The Cholesterol Question

Dr Swami Shankardevananda Saraswati, MB, BS (Syd.)

One of the compounds blocking arteries is cholesterol, a necessary constituent of the body, making some 5% of the solids found in the brain and a source material for the manufacture of male and female sex hormones. Cholesterol is both manufactured in the body and taken in from the diet. When its level in the body becomes high, the blood levels increase, and this is thought to contribute to the laying down of material inside the blood vessels. When this occurs, the flow of blood becomes turbulent and leads to more material depositing until blockage results.

Emotional stresses have been shown to cause an increased blood level of free fatty acids, cholesterol and triglycerides, all of which are implicated in heart and blood vessel diseases. Stress acts on the sympathetic nervous system which secretes certain substances (catecholamines). These somehow cause a rise in the blood cholesterol level and increase the amount of fats released from the body stores (fatty tissues) and circulated throughout the body in the bloodstream. The fats are being mobilised to give the body fuel with which to face stress in the 'fright, flight or fight' reaction governed by the sympathetic nervous system. This provides extra fuel to meet the real stresses of daily living. In the interactions of life, we generate heat to burn off fats and poisons and prevent their accumulation.

If our stresses become chronic, or if we live in a world of imagined stress, as occurs in mental tension, emotional and hormonal imbalance or anxiety, then our sympathetic nervous system is switched on all the time in an inappropriate, neurotic response to the environment. This situation can lead to high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, increased stickiness of various components of the blood and decreased ability to dissolve clots once they are formed, so that ideal conditions for blood vessel diseases are generated.

According to researchers Friedman and Roseman (Type A Behaviour and Your Heart, Knoph, N.Y., 1974), most people who consult cardiologists about heart complaints have a competitive, aggressive, ambitious and stressful lifestyle to contend with. They are career men climbing to the top of the social ladder at a furious pace. These people were found to have high levels of fat in their bloodstream and excreted larger amounts of stress hormones such as adrenaline and noradrenalin.

When the level of blood fats becomes dangerously high, at about 250 milligrams percent for cholesterol and 160 milligrams percent for triglycerides, then drugs are used in an effort to reduce these levels. However, studies have shown that these drugs are virtually useless in terms of decreasing the death rate from heart attacks once one heart attack has already occurred; that is, in severe disease. Their use is therefore limited. At the same time, approximately one third of middle-aged men and women have excessively high levels of blood fat. Therefore, more and better methods will be required if we are to remove the chances of heart disease once and for all.

K. N. Udupa of Benares Hindu University has shown that it is possible to lower blood cholesterol in normal subjects using asanas and pranayama, especially sarvangasana, halasana and matsyasana. However, these practices should not be performed by heart disease patients. In normal individuals they act on the thyroid gland and, it is thought, affect the metabolism, helping to burn up extra fats.*1

K. S. Gopal has found that after 6 months of yogic training, 55% of his subjects had lowered blood cholesterol.*2

Meditation and yogic relaxation techniques have been shown to be of value in the elimination of stress, high blood pressure and in other disease conditions. This occurs through reduced sympathetic nervous system activity and an increase in the parasympathetic component. The individual experiences decreased, oxygen consumption, respiratory rate, blood pressure, cardiac output, heart rate, arterial blood lactate, as well as a general feeling of peace and well being. This state is conducive for a healthy heart and for regeneration of the diseased tissues.

The relaxed state reduces the heart's need for oxygen and increases the body's fibrinolytic activity, its ability to break down blood clots once they have formed. However, a state of body and mind must be induced where blood clots do not form in the first place. Meditation may be the means to achieve this also, because of its ability to reduce sympathetic nervous system activity which is responsible for those conditions leading to disease.

Now researchers have found that meditation has a direct effect on blood fat levels. Michel J. Cooper of Kaiser- Permanente Medical Centre in Oakland, USA, and Maurice M. Aygen, director of the Toor Heart Institute in Petach Tiquah, Israel, compared 12 meditators with a control group of non-meditators and found that meditation helps lower blood serum cholesterol levels.*3 The researchers suggest that the regular practice of a relaxation technique may reduce high cholesterol levels, probably through reduced adrenal gland and sympathetic nervous system activity.

It is possible to deduce from these findings alone that yoga has a large role to play, not only in the prevention of heart vessel disease, but also in terms of the therapeutic setting and actual treatment.


*1. K. N. Udupa, et al., "Studies on Physiological, Endocrine and Metabolic Response to the Practice of Yoga in Young Normal Volunteers", J. Res. Ind. Med., 6(3): 345-357, I971, and "Physiological and Biochemical Changes Following the Practice of Some Yogic and Non-yogic Exercises", J. Res. Ind. Med., 10(2): 91-3, 1975.

*2. K. S. Gopal, et al., "Biochemical Studies in Foreign Volunteers Practising Hatha Yoga", J. Res. Ind. Med., 9 (3): 1-8, 1974.

*3. M. J. Cooper & M. M. Aygen, "A Relaxation Technique in the Management of Hypercholesterolemia", J. Human Stress, December 1979.