Mindfulness seems to be in the spotlight a lot lately. Hailed by many as a pathway to balance and tranquility, practicing mindfulness means being present in the moment, while also being aware of one’s feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations.
Research on how mindfulness influences cardiovascular health has provided mixed results. Some benefits include helping to prevent additional cardiovascular events in people with existing heart issues. For instance, a 2012 study examined whether meditation had any effect in secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease. In the randomized, controlled trial, 201 men and women with coronary heart disease were randomly assigned to either a meditation program or health education. Those in the meditation group practiced for 20 minutes, twice a day. After following the participants for five years, researchers saw a significant 48 percent reduction in cardiovascular events in the meditation group compared to the health education group.
Another study found a positive association between mindfulness and a heart-healthy lifestyle. Researchers asked 302 people to assess their level of mindfulness using a scoring system. Those with high mindfulness scores had an 83 percent greater prevalence of good heart health. These high-scoring individuals also scored well on the American Heart Association’s indicators for cardiovascular health, which include being a nonsmoker; being physically active; having a healthy body mass index; eating fruits and vegetables; and maintaining healthy cholesterol, blood pressure and fasting blood glucose levels.
“These preliminary findings suggest that mindful people may have a keen awareness of their bodies and thoughts,” says Dr. Bryant Nguyen, a cardiologist affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital. “So if someone who practices a mindful lifestyle has a craving for junk food, rather than giving in, they would have a heightened awareness of the unhealthy consequences, and find it easier to choose a healthier alternative.”
The mind-heart connection
Experts propose three ways that mindfulness may directly influence cardiovascular health behaviors: attention control, emotional regulation and self-awareness. Attention control refers to how mindfulness can help a person pay closer attention to experiences that may put them at risk for cardiovascular disease, such as smoking and diet. Practicing mindfulness can also help in addressing difficult feelings, such as controlling cigarette cravings. Another skill attributed to mindfulness is being in tune with the physical sensations of our bodies, which can help us recognize factors that put us at risk for disease.
These concepts may be helpful in cardiovascular disease management. For example, a study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found that mindfulness helped patients deal with difficult thoughts and emotions related to Type 2 diabetes — a condition strongly associated with cardiovascular disease. And in the process, these patients helped keep their blood sugar levels within an acceptable range.
Relaxing the heart
So what is going on with our hearts when we practice mindfulness?
“It is well-documented that chronic stress can negatively affect the heart,” says Dr. Nguyen. “Feeling constantly stressed, anxious or upset can increase the risk for cardiovascular disease and increase levels of inflammation.”
There is evidence that shows how practicing mindfulness can lower blood pressure, as well as influence how hard the heart works. A study in the medical journal Stress noted positive physiological effects among a sample of 124 subjects who underwent a 15-minute mindfulness exercise. The mindfulness exercises were thought to lower blood pressure and decrease the workload of the heart.
“Stress management techniques, like mindfulness, can be one of several tools to reduce the likelihood of cardiovascular disease, and live an overall healthier lifestyle,” says Dr. Nguyen. “The mind-heart connection is certainly an intriguing concept. Additional findings that come from future research may help us better manage cardiovascular conditions, as well as overall health.”
Learn about mindfulness and relaxation classes offered at Sharp.
For the news media: To talk with Dr. Bryant Nguyen about mindfulness and the heart for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at email@example.com.