including the Fetzer Institute and the Hershey Family Foundation). As well as shipping laptops all over the world to carry out cognitive tests on the volunteers before the study started, Saron’s team built a hi-tech lab in a dorm room beneath the Shambhala centre’s main hall, enabling them to subject participants and controls to tests at the beginning, middle and end of each retreat, and worked with “a village” of consulting scientists who each wanted to study different aspects of the meditators’ performance. “It’s a heroic effort,” says neuroscientist Giuseppe Pagnoni, who studies meditation at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia in Italy.

Many of the tests focused on changes in cognitive ability or regulation of emotions. Soft white caps trailing wires and electrodes measured the meditators’ brain waves as they completed gruelling computerised tasks to test their powers of attention, and video recordings captured split-second changes in facial expressions as they watched images of suffering and war.

But psychologist Elissa Epel, from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), wanted to know what the retreat was doing to the participants’ chromosomes, in particular their telomeres. Telomeres play a key role in the ageing of cells, acting like a clock that limits their lifespan. Every time a cell divides, its telomeres get shorter, unless an enzyme called telomerase builds them back up. When telomeres get too short, a cell can no longer replicate, and ultimately dies.

It’s not just an abstract concept. People with shorter telomeres are at greater risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, depression and degenerative diseases such as osteoarthritis and osteoporosis. And they die younger.

Epel has been collaborating with UCSF’s Elizabeth Blackburn, who shared the 2009 Nobel physiology or medicine prize for her work on telomeres, to investigate whether telomeres are affected by psychological factors. They found that at the end of the retreat, meditators had significantly higher telomerase activity than the control group, suggesting that their telomeres were better protected. The researchers are cautious, but say that in theory this might slow or even reverse cellular ageing. “If the increase in telomerase is sustained long enough,” says Epel, “it’s logical to infer that this group would develop more stable and possibly longer telomeres over time.”

Pagnoni has previously used brain imaging to show that meditation may protect against the cognitive decline that occurs as we age. But the Shamatha project is the first to suggest that meditation plays a role in cellular ageing. If that link is confirmed, he says, “that would be groundbreaking”.

So how could focusing on your thoughts have such impressive physical effects? The assumption that meditation simply induces a state of relaxation is “dead wrong”, says Raison. Brain-imaging studies suggest that it triggers active processes within the brain, and can cause physical changes to the structure of regions involved in learning, memory, emotion regulation and cognitive processing.

The question of how the immaterial mind affects the material body remains a thorny philosophical problem, but on a practical level, “our understanding of the brain-body dialogue has made jaw-dropping advances in the last decade or two,” says Raison. One of the most dramatic links between the mind and health is the physiological pathways that have evolved to respond to stress, and these can explain much about how meditation works.

When the brain detects a threat in our environment, it sends signals to spur the body into action. One example is the “fight or flight” response of the nervous system. When you sense danger, your heart beats faster, you breathe more rapidly, and your pupils dilate. Digestion slows, and fat and glucose are released into the bloodstream to fuel your next move. Another stress response pathway triggers a branch of the immune system known as the inflammatory response.

These responses might help us to run from a mammoth or fight off infection, but they also damage body tissues. In the past, the trade-off for short bursts of stress would have been worthwhile. But in the modern world, these ancient pathways are continually triggered by long-term threats for which they aren’t any use, such as debt, work pressures or low social status. “Psychological stress activates these pathways in exactly the same way that infection does,” says Raison.

Such chronic stress has devastating effects, putting us at greater risk of a host of diseases including diabetes, cancer, heart disease, depression – and death. It also affects our telomeres. Epel, Blackburn and their colleagues found in 2004 that stressed mothers caring for a chronically ill child had shorter telomeres than mothers with healthy children. Their stress had accelerated the ageing process.

Meditation seems to be effective in changing the way that we respond to external events. After short courses of mindfulness meditation, people produce less of the stress hormone cortisol, and mount a smaller inflammatory response to stress. One study linked meditators’ lower stress to changes in the amygdala – a brain area involved in fear and the response to threat.

