Can we really control our own blood pressure?

The story is really quite amazing. A group of employees, 28% of whom had high blood pressure, underwent a stress management program for six months, and had no other interventions. At the end of the six months, all participants had normal blood pressure.

But that's what happened with 48 employees at a Motorola plant in Plantation, FL, after being trained in HeartMath's techniques. Does this make medical sense?

It does, in theory, says Richard A. Lewis, MD, FACC, of Cardiology Associates of Fredericksburg, VA. "There are two basic mechanisms [that control your heart], one hormonal, one related to the nervous system," he explains. "These are the two major inputs to the heart that can influence both the heart rate and how hard it's beating - the work the heart's doing. The hormone adrenaline is produced at times of 'fight or flight.' The autonomic nervous system, the other mechanism, we are not usually aware of."

He goes on to explain that the autonomic nervous system has two components -- the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. "The sympathetic is the component that increases the heart rate and the force of contraction. The parasympathetic causes the heart to rest and relax. It sounds like [what HeartMath's techniques do] is interrupt the sympathetic component. This is interesting, because you are consciously affecting what is normally unconsciousness. It's a form of biofeedback, like what the Yogi's do."

In the Motorola study, the blood pressure levels of participants were read four times at the beginning of the program, and four times at the end. The first measurement was taken when the participants arrived. The second, after sitting still for five minutes and thinking only neutral (non-stressful) thoughts. The third was taken after the subjects sat for five minutes thinking about stressful situations in their work environment. The fourth was taken following a five-minute period in which they practiced stress reduction techniques.

Lewis would like to see even more data before becoming a true believer, however. "For example, you have to believe that the participants didn't control their salt intake, or increase the amount they exercised over the six-month period," he notes. "If you take them at their word that the only variable that changed over six months was [the HeartMath program], then you could say there's a good possibility it worked. I do think it's possible."

Still, he can offer an alternative explanation. "The people in the study may have become more comfortable over the six-month period with the HeartMath people [and the people] who are taking the readings," he says. "What you really need is 24-hour monitoring. If they just took readings at the beginning and the end, it's not as scientific as I would like it to be."

[For further information, contact Richard A. Lewis, MD, FACC, Cardiology Associates of Fredericksburg, 2500 Charles St., Fredericksburg, VA, 22401. Telephone: (540) 373-1331.]