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The Mysterious 'Medication' of Meditation

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"We knew meditation caused a relaxation response, but we couldn't prove it. We knew that if you thought in a certain way, with repetition, that physiologic changes would occur in the body. Here now is proof that mind, in the form of repetition, is affecting the brain, which affects the body," says Benson.

Also studying meditation over the past 12 years are researchers at the College of Maharashi Vedic Medicine in Fairfield, Iowa. Many of the studies, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, have focused on heart disease and its risk factors.

One study of transcendental meditation, another form of meditation, and its effects on black people with high blood pressure was published earlier this year in Stroke. The study was authored by Amparo Castillo-Richmond, MD, an assistant professor at Maharashi.

In the group that practiced transcendental meditation, there was an reduction in thickness of one of the arteries that supplies blood to the brain, a sign that blood flow is increasing, Castillo-Richmond tells WebMD. In the group that only followed diet and exercise recommendations, "the artery walls were getting thicker."

The transcendental meditation group also had significant changes in blood pressure as well as heart rate. "It's possible to reverse heart disease through meditation," reports Castillo-Richmond.

Another three-month study, published in the journal Hypertension, showed that transcendental meditation had a much greater effect on blood pressure than a widely used approach for relaxation, called progressive muscle relaxation.

"What we found was that conventional education had little or no effect in reducing high blood pressure, which is what doctors find most of the time. We tell our patients to change their diet, lose weight, avoid salt, avoid stress, get more exercise, but they just don't do it. It's hard to change your lifestyle," Robert H. Schneider, MD, director of the Center for Natural Medicine and Prevention at the College of Maharishi Vedic Medicine, tells WebMD.

The group that practiced progressive muscle relaxation showed a small change in blood pressure, which is consistent with other studies, he says.

However, "the transcendental meditation group had twice the change in blood pressure as the relaxation group" and had results similar to drug treatments, Schneider tells WebMD. "This is really critical because transcendental meditation is widely misunderstood. The original hypothesis 25 or 30 years ago was that all meditation approaches had the same effect. However, research in the past decade has disproved this hypothesis clearly."

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