Healthy Mind, Healthy Body

Managing Stress with Meditation

Mar 20, 2015

By Victor S. Sierpina, MD 

Are you experiencing stress in your life? Do you know this can shorten your life by making you more susceptible to heart disease, cancer, and other health problems?

The good news is that there is an evidence-based treatment for stress. It doesn’t require seeing a doctor, taking medications, or even losing weight. This treatment is meditation, in one of its many variations.

As a medical student with lots of personal anxieties, I became intrigued with the physiology and mechanisms of stress. These had been defined for many decades by Professor Hans Selye, a Canadian who found that stress in animal models created increases in adrenal hormones such as cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine.

It turns out that stress increases the risk of many conditions. These are not just psychiatric condition such as anxiety and depression, but also major physical problems like cancer, ulcers, heart disease, asthma, infections, headaches, arthritis, endocrine glands, and the immune system. In other words, stress, when chronic and persistent can and does affect every organ system.

Managing stress reduces the negative effects of adrenal hormones that are stimulated by stress. Tuning down these stress hormones can be achieved by meditation.

How does this work? First, understand that stress hormones are produced as “alarm” chemical in the “fight or flight” reaction. While extremely helpful in helping us adapt to an acute challenge, physical threat, or the historic saber-toothed tiger, prolonged exposure to these hormones creates many health risks.

If you don’t like the idea of meditation, just slow your breathing. Recent research shows that taking deep diagphragmatic breaths and slowing your breathing to five to breaths a minute compared to the average of 12-18 breaths affects an important nerve, the vagus nerve. This nerve controls heart rate, gut function, mental patterns, mood, asthma, and more. There is even a new gadget called Spire that helps you track your breathing patterns. Like a pedometer, it can help you with feedback on breathing. In other words, you can relax, meditate, and improve your health risks even as you go about your regular day.

A wonderful resource I recommend regularly to my patients to manage stress related illness and reduce health risk from chronic stress is a best-selling workbook by Dr. Martha Davis called The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook. Now in its 6th edition, this book offers step-by-step advice in a wide variety of meditative and relaxation practices.

Learning such techniques can help preserve your health, and maybe even save your life.