Dr. Robert Schneider’s career of paradigm shifting work has been centered on preventing disease and promoting health naturally. Hence the series of studies on Transcendental Meditation which Dr. Schneider and his colleagues have conducted to uncover how to effectively tackle heart disease.
Merging the best of East and West: How to restore the mind-body connection?
“My perspective in medicine has always been to bring together the ancient holistic knowledge from the East with the modern science of medicine from the West,” Dr. Schneider explains.
“During my training at the beginning of 1980’s, I was doing research on hypertension at the University of Michigan. At that time the idea that a stressed mind can cause a stressed heart was popular.
I started to think: ‘If the mind can cause disease, maybe the mind can also prevent disease? If you change your mind, maybe you can change your heart?’ That’s how I got into studying if the Transcendental Meditation technique could reverse the ill effects of the mind-body connection on the heart.
That was all very new. National Institute of Health (NIH) had never funded any research on anything we now call alternative medicine as far as I knew. But I thought: ‘Those pilot studies are there, there’s a good rationale, let’s try it!’
I applied to NIH in 1988 and got the first grant from the U.S. government ever for research on meditation. After that it snowballed. We became a national centre of excellence in research on complementary and alternative medicine for heart health.”
The mind can damage and the mind can heal
“There are two systems that connect the brain and the heart. One is sympathetic nervous system which has origins in the brain. When you get emotionally excited or mentally stressed, it speeds up the heart rate, raises blood pressure, releases adrenaline and noradrenalin,” Dr. Schneider says.
“When this part of the nervous system is chronically activated, it damages the blood vessel walls, leading to their thickening which is called arteriosclerosis.
The other way the mind is connected to the body is through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. When the brain gets distressed, there’s more of cortisol released and that also not only damages the blood vessels and the heart, but also suppresses immune system and damages other organs.
If, however, we modify the brain we can in principle modify those physiological pathways. We can reduce activation in both the sympathetic nervous system and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis.”
WATCH VIDEO: Dr. Schneider’s lecture at Heart Foundation Queensland, Australia
Transcendental Meditation in action
“One can demonstrate in the laboratory that Transcendental Meditation does lower the over-activation of these two systems.
We extended the theory by hypothesizing that if that was true, then stress-related cardiovascular disease could be improved with a stress reducing practice such as the Transcendental Meditation technique. So we conducted these studies which indeed showed that you can lower your own blood pressure with your mind. Manage your mind, manage your blood pressure!
High blood pressure is a risk factor for coronary heart disease and stroke because the arteries get damaged and narrowed and finally blocked. The blockage of arteries in heart and the brain together are the number one cause of death in the world.
To see the long term effects of TM’s ability to lower blood pressure, we studied a group of patients with heart disease. Half of them learned TM, half of them served as the control group. We followed them for five years. Those doing TM had 48% lower rate of heart attack, stroke and death.
That was another big breakthrough – showing that people could live longer and have less of this disease with TM.”
Getting the body to self-repair
“One could say that calming the mind helps the body to self-repair.
In one study, we measured the arteriosclerosis in the neck by ultrasound. Over one year there was a reversal of thickening of the arteries in those practicing TM and progression of arteriosclerosis in the control group.
We also know now that you can influence how your DNA expresses itself, what stays silent, what gets activated. The first study on how transcending affects genes showed that it increased telomerase, an enzyme that helps to rebuild protective caps on the ends of chromosomes.
Transcendental Meditation is not the only thing that affects telomerase production. Healthy lifestyle does this too and is also very useful, but even just managing the mind alone seems to have that positive effect on telomerase production.”
Keeping up the practice: Do the patients comply?
“In our big study with heart disease patients, we had about 80% of the people practicing at least once a day over a five-year period.
When we provide follow-up, seeing or contacting them every month, we get pretty good compliance.
Patients, of course, experience the benefits. They feel improvements in their quality of life. They have to take less medicine. So in this sense the practice is self-reinforcing.”
Witnessing the shifts in paradigm
“There has been a big change in the field of medicine. Now the idea that meditation affects health has become mainstream. Integrative medicine, now a big buzzword, was not even invented ten years ago. Even the concepts of complementary and alternative medicine came about only in the 1990s.
I have been able to witness over the decades an evolution in the field of mind-body medicine, particularly related to heart health, beginning with the impact of Type A behavior on heart health and now moving into integrative prevention and treatment.
Next paradigm shifts in medicine?
“The next big paradigm is the change in medical education. We are working on different levels of medical education, post-graduate medical education and with people who are already doctors.
I think the next generation of doctors will be very different from the current generation of doctors because they will have had from the beginning of their training exposure to these ideas about the mind-body connection, the role of consciousness in health and how they can have the scientific bases and how they can be used in modern practice.
So it’s a change in understanding, knowledge about these kinds of technologies, which are not to replace but be used as part of the package in modern medicine.
Half of medical schools in the U.S. now have departments or centers of integrative medicine and all require at least some study of complementary and alternative medicine.
I believe this trend in U.S. is being picked up by other countries around the world. We have visitors here every month from medical centers from Asia or Europe.”
The perks of Transcendental Meditation
“For me, personally, meditation gives energy, vitality and clarity of mind to accomplish what I’d like to accomplish.
That state of restful alertness, what Dr. Normal Rosenthal calls ‘Supermind’, helps me figure out what to do and where to go next. I always have to make strategic decisions, building organizations, programs, projects, affecting policies, negotiating, lobbying, publishing and teaching. In all those activities you need a lot of creativity, organizing power, persistence and drive from within,” Dr. Schneider says.
And indeed, the practice helps Dr. Schneider keep doing pioneering work. He is currently working on a book on how modern scientific discoveries and ancient holistic traditions can reverse aging.