Mindfulness, meditation and adolescents by Dr Karine Nohr

Following on from writing about the usefulness of breathing exercises to reduce sympathetic overdrive, I was intrigued to see a paper from the American journal ‘Ethnicity and Disease’ from November 2011.1

This study measured ambulatory blood pressue and heart rate in two groups  of Year Nine (aged 14-15) African-American adolescents with high-normal systolic blood pressure levels (BP above the 75th centile).

The first group received 10 minutes of daily ‘Breathing Awareness Meditation’ over a three-month period. This was a basic mindfulness practice, whereby concentration is focused on the breathing process and thoughts are simply passively observed.

The comparison group underwent 20 minutes of health education on preventing high blood pressure using guidelines for adolescents and included information on weight loss, diet and physical activity.

All the interventions were delivered by the classroom teachers.

Significant changes in BP and heart rate were found in both groups. This was greater in the meditation group. For example, daytime SBP was reduced by 4.7mmHg in the health education group and by 9mm Hg in the meditation group.

There are various mechanisms through which it is thought that meditation may affect cardiac function; these include stimulation of the vagus nerve, also a decrease in neuro-humoral activity, an effect on the hypothalamic-pituitary axis, metabolic function and inflammatory responses. (Stress leads to cortisol release which in turn leads to elevated glucose levels and then to insulin release).

This is an interesting contribution to the debate about the role of the educational system in improving children’s well-being. This is a preliminary study but it would be interesting to know if any other impact was observed, such as on behaviour, concentration and learning.

For example, it is known that long-term exposure to cortisol not only damages cells in the hippocampus which  results in impaired learning, but also it has been shown that cortisol inhibits memory retrieval of already stored information.

I am sure that there would be a lot of very happy teachers out there if they had a ‘chilled’ class of adolescents! Furthermore, instruction of this skill can be taught quickly and does not require highly trained individuals.


Ethnicity & Disease is the official peer-reviewed journal of ISHIB. (The International Society on Hypertension in Blacks). The journal provides a comprehensive source of information on the causal relationships in the aetiology of common illnesses through the study of ethnic patterns of disease.