When it comes to mindfulness, we most often hear how mindfulness can help with stress, anxiety, chronic pain and depression. What is sometimes overlooked is whether mindfulness can improve heart health.
In fact, mindfulness has physiological effects on the entire body. Numerous studies over the past decade have found that meditation can improve a variety of factors linked with heart disease, making it an important part of heart health. Mindfulness techniques (including meditation) are being integrated more and more into cardiac rehab programs, while family physicians are increasingly prescribing mindfulness to their clients.
Meditation & Heart Function
Meditation practices can have a beneficial effect on many important physiological factors involved in heart function including heart rate, blood pressure, and heart rate variability. Recently, researchers have been using heart rate variability as a marker of well being.
Heart rate variability (HRV) is a measure of the variation in time interval between heart beats. This variation is controlled by the autonomic nervous system – the system responsible for our fight or flight and our relaxation response. HRV detects an imbalance in this system.
If a person’s system is in more of a fight-or-flight mode, the variation between heartbeats is low. If someone is in a more relaxed state, the variation between beats is high. In other words, the healthier the autonomic nervous system the faster you are able to switch gears, showing more resilience and flexibility. A 2013 study found that low HRV is associated with a 32% to 45% increased risk of heart attack or stroke among people without cardiovascular disease.[i]
Mindfulness meditation has been shown to positively affect HRV though its ability to regulate the autonomic nervous system, via its role in activating the parasympathetic system (decreasing heart rate, decreasing breathing rate, decreasing blood pressure).
High blood pressure forces your heart to work harder to pump blood throughout your body and has been linked to a variety of cardiac conditions. In a meta analysis in the Journal of Hypertension in 2017, the authors found that meditation served as a promising alternative approach to the reduction of both systolic and diastolic blood pressure.[ii]
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Mindfulness for Stress Reduction
Mindfulness can help in how we perceive and respond to stressful situations and events. The intention of mindfulness practice is to bring present awareness to whatever is arising (i.e. be in the moment). Specifically, mindfulness helps to activate the parasympathetic response in situations that may lead to unnecessary stress, thereby helping to calm the nervous system.
Unchecked stress can lead to chronic stress, which has been shown to elevate blood sugar, triglycerides, blood pressure and blood cholesterol. Research has found that with mindfulness practice, levels of stress hormones such as cortisol are reduced in meditators.
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Mindfulness Training Leads to Positive Lifestyle Changes
Healthy behaviours such as exercise, healthy eating and smoking cessation can all improve heart health. Mindfulness has been linked to individuals beginning and maintaining these healthy lifestyle habits. Through focused attention and decentering process (i.e. thinking of cravings as mental events) meditation training can lead to positive lifestyle changes.
The benefits of mindfulness in maintaining a healthy lifestyle and healthy heart are evident. Mindfulness has been shown to have numerous positive effects on the cardiovascular system. At Propel Physiotherapy, our registered physiotherapist and mindfulness coach Kathy Mileski uses a mindfulness and movement-based therapeutic approach in providing client care. See how mindfulness training can help improve your health.
 Harvard Health – Mindfulness can improve heart health
 Journal of Hypertension – Meditation and blood pressure: a meta analysis of randomized clinical trials