Some researchers think this is the whole story, because the diseases countered most by meditation are those in which stress plays a major role. But Epel believes that meditation might also trigger “pathways of restoration and enhancement”, perhaps boosting the parasympathetic nervous system, which works in opposition to the fight or flight response, or triggering the production of growth hormone.

In terms of the psychological mechanisms involved, Raison thinks that meditation allows people to experience the world as less threatening. “You reinterpret the world as less dangerous, so you don’t get as much of a stress reaction,” he says. Compassion meditation, for example, may help us to view the world in a more socially connected way. Mindfulness might help people to distance themselves from negative or stressful thoughts.

The Shamatha project used a mix of mindfulness and compassion meditation. The researchers concluded that the meditation affected telomerase by changing the participants’ psychological state, which they assessed using questionnaires. Three factors in particular predicted higher telomerase activity at the end of the retreat: increased sense of control (over circumstances or daily life); increased sense of purpose in life; and lower neuroticism (being tense, moody and anxious). The more these improved, the greater the effect on the meditators’ telomerase.

For those of us who don’t have time for retreats, Epel suggests “mini-meditations” – focusing on breathing or being aware of our surroundings – at regular points throughout the day. And though meditation seems to be a particularly effective route to reducing stress and protecting telomeres, it’s not the only one. “Lots of people have no interest in meditation, and that’s fine,” says Creswell. Exercise has been shown to buffer the effects of stress on telomeres, for example, while stress management programmes and writing emotional diaries can help to delay the progression of HIV.

Indeed, Clifford Saron argues that the psychological changes caused by the Shamatha retreat – increased sense of control and purpose in life – are more important than the meditation itself. Simply doing something we love, whether meditating or gardening, may protect us from stress and maybe even help us to live longer. “The news from this paper is the profound impact of having the opportunity to live your life in a way that you find meaningful.”

For a scientific conclusion it sounds scarily spiritual. But researchers warn that in our modern, work-obsessed society we are increasingly living on autopilot, reacting blindly to tweets and emails instead of taking the time to think about what really matters. If we don’t give our minds a break from that treadmill, the physical effects can be scarily real.

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Meditation improves endothelial function in metabolic syndrome

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(From a press release) Meditation may help improve endothelial function in patients with metabolic syndrome, potentially reducing cardiovascular risk, new research suggests.

Presented here at the American Psychosomatic Society 69th Annual Scientific Meeting, a randomized trial in a group of African American patients with metabolic syndrome showed significant improvement in endothelial function in those randomly assigned to a year-long meditation program compared with their counterparts who underwent a program of health education alone.

“We found there was a significant difference between the consciously resting meditation group and the health education group in the flow-mediated dilation, which measures endothelial function,” principal investigator Kofi Kondwani, PhD, National Center for Primary Care, Morehouse School of Medicine, Atlanta, Georgia, told Medscape Medical News.

A risk factor for coronary heart disease, the clinical manifestations of metabolic syndrome include hypertension, hyperglycemia, high triglycerides, reduced high-density lipoprotein, and abdominal obesity. A diagnosis of metabolic syndrome is contingent on an individual having three or more of these risk factors.

According to the investigators, the etiology of metabolic syndrome is complex, but psychological stress appears to play a role, possibly through overactivation of stress hormones. They also note that endothelial dysfunction, which is also influenced by stress, is a major consequence of metabolic syndrome.

In addition, metabolic syndrome is a major health concern in the African American population — particularly among African American women — and is increasing in prevalence, paralleling the US obesity epidemic.

Particular Problem for African Americans

According to Dr. Kondwani, it has been shown that meditation can be effective in reducing psychological stress and improving some cardiovascular risk factors. However, he added, whether it can improve endothelial function in the setting of metabolic syndrome is unknown.

He noted that although metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease are important health issues in general, the major health disparities that exist in the African American population make it a particular concern in this population.

