Two Minutes to Lower Blood Pressure

by Carole Jackson, Bottom Line Health

Maybe you’ve never realized it, but when sports fans cheer in unison for their teams, they are chanting… when protesters shout, “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!” they are chanting… and when tough-as-nails Marines intone, “I don’t know but I’ve been told… ” while marching, they are chanting, too. And for their part, most of these folks probably don’t realize that this chanting is good for their health — and guess what? You can use chanting as a technique for improving your health, too.

Chanting rituals have been part of cultures around the world seemingly forever — from Western churches where worshippers repeat “alleluia” to eastern temples where yogis end their practice with a long exhalation of “ohm.” Now modern medical researchers are demonstrating that even the simplest forms of chanting are remarkably good for our health — physically, mentally and emotionally, too. If you’ll forgive the pun, I’m sincere in saying that when you read about how easy, fun and healthy a chanting practice can be, I predict you will be utterly enchanted by its potential to enrich your life!

Chanting Improves Mind, Body & Spirit

Studies show that chanting triggers the well-known “relaxation response,” slowing the heartbeat, brain waves and respiration while also producing stress-lowering endorphins. Chanting helps regulate blood pressure, too — in fact, a friend of mine with high blood pressure has learned to use just a minute or two of chanting to immediately lower her pressure by five or more points. More startling still, several studies from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation have found that daily practice of a 12-minute Hindu chant (saa-taa-naa-maa accompanied by specific finger movements) may help slow development of Alzheimer’s disease. Just eight weeks of this chanting practice improved memory and brain function in patients with mild cognitive impairment, a benefit supported by before and after brain scans showing evidence of physical changes in their brains, including improved blood flow.

My friend’s story motivated me to call Robert Gass, EdD, coauthor of the book Chanting: Discovering Spirit in Sound, who has taught and led group chanting around the world. He believes that the primary benefit of a chanting practice is the peