One of the great successes of meditation research is the evidence that both medicalised mindfulness and belief-based methods such as shamatha and tonglen reduce the physiological effects of stress, such as high cortisol and elevated blood pressure levels.
There are several symptoms connected with abnormally high stress levels. These include pain, tiredness, headaches and dizziness, elevated levels of blood pressure, muscle tension and related problems such as jaw clenching and a wide range of issues linked to the stomach and digestive systems. Stress is quite a complicated concept, with many triggers related to emotional, psychological or physiological states. Circumstances in our day-to-day lives such as overwork, relationship problems and financial worries can create conditions where higher stress levels are much more likely. Ironically, stress can be self-perpetuating, where for example, worries over one problem can lead to poor health, triggering further long-term stress and anxiety.
Meditation’s potential to reduce stress’s physiological and psychological symptoms, such as high blood pressure, has been known about for more than 50 years. So it’s not a surprise to find scientific studies demonstrating that regular meditation correlates with lower levels of damaging chemicals created by stress reactions, like cortisol. Because of its relationship with stress, cortisol is called the ‘stress hormone’, and it plays a vital role in the human stress response. Although cortisol has some critical functions, such as regulating blood sugar levels and metabolic states, too much in the blood can be a serious health problem. Among the symptoms of high cortisol levels include weight gain, thinning skin and a tendency to bruise easily, problems concentrating and high blood pressure. Although all of the symptoms can be severe, elevated blood pressure levels for prolonged periods is particularly dangerous.
Details of several scientific experiments linking meditation to lower levels of cortisol have been published in recent decades. Convincing data illustrates both medicalised mindfulness and Buddhist meditation methods can lower cortisol levels in the blood; however, reliable comparative data are scarce. The point is that most of these studies show that following meditation, serum cortisol levels are significantly lower. As you might expect, meditation also mediates blood pressure and breathing, but we still don’t know how these relationships work. Does meditation lower all of these physiological signs of stress, or just one leading to a knock-on effect, or does the cause lie elsewhere?
There are several exciting experiments in published journals, Kees Blase and Adeline van Waning explored heart rate variability, cortisol and attention focus during shamatha quiescence meditation in 2019. They found that six weeks of practice in methods including tonglen and loving-kindness reduced stress and increased attention focus. The experiment was written up in the Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback journal. The take-away message is that regular meditation is correlated with lower levels of stress; the bonus is that all positive brain functions impeded by stress will experience a boost as well.
There’s plenty of evidence that links meditation and mindfullness to lower blood pressure, but there’s a few factors to consider.
It should not be a surprise to hear that meditation might be related to our health and wellbeing. We know, for example, stress, anxiety and anger can all increase our blood pressure and heart rate. It, therefore, follows that calming and relaxing activities might help to reduce blood pressure. Scientists have been studying the relationship between meditation and the performance of the heart and circulatory system for at least 60 years. Many scientific studies have been produced that indicates meditation and mindfulness have a calming effect. If you have a simple blood pressure monitor at home, you can test this for yourself.
However, from a scientific perspective, the problems occur when we try to repeat these experiments. Just because positive results are achieved in one scientific study, it doesn’t automatically follow that this can be scaled up to all populations. There are many reasons why in psychological experiments, an individual study may not reflect typical human behaviour. Therefore the scientific method requires that we repeat the study in different times and places to see if the same effect is evidenced in other circumstances. Within the psychological sciences, only at this point can we say that there is clear evidence.
Many of the hundreds of experiments looking at the relationship between blood pressure and meditation are individual studies, very few of which have been replicated. This doesn’t mean that meditation doesn’t lower blood pressure; I’m very confident that it does. But we need much better scientific evidence before we use it as a universal mainstream clinical treatment. There is also a second problem; it’s essential to understand how effective meditation is in lowering blood pressure in relation to other therapies. Unfortunately, many studies don’t compare the effects of meditation with any other potential treatments. For example, we know that art therapy, spending time in nature, gardening or other relaxing activities can reduce blood pressure. But we have very little data on the effectiveness of meditation compared to other potential treatments.
There are thousands of different forms of meditation, and each method can influence our mind and body in different ways. How often you practice and for how long may impact the health benefits of meditation. Your meditation teacher’s knowledge and experience are also essential, as is where you meditate and the people you meditate with. From my research, I know that achieving a lowering of blood pressure while meditating or shortly afterwards is a relatively simple effect to achieve. But to translate that short-term effects to permanent 24/7 improvements is much more problematic.
So if you are concerned about high blood pressure, you might want to talk to your doctor about the best possible course of action for you. There is a wealth of evidence suggesting that meditation is likely to be a helpful tool, but the amount of benefit you receive may depend on several factors, not least what you do with your mind while you meditate.