A New Weapon Against Glaucoma: Meditation

A new study shows the power of mindfulness

Woman meditating by bed with tablet

There are a handful of treatments available for the serious eye disease, glaucoma. But now there may be one more option that’s unlike all the others. A surprising new study shows that mindfulness-based meditation may help glaucoma patients improve.

About three million Americans have glaucoma, a neurodegenerative disease that affects the retinal nerves connecting the eyes to the brain. “The condition occurs when there’s an imbalance between the amount of fluid the eye produces and releases,” explains Andrew Iwach, M.D., a clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) and a board-certified ophthalmologist with Sutter Health in San Francisco. “When too much fluid builds up behind the eye, the resulting pressure damages the optic nerve. Early diagnosis and treatment is key to preventing permanent vision loss.” There isn’t a cure for glaucoma, but certain treatments (including medicated eye drops, laser treatments, and surgery) can slow the disease’s progression and help preserve vision.

The new study suggests that practicing regular mindfulness-based meditation also may help. Mindfulness-based meditation is described as being attentive to the present moment in a nonjudgmental way, with a focus on breathing and (ideally) nothing else. In a December 2018 Journal of Glaucoma study, people with glaucoma who participated in daily group mindfulness-based meditation showed significant reductions in eye pressure. These findings suggest that mindfulness-based meditation may complement doctor-prescribed conventional treatments by helping to lower the stress hormone cortisol, thus reducing eye pressure.

The study focused on people with open-angle glaucoma, the most common form of the disease.   In the study, half of the 90 participants practiced mindfulness-based meditation for one hour a day for 21 consecutive days. The other group did not meditate. Both groups continued to use prescription eye medications to treat the disease. The results?

  • At the end of three weeks, 75 percent of meditating patients saw a significant drop in eye pressure of 25 percent or more. There were no statistically significant drops in pressure for the non-meditating group.
  • Those who meditated also experienced improvements in their quality of life. They had fewer stress-related hormones in their system and reported a significant improvement in quality of life as compared to those who didn’t meditate.

Mindfulness 101

Mindfulness-based meditation typically involves assuming a comfortable (usually seated) position, closing your eyes, and noticing the experience of each breath as you inhale and exhale. The hardest part is maintaining focus on your breath while letting go of any interfering thoughts. (Some describe the objective as metaphorically sitting on a riverbank watching your thoughts float gently by, without judging or acting on them, while all the while focusing instead on your breathing.) Once mastered, you can be mindful anywhere—while standing in line at the grocery store or waiting to see your doctor. Although the study participants practiced mindful meditation for up to 60 minutes a day, as little as five minutes is beneficial, says Diana Winston, director of mindfulness education at the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center.

“Being mindful is about paying attention to your present moment experience with openness, curiosity, and a willingness to be present,” Winston says. “When you are mindful, you aren’t ruminating about the past or obsessing about the future. You are living in the moment.”

The Benefits of Meditation

Studies regularly show that mindfulness may be especially beneficial to people under high stress. One study looked at people with cancer who attended once-weekly mindfulness sessions for seven consecutive weeks. It showed a 65 percent reduction in stress symptoms (such as a stomach upset, nervousness, muscle tension, and a fast heart rate), as well as a reduction in mood disturbances, including anxiety, depression, and anger.

Other findings suggest that mindfulness-based meditation creates physiological relaxation responses that can have powerful effects on your whole body. “Stress takes a serious toll on one’s overall health,” notes Dr. Iwach. “Anything you can do to better manage stress will be good for your entire body including your eyes.” Studies show meditation can help:

  • ease pain
  • promote better sleep
  • reduce inflammation
  • lower heart rate and blood pressure
  • improve eye health

Where to Begin

Mindfulness-based meditation is easy to try, but hard to master. For help, ask about mindfulness practices at yoga centers and health clubs. Start with short meditations and build from there. Some apps that can help: 

Headspace

What it offers: 10-day beginner’s mindfulness and meditation course

Cost: Free, or upgrade for $12.99/month

Find it: https://www.headspace.com/headspace-meditation-app

Insight Timer

What it offers: More than 7,000 guided meditations and courses, including timer

Cost: Free

Find it: https://insighttimer.com/

MindBliss

What it offers: Seven different meditation tools, including breathing exercises

Cost: Free, or upgrade for $11.99/month

Find it: https://mindbliss.com/

UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC)

What it offers: Pre-recorded, self-paced, online mindfulness classes with weekly live chats with instructors and participants. MARC also offers free online guided meditations, as well as on-site classes.

Cost: $165 for six weeks of two-hour, online, self-paced classes

Find it: http://marc.ucla.edu/online-classes

MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) Online Live from the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society

What it offers: Live eight-week online classes with real-time video conference participation

Cost: Varies depending on income  

Find it: https://www.umassmed.edu/cfm/mindfulness-based-programs/mbsr-courses/mbsr-online/