“If we could find some simple, easy, cost-effective approach to reduce some of these risk factors — whether it is blood pressure or endothelial function — that could be adopted in the community on a large scale we may be able to have a positive impact on the health of African Americans,” he said.

A joint initiative between Morehouse Medical School and Emory University, the study randomly assigned 65 African American patients age 30 to 65 to undergo consciously resting meditation (CRM) (n = 32), a 12-month meditation program developed by Dr. Kondwani, or a 12-month health education program (n = 33). At study outset there were no significant differences in demographic characteristics or cardiovascular risk factors between the 2 groups.

The CRM group received three 90-minute sessions of initial instructor-led training. They returned once a week for the following 3 weeks, then once every 2 weeks for 2 months, and finally once per month for the remainder of the study. In the interim they were assigned “home rest” assignments that involved meditating for 15 to 20 minutes twice a day.

Improvements in Blood Pressure, Weight, Triglycerides

The study’s primary outcome measure was endothelial function assessed by brachial artery flow-mediated dilation (FMD) at baseline and 6 and 12 months. A secondary outcome was arterial stiffness, measured by pulse-wave velocity.

Trend tests were performed to assess changes in outcome measures and metabolic syndrome factors across the 3 study time points. The investigators found that FMD significantly improved from baseline in the CRM group (2.10 ± 0.79; P = .009) but that improvement was smaller in the health education group (1.36 ± 0.80; P = .09). Dr. Kondwani said there was no difference in arterial stiffness in the groups.

The researchers also found favorable and statistically significant trends in 3 metabolic syndrome risk factors in the CRM group but not in the health education group: diastolic blood pressure (change, -6.24 ± 2.75 mm Hg; P = .03), weight (-2.52 ± 1.16 kg; P = .03), and triglyceride levels (-32 ± 15 mg/dL; P = .04).

Dr. Kondwani also pointed out that certain psychological factors, including some measures of depression, significantly improved in both study groups. This indicates that “that just because an intervention has an impact on patients’ psychological well-being doesn’t necessarily mean it is going to change their physiology.”

These findings, he added, suggest that physicians should not hesitate to encourage their patients to learn meditation. “It will not hurt and invariably it will help. They also shouldn’t get hung up on the type of meditation. It’s highly likely that even if patients weren’t trained in meditative practice but just sat quietly for 20 minutes twice a day there would be benefit,” said Dr. Kondwani.

Dr. Kondwani said that his group hopes to replicate the study’s findings in a larger trial with 150 participants in each arm.

“Wonderful” Form of Stress Management

Commenting on the study for Medscape Medical News, Lorenzo Cohen, PhD, a professor in the Department of Behavioral Science and director of the Integrative Medicine Program at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, said it is well known that psychological stress has a profound effect on many biological functions.

“In our work we know that stress can directly impact certain cancer-related biological systems. We believe it is very important to provide different forms of stress management to patients to help relieve the psychological stress they experience due to life-threatening illness and that one wonderful form of stress management is meditation,” Dr. Cohen said in an interview.

He added that it was not surprising to him that meditation had a positive effect on endothelial function or other measures of metabolic syndrome.

“We know that metabolic syndrome is related to inflammatory processes and we know that stress can increase inflammatory processes. We also know of course that meditation decreases these processes so it would make sense that it has the potential to be a useful adjunct to the treatment of this syndrome,” said Dr. Cohen.

Dr. Cohen noted that in recent years meditation has gained a great deal of acceptance by the medical community and patients alike and is widely accessible.

Ideally, he said, it is useful to have an instructor teach patients how to meditate in order to optimize practice. However, he added, the tools of the information age, including Web-based programs and audio materials, can also be “quite useful.”

He said in his experience there has been some resistance among patients because of a belief that meditation is associated with religion. However, he added, once they are informed that it is taught in a secular manner, this concern is assuaged.

Dr. Kondwani reports he is the founder of Consciously Resting Meditation.

