Project Inspire: A New Translational Tool for Studying the Role of Breathing in Meditation
Existing research shows that regular practice of meditation is effective in decreasing resting blood pressure in some patients with hypertension. The physiological mechanism mediating these effects remains to be clarified, and an understanding of this mechanism could aid in increasing the range of patients for which beneficial effects can be shown. It is known that decreases in sympathetic activity can decrease blood pressure acutely, and it is often assumed that changes in nervous system activity underlie the salutary effects of mind-body interactions. However, long-term blood pressure control is vested in the ability of the kidneys to maintain adaptive sodium balance.
One of the factors that can influence sodium regulation is breathing habits. When people hold their breath under stress, the ability of the kidneys to function properly is inhibited, and excess sodium may be retained. Therefore, one mechanism by which meditation might influence blood pressure is via adaptive changes in breathing patterns.
We are investigating this hypothesis in Project Inspire, which monitors both breathing patterns and blood pressure in the clinic and at home before, during and following training in mindful breathing. The project compares the effects of mindful breathing with a usual care control group for women who exhibit above average blood pressure. Hypertension is particularly relevant for women, because it is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease (CVD) and more women die annually from CVD than any other cause, including all types of cancer combined. To date, the preliminary analyses of the data indicate that training in mindful breathing can decrease resting and 24-hr, ambulatory blood pressure in pre-hypertensive women.
Breathing exercises, alone or as a component of mind-body interventions, such as meditation and yoga, may have potential for amelioration of a wide range of acute and chronic disorders, including hypertension. This research will incorporate a new ambulatory breathing monitor, being studied for the first time in this project. Another component of this study explores the effects of an auditory feedback procedure generated in response to the breath-holding that transiently elevates pCO2. Women who engage in habitual breath-holding may be more vulnerable to the hypertensive effects of sodium in their diets, and over the long run, more at risk for developing hypertension. We hypothesize that training of adaptive breathing patterns using auditory feedback can alter mechanisms involved in long-term blood pressure regulation and help prevent the development of chronic hypertension.