Bruce Lipton, the renowned cell biologist, tells us 95 percent of all illness and disease is related to stress. Many health authorities agree with him. That doesn’t mean it’s the only cause, but it’s a cause.
So we shouldn’t be surprised by the findings of a landmark study that looked into the effects of stress reduction on a serious problem affecting over three million Americans.
And yet we do find ourselves a little wide-eyed because you wouldn’t expect stress to damage this part of your body.
The study indicates that stress increases your risk of glaucoma — a leading cause of irreversible blindness.
Eye Pressure Drops by a Quarter
There are several different types of glaucoma, but the most common is called primary open-angle glaucoma (POAG). Over time the eyes’ drainage canals become blocked, causing a build-up of inner eye pressure that damages the optic nerve.
Prescription eye drops can control the pressure most of the time, but sometimes laser therapy or surgery is required.
14 researchers from Germany and India teamed up to test whether stress reduction through meditation would make a difference.
To find out, they enrolled 90 patients with POAG. All continued to use eye drops throughout the study. Half the group practiced meditation and breathing exercises for one hour every morning under the direction of a trained yoga instructor. The other half – the control group — did not meditate.
At the end of 21 days there was no change among the controls, but there was a substantial 25 percent drop in the average eye pressure of the meditators.
The researchers also looked to see if any other important biological changes occurred by measuring cortisol (stress hormone), oxidative stress (excess free radical production), BDNF (an important protein that positively influences many aspects of brain function), beta-endorphin (a marker of relaxation), and quality of life.
Both groups had similar readings for all markers at the start of the study. By the end, there was virtually no change among the controls, but it was quite a different story for the meditation group.
Cortisol fell by 21%, oxidative stress was lowered by 39%, BDNF increased by 50%, beta-endorphin rose by 37%, and quality of life among the meditators was boosted three times over. The researchers also found meditation positively modified gene expression.
As a long-time meditator myself, I find those results a little hard to believe. On the other hand, an hour a day is a LOT of meditation, and I do think a good instructor makes a difference – keeps you on track, like any other coach.
Another factor in these amazing results could be that people who have unhealthy habits are the most likely to see dramatic improvement when they make even minor changes. By contrast, a person with pretty good health habits to start with is more likely to see a small or incremental change by introducing one more good habit.
Harnessing the Brain’s Power to Heal the Body
According to lead investigator Tanuj Dada, MD, from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, “This is the first study showing that a relaxation program with meditation can lower intraocular pressure in glaucoma patients and improve their quality of life by lowering stress hormones like cortisol. Mindful meditation is easy to do, even by patients who are elderly and bedridden.”
His colleague Muneeb Faiq, PhD, added, “Our findings open an exciting avenue of harnessing the power of the brain to cure ailments of the human body. A majority of human diseases have an underlying psychological component, and it is the psychology of the patient that meditation targets. Reducing stress hormone levels with evidence-based methods can impact many organs in the body, including the eyes.”
Another of the study authors, Dr. Bernhard Sabel from the Institute of Medical Psychology, University of Magdeburg, Germany, was keen to add his comments also:
“The study suggests that mental stress may be one of the main causal factors for glaucoma, and using this ancient meditation technique to reduce stress is a powerful tool to treat the patient as a whole and not just the eye; a holistic approach to manage the disease and also improve overall patient well-being.”
The implications of this study are profound. However, few people would be willing or able to set aside an hour a day to meditate.
The good news is that you don’t have to. Research suggests even ten minutes a day will have positive effects. So what are you waiting for?