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of metabolic syndrome is complex, but psychological stress appears to play a role, possibly through overactivation of stress hormones. They also note that endothelial dysfunction, which is also influenced by stress, is a major consequence of metabolic syndrome.

In addition, metabolic syndrome is a major health concern in the African American population — particularly among African American women — and is increasing in prevalence, paralleling the US obesity epidemic.

Particular Problem for African Americans

According to Dr. Kondwani, it has been shown that meditation can be effective in reducing psychological stress and improving some cardiovascular risk factors. However, he added, whether it can improve endothelial function in the setting of metabolic syndrome is unknown.

He noted that although metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease are important health issues in general, the major health disparities that exist in the African American population make it a particular concern in this population.

“If we could find some simple, easy, cost-effective approach to reduce some of these risk factors — whether it is blood pressure or endothelial function — that could be adopted in the community on a large scale we may be able to have a positive impact on the health of African Americans,” he said.

A joint initiative between Morehouse Medical School and Emory University, the study randomly assigned 65 African American patients age 30 to 65 to undergo consciously resting meditation (CRM) (n = 32), a 12-month meditation program developed by Dr. Kondwani, or a 12-month health education program (n = 33). At study outset there were no significant differences in demographic characteristics or cardiovascular risk factors between the 2 groups.

The CRM group received three 90-minute sessions of initial instructor-led training. They returned once a week for the following 3 weeks, then once every 2 weeks for 2 months, and finally once per month for the remainder of the study. In the interim they were assigned “home rest” assignments that involved meditating for 15 to 20 minutes twice a day.

Improvements in Blood Pressure, Weight, Triglycerides

The study’s primary outcome measure was endothelial function assessed by brachial artery flow-mediated dilation (FMD) at baseline and 6 and 12 months. A secondary outcome was arterial stiffness, measured by pulse-wave velocity.

Trend tests were performed to assess changes in outcome measures and metabolic syndrome factors across the 3 study time points. The investigators found that FMD significantly improved from baseline in the CRM group (2.10 ± 0.79; P = .009) but that improvement was smaller in the health education group (1.36 ± 0.80; P = .09). Dr. Kondwani said there was no difference in arterial stiffness in the groups.

The researchers also found favorable and statistically significant trends in 3 metabolic syndrome risk factors in the CRM group but not in the health education group: diastolic blood pressure (change, -6.24 ± 2.75 mm Hg; P = .03), weight (-2.52 ± 1.16 kg; P = .03), and triglyceride levels (-32 ± 15 mg/dL; P = .04).

Dr. Kondwani also pointed out that certain psychological factors, including some measures of depression, significantly improved in both study groups. This indicates that “that just because an intervention has an impact on patients’ psychological well-being doesn’t necessarily mean it is going to change their physiology.”

These findings, he added, suggest that physicians should not hesitate to encourage their patients to learn meditation. “It will not hurt and invariably it will help. They also shouldn’t get hung up on the type of meditation. It’s highly likely that even if patients weren’t trained in meditative practice but just sat quietly for 20 minutes twice a day there would be benefit, “said Dr. Kondwani.

Dr. Kondwani said that his group hopes to replicate the study’s findings in a larger trial with 150 participants in each arm.

“Wonderful” Form of Stress Management

Commenting on the study for Medscape Medical News, Lorenzo Cohen, PhD, a professor in the Department of Behavioral Science and director of the Integrative Medicine Program at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, said it is well known that psychological stress has a profound effect on many biological functions.

“In our work we know that stress can directly impact certain cancer-related biological systems. We believe it is very important to provide different forms of stress management to patients to help relieve the psychological stress they experience due to life-threatening illness and that one wonderful form of stress management is meditation,” Dr. Cohen said in an interview.

He added that it was not surprising to him that meditation had a positive effect on endothelial function or other measures of metabolic syndrome.

“We know that metabolic syndrome is related to inflammatory processes and we know that stress can increase inflammatory processes. We also know of course that meditation decreases these processes so it would make sense that it has the potential to be a useful adjunct to the treatment of this syndrome,” said Dr. Cohen.

