The next time you bow your head to say a prayer, maybe you should add a thank you for lower blood pressure.
In the African Americans population, a group particularly prone to high blood pressure and its affects on the heart and body, it seems a little faith or spirituality may play a significant part in lowering blood pressure.
In a recent study, Wyatt and colleagues found that those African Americans who were involved with religious activities had significantly lower blood pressure than those who weren't, despite other factors that increase one's risk of this cardiovascular disease.
"The integration of religion and spirituality—attending church and praying—may buffer individuals exposed to stress and delay the deleterious effects of high blood pressure," says Wyatt.
For the study, researchers used interviews and surveys of over 5,000 African American men and women to determine both their degree and type of religious participation. All levels of spiritual activity were included, from church attendance to private prayer and from meditation to actively using religious beliefs to make decisions.
As many as 80 percent reported attending organized religious activities weekly, and 93 percent participated in organized religion a few times a month. Additionally, 94 percent of the participants said that they used religion to help them deal with stressful situations.
Participants were also asked about various factors that may impact one's blood pressure, including access to health care, their amount of stress, diet and whether they smoke. The results of the study were presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hypertension.
Interestingly, the researchers found that those who participated in religious activities were more likely to be overweight and to not take prescribed medication regularly. In spite of these two serious risk factors, however, these spiritual people also had lower blood pressure than those who had little or no spiritual activities as part of their routine.
Why does religion have such a powerful impact on one's blood pressure?
While no one yet knows for sure, Wyatt suspects that spiritual actions help lower blood pressure because they act as a stress reliever. Those in the study who participated in religious activities had lower blood levels of cortisol, an indicator of stress. Since stress is a major cause of high blood pressure, any routine escape from stress, like attending a church service, sitting silently during prayer or even interacting with the built-in social network of religious groups can help you relax, potentially lowering blood pressure.
Wyatt hopes that further research will elucidate exactly which aspects of religion and spirituality help to lower blood pressure, but in the meantime, feels that health care professionals should acknowledge the role these activities can play in a person's health.
"These practices can be useful for individuals to incorporate in to their daily lives," she says.