Researchers in India conducted a study among glaucoma patients and found that those who were randomly selected for the meditation group developed lower eye pressures; an improved balance of blood factors which may help protect from glaucoma damage; and improved quality of life. There were a total of 90 subjects, 45 were randomized to do meditation under the guidance of a certified meditation teacher and the other 45 were control subjects. Those who underwent mindfulness meditation practiced in a daily group meeting for 1 hour each day, starting at 8:00 am, for 21 days. These sessions included 15 minutes of practice with a deep breathing exercise. At the end of the 21 days, the eye pressure was reduced >25% (about 4-5 mmHg) in the meditation group whereas there was no change in the control group.
The study also evaluated biological factors and gene expression in blood samples from the participants. Biological factors that may be detrimental to the optic nerve or eye pressure—and thus promote glaucoma—were decreased in the meditation group but remained the same in the control group. These factors included cortisol, a steroid that our body produces in response to stress and that can raise eye pressure. Factors that have been proposed to help maintain optic nerve health and may lower eye pressure were increased after meditation; however, these factors were unchanged in the control group. One of these positive factors was beta endorphin, our own body’s pain-relieving and feel-good agent. Surveys of quality of life were also conducted in this study. Patients who meditated had improved their survey scores, and the control group remained unchanged.
Overall, the findings seem to suggest that glaucoma patients should do meditation. However, it should be noted that there are limitations to the study. It is a relatively small number of patients, and longer term follow up is needed to see if the results hold up beyond a few weeks. In addition, studies on other ethnicities are needed to see if the potential benefits apply across different populations.
Aside from the possible advantages to patients with glaucoma, meditation has other potential benefits to an individual’s physical and mental health. These include lower blood pressure, less depression and anxiety, improved memory, and better sleep.
It seems like meditation is a good practice for your health on many levels, with little downside. So why not recommend it to all patients? It is a difficult practice to actually do. On a superficial level, it is not challenging to perform; but it is difficult for many patients to actually sit there and engage one’s own mind or focus on the breath. When my patients ask me for non-traditional therapies that can supplement their glaucoma treatment, I will often include a brief discussion about the possible benefits of meditation. At follow up visits, I have discovered that the vast majority of those patients have not tried meditation. Many will take the supplements that may or may not be helpful but the idea of sitting cross-legged for even 5 minutes daily is too daunting a proposal for most.
If you have glaucoma, should you start doing mindfulness meditation? Further studies are needed to verify whether there truly is an advantage, but these early results from a small study are intriguing. And there is little harm to doing meditation, with some potential upsides even if there aren’t any direct benefits to glaucoma. So if you have the time, why not?
Article by Shan Lin, MD, a glaucoma specialist at the Glaucoma Center of San Francisco