Background Facts: Transcendental Meditation and Hypertension

Transcendental meditation, or TM, is a simplified method of traditional yoga developed by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who brought the practice to the United States in the 1970s. TM uses the repetition of a word or phrase, called a mantra, along with slow breathing, a comfortable sitting position, and a quiet environment to induce a deep mental and physical relaxation. No particular religious beliefs are required, and you can meditate wherever and whenever you like.

The notion that simple relaxation exercises could lower blood pressure and ultimately prevent heart disease has intrigued both patients and ever since Dr. Herbert Benson, of Harvard Medical School, coined the phrase "relaxation response" in the mid-70s to describe the decrease in metabolism he noticed in people who practiced TM. In his study, he found that the relaxation response typically included a decrease in blood pressure. Exactly how TM does this isn't fully understood, but research suggests it may trigger chemical reactions that facilitate healing, with 20 minutes twice a day appearing to be the minimum effective frequency.

In September 1999, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health awarded a $7.5-million grant to a team of researchers to study TM and its effects on hypertension and heart disease. The study, published in the March 2000 issue of the American Heart Association's journal, Stroke, found that not only did TM help decrease patients' blood pressure, but it also showed a measurable reduction in the amount of plaque in their arteries. These findings back up a 1995 study, published in the journal Hypertension, concluding that middle-aged and elderly people practicing TM lowered their blood pressure more than those who improved their diet and exercise regimen.

While TM's benefits are ranked with those of other relaxation techniques including yoga, tai chi, and guided imagery, experts acknowledge there are limits to what it can do, especially when stress is not a factor. It is suggested, at least initially, that combining TM with lifestyle changes and conventional medications is preferable to practicing TM by itself. Some experts also caution that not all patients will have the discipline to take the time to practice TM on a daily basis, thus making it a recommended adjunct to continued medication.

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