At Last! Good News for Menopausal Women
A paper published in PubMed and in the Annals of the NY Academy of Sciences a decade ago could have saved post-menopausal women from years of vulnerability to heart disease—had they only know about it.
February is “heart health month”—shouldn’t every month be? So as a nurse specializing in cardiovascular health, and as a post-menopausal woman myself, I was interested to learn about this research and share it with you. Unlike younger women, the risk of cardiovascular disease in older women matches or exceeds that of men. Excessive cortisol may play a role in this increased risk.
There are two terms to understand in considering what this study showed: cortisol response and metabolic stressor.
Cortisol is a hormone produced by the brain’s adrenal cortex; it regulates how we metabolize carbohydrates and maintain blood pressure. The normal cortisol cycle and response is a very important mechanism for dealing with stress and keeping the body healthy. The rise of cortisol in the morning gets us out of bed, and when cortisol is released in our bodies in response to stress, the increased cortisol mobilizes the energy and protective systems of the body to deal with the stress. So a normal functioning cortisol system is very important and a very good thing.
The problem arises when chronic stress activates the secretion of cortisol too much, so that cortisol is chronically elevated. This deteriorates the body in various ways and creates terrible health consequences. Another problem is that when cortisol is chronically high for too long, it can lead to adrenal fatigue, with which cortisol does not increase in response to challenges when it is needed. That means the body cannot mobilize its resources to deal with stress.
A metabolic stressor is any stimulation that is overwhelming to our normal balanced functioning—It overwhelms the bodies metabolic processes and can lead to dysfunction and disease. It could be something as simple as a car screeching to a halt inches from us. It could be as usual as having a deadline we can’t meet. It could be as subtle as the side effects of a medication or eating way too much sugar. Chronic stress results from repeated exposure to situations that lead to the release of stress hormones. It can cause wear and tear on our mind and body. Many scientists think that our stress response system was not designed to be constantly activated. This overuse may contribute to the breakdown of many bodily systems. When we become stressed, our metabolism goes out of balance, homeostasis is lost, and illness follows.
The study data indicated that the Transcendental Meditation (TM) program may reduce the cortisol response to a metabolic stressor and is therefore a way of reducing disease risk in older women. The study, called Lowering cortisol and CVD risk in postmenopausal women: a pilot study using the Transcendental Meditation program, involved 16 practitioners of the TM technique and 14 non-practitioners matched for age as a control.
This study explored the possibility that the TM program could reduce the cortisol response to a metabolic stressor (glucose) as a way of reducing disease risk in older women. The bad news for the non-TMers: Post glucose (used as the stressor) cortisol rose faster in the controls and was significantly higher than that in the meditating women. Urinary excretion of cortisol during this period was 3 times higher in controls than in the TM group. Lower cortisol response to the metabolic stressor may reflect improved physiological functioning which relates to the disease-preventing effects of the TM practice in older women. In other words, when a woman is impacted less by stress (which can be indicated by less of a cortisol response) it shows that her body and brain are functioning in an improved manner—reducing the onset of illness.
Another noteworthy finding was that the number of months practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique was inversely correlated with cardiovascular disease risk factors—the longer a woman had been doing TM, the less risk factors for heart disease. Since factors can increase with aging, this is also a significant finding.
Overall, what does all this science suggest for women as the years mount up? Often we are unable to change the stressors in our environment, but we can change the way that we react to the stress. Putting aside twenty minutes twice a day to do this highly scientifically verified meditation technique is a very small investment to insure decreased risk of heart attack and stroke. Even if that were the only benefit to older women of the TM practice, it would be more than worthwhile—but TM produces a broad range of benefits in the mind and body indicating reversal of aging. In this month of increased heart health awareness—a reminder to us all to safeguard our well-being—treat yourself to an introductory presentation on the Transcendental Meditation program.
About the Author
Amy Ruff, RN BSN, is the national director of TM for Nurses in the United States.