By Carol Sorgen
Preventing or treating heart disease is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Medications and lifestyle changes such as a heart-healthy diet and exercise may be in order, but you and your doctor may also want to incorporate complementary therapies into your treatment plan.
To clarify terms that are often used interchangeably, complementary treatments are used along with conventional medical treatments; alternative therapies, on the other hand, are used instead of conventional medicine. If you are being treated for heart disease or have risk factors such as high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes, discuss any alternative or complementary therapies with your healthcare provider.
According to naturopathic physician Brendan Smith, a member of the faculty of the School of Naturopathic Medicine at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington, in addition to physiological risk factors, emotions such as anger, hostility, loneliness, stress, anxiety, and depression not only can increase the risk of heart disease, but are not always effectively managed by medications alone.
"There is an ever greater need for safe and effective treatment of these risks," says Dr. Smith. "Complementary mind-body therapies may offer therapeutic benefit for patients dealing with such conditions that may decrease their ability to practice a healthy lifestyle."
Mind-body interventions are based on the belief that our minds and our bodies are intertwined and that our thoughts, feelings, and emotions have an impact on our emotional and physical health. When you're anxious, for example, your body releases stress hormones that can affect your heart as well as your overall immune system. In a similar vein, depression may reduce your body's natural healing ability.
Interested in the health benefits of activities such as meditation and yoga? Mind-body techniques include such practices as imagery, hypnosis, meditation, yoga, tai chi, prayer, music, and exercise, all of which have shown promise in lowering the risk of heart disease by helping the body and mind to relax. Relaxation, in turn, reduces the levels of stress hormones in the body, so that your immune system is better able to fight off illness.
Meditation is one of the complementary heart health therapies that has perhaps received the most study by researchers. The American Heart Association, for example, has reported promising results about the health benefits and impact of meditation in reducing blood pressure. In a 2012 study, African-Americans with heart disease who practiced Transcendental Meditation on a regular basis were 48 percent less likely to have a heart attack or stroke or die compared with African-Americans who attended a health education class for more than five years.
The TM technique can be easily learned from a trained instructor and is practiced sitting comfortably in a chair with the eyes closed for 15 to 20 minutes twice a day. During the TM practice, the active mind settles down naturally to a state where it is silent yet fully alert, while at the same time the body gains a state of rest and relaxation. TM is generally done for 20 minutes, twice a day.
While TM is taught by trained instructors, other forms of meditation can be learned in class, or even through books, videos, or apps such as Headspace and Calm or the free podcasts by Tara Brach, of the Insight Meditation Community.
TM is just one kind of meditation. While concentration and mindfulness are central to every form of meditation, different styles have different objects of focus, ranging from breath to sound, visualization, movement, standing, and walking. Tai chi, for instance, is called "moving meditation" and is based on gentle movements that call for concentration and balance. Yoga is another form of mind-body medicine that focuses on stretching the body and holding various poses while concentrating on breathing and meditation.
Complementary therapies have become increasingly accepted not only by patients themselves, but among medical practitioners as well. “More and more healthcare practitioners are realizing the potential value of (such therapies as) meditation and yoga, both for themselves and for their patients," says Delia Chiaramonte, M.D., Associate Director and Director of Education at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Center for Integrative Medicine.
Dr. Smith sums up:"Complementary therapies and traditional medicine can go hand-in-hand when physicians and patients work together to decide the risks and benefits of therapies based upon the facts available and the values and preferences of the patient."