People who meditate say it can, with dozens of studies supporting a connection and the American Heart Association seeing enough potential to call for more research.
Will Williams, who studied in Bali and India before becoming the founding teacher of Beeja Meditation in London, believes that mindfulness techniques can change the way you’re wired. “Meditation can provide you and your nervous system with a lot of resilience,” he says. “You don't find yourself reacting to triggers nearly so much, leaving you feeling calm, clear, and ready to seize the day.”
Williams’s clients have told him they’ve reaped multiple benefits from meditation, including a reduced stress level, and lower blood pressure and cholesterol — all changes that may help prevent cardiovascular disease, heart attack, and stroke.
What Do Researchers Have to Say?
Scientists have been looking into the impact of meditation on cardiovascular health for years. For instance, a study published in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes looked at black men and women with coronary heart disease and found that transcendental meditation significantly reduced their odds of having a stroke or heart attack.
In another piece of evidence, mindfulness-based stress reduction alleviated mental fatigue after stroke, according to a Swedish study published in the journal Brain Injury.
“If people are more satisfied with life, have fewer emotional difficulties, and feel less mental fatigue, they may be more likely to make changes, such as eating more healthy food, becoming more physically active, and taking better care of themselves overall,” says lead author Birgitta Johannsson. “But more research is needed.”
In a 2017 scientific statement, the American Heart Association (AHA) weighed in on whether or not meditation could reduce cardiovascular disease risk.
The AHA evaluated much of the available research, looking at the effect of meditation on brain structure and function, stress response, blood pressure, efforts to stop smoking, insulin resistance, atherosclerosis (the buildup of plaque in the arteries), myocardial ischemia (reduced blood flow to the heart), and other conditions. After considering the quality of each piece of research, the authors of the AHA statement concluded, “Studies of meditation to date suggest a possible, though not definitively established, benefit of meditation on cardiovascular risk reduction.”
The authors called for additional research to provide better data and establish a stronger connection. But until then, they basically gave the okay to anyone who wants to meditate as part of a heart-healthy lifestyle, “given the low costs and low risks of this intervention.”
Patients seem interested in learning more about whether meditation might help them. According to the National Health Interview Survey, while only 2 to 3 percent of respondents with cardiovascular disease reported using or having used some form of meditation, a much higher number — 17 percent — expressed interest in participating in a clinical trial of meditation.
This reflects a broader openness to alternative treatments, with 14 to 24 percent of survey respondents reporting using or having used some form of mind-body therapy.
There Are Many Ways to Meditate
The authors of the AHA statement warn that different forms of meditation have different physical effects, making it hard to generalize from any one piece of research.
Still, a number of encouraging studies cited in the AHA statement focused on transcendental meditation, a simple technique involving the repetition of a mantra, such as a word, sound, or short phrase that has been personally assigned to you by a teacher.
In London, Williams teaches vedic meditation, an ancient practice very similar to transcendental meditation. “The best way to do vedic meditation is to sit comfortably for 10 to 20 minutes, close your eyes, and gently introduce your mantra whenever it occurs to you,” he says. “You soon go into a very relaxed state, and it is a pleasure to sit there and enjoy the meditation.”