Sixty million American adults have borderline hypertension, also known as prehypertension. Medical guidelines recommend lifestyle modifications for those with this condition (systolic blood pressure: 120–139 mm Hg, or diastolic BP: 80–89 mm Hg). If these methods are unsuccessful, then antihypertensive drugs are often recommended.
Researchers from Kent State University, in Kent, Ohio, wanted to explore whether Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction practice could help. They enrolled 56 men and women (average age, 50) with unmedicated pre-hypertension and randomly assigned them to one of two groups: the MBSR program or a progressive-muscle-relaxation (PMR) training program.
One treatment provider led each group for 8 weeks. All participants received lifestyle modification advice as recommended by current guidelines for people with prehypertension. Treatment consisted of one 2.5-hour session per week with home practice assignments. Investigators collected data on ambulatory and clinical blood pressure at baseline and after 8 weeks.
Data analysis showed that MBSR participants experienced a reduction in clinical BP compared with those in the PMR group. Similar effects, however, were not found for ambulatory BP.
Lead study author Joel Hughes, PhD, associate professor at Kent State University, told IDEA Fitness Journal, “The fact that changes from MBSR were only found for clinical BP may mean that the changes are hard to see unless conditions are controlled—this is why, for example, you fast for a cholesterol test. “Or it may be that any changes in daily life were overshadowed by other influences. Ideally, the changes would be apparent in both contexts, so future research will have to tease out whether the effects can be apparent during daily life or not.”
While the BP reduction was small, study authors noted it was equivalent to that gained by many drug interventions and potentially large enough to lower the risk of heart attack or stroke.
Study author David Fresco, PhD, associate professor at Kent State University, said, “The model we hope to test in future [research] is whether gains in decentering brought on by MBSR training help individuals confront the destructive consequences of stress in the short run, while also strengthening their resolve to stick to a lifestyle (e.g., diet, exercises, etc.) that [is likely to] help reduce BP or maintain it [at] normative [levels]. Decentering is the ability to see that we are not synonymous with our thoughts and to create healthy psychological distance from emotionally charged situations.”
Hughes added, “Meditation was not designed for BP reduction, and more research is necessary, but so far meditation appears safe and possibly beneficial for slightly elevated BP. Anyone with truly high BP needs to be evaluated for medication, but for people who still have a chance to make lifestyle changes to avoid getting high BP, meditation may be an appropriate part of your strategy. People whose BP is creeping up should keep getting it checked. The worst idea is to not know your BP or to do nothing about it.”
The study appeared in the journal of the American Psychosomatic Society Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Behavioral Medicine (2013; 75 , 721–28).