Dr. Cohen noted that in recent years meditation has gained a great deal of acceptance by the medical community and patients alike and is widely accessible.

Ideally, he said, it is useful to have an instructor teach patients how to meditate in order to optimize practice. However, he added, the tools of the information age, including Web-based programs and audio materials, can also be “quite useful.”

He said in his experience there has been some resistance among patients because of a belief that meditation is associated with religion. However, he added, once they are informed that it is taught in a secular manner, this concern is assuaged.

Dr. Kondwani has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

American Psychosomatic Society (APS) 69th Annual Scientific Meeting: Abstract 1639. Presented March 10, 2011.

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Veterans find peace with yoga in ‘Connected Warriors’

Boca Raton Some local veterans’ combat days are long gone, but they still have nightmares, edginess, short fuses and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

Many seek help from support groups, psychologists and drugs. But some are finding that a different kind of therapy releases the tension: yoga.

Connected Warriors, a weekly class at studios in Boca Raton, Fort Lauderdale and Wellington, is filled with veterans and their families who seek to manage their stress through yoga poses. They learn how to breathe, meditate, stretch and balance with people who understand their battlefield encounters.

“I am learning to stop being on the defensive,” said Maria Mariska Allsopp, of Dania Beach, who retired after 25 years as a sergeant major in the Army. “I am making my own kind of peace.”

Allsopp, 58, was the fifth woman to go through Army airborne training, the first woman jumpmaster and the first female first-sergeant of an Army rigging company. She said she relished her trailblazer status but started having bad dreams soon after she retired and was diagnosed…

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with post-traumatic stress disorder. Memories of sexual harassment also plague her.

“In this class, I am getting something I have been missing: Trust from men,” Allsopp said.

The class has been so successful that yoga teacher Judy Weaver, of Lighthouse Point, has been training instructors to teach at studios across the state and hopes to start programs across the country. Weaver is a founder of Connected Warriors, a nonprofit organization that encourages yoga for veterans.

Weaver became sensitive to veterans’ issues after teaching yoga to Beau MacVane, an Army Ranger from Boca Raton who served five tours in the Middle East but died in 2009 of Lou Gehrig’s disease at 33. She saw how the breathing and meditation techniques she taught him remained useful even as his condition deteriorated.

“They give instant relief to the body,” Weaver said. “Whatever limitations you have, you can still get the benefits.”

Researchers are confirming that yoga’s exercises and relaxation effects help veterans’ physical problems, moods and energy levels. Several studies are exploring how yoga complements psychiatric therapy.

Preliminary results of a Defense Department study show that veterans with PTSD had fewer symptoms after 10 weeks of yoga classes twice a week and 15 minutes of practice each day at home.

This is not news to Ralph Iovino, 61, who thinks yoga has helped him heal from war trauma experienced in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969. He often relives his time as a rescuer on a helicopter crew.

“I would go down on the cable and get people back up,” remembered Iovino, who lives west of Boynton Beach. “If I froze or panicked, people died.”

Iovino still has shrapnel in his back, forehead and knee, and came back to the United States angry and sick from heart disease. He discovered yoga five years ago and said it has helped him slow down so he thinks before he speaks.

He said his high-blood pressure has disappeared and he is undergoing training to become a certified yoga teacher.

Bob Conway, of Delray Beach, also thinks yoga and meditation techniques have helped him calm his nerves and learn to trust. He turned to drugs and alcohol when he returned from Vietnam in 1970.

He said he always keeps his back to walls since he served in the Marine Corps as a sniper and tunnelman. But in yoga class, he is willing to get into poses facing the wall, knowing his fellow vets are nearby and supportive.

When he began learning breathing techniques with fellow veterans, “I thought, boy, is this dorky, just goofy,” said Conway, 60.

Now, “I look forward to yoga more than golf on Sundays, and golf is my religion,” he said.

lsolomon@tribune.com or 561-243-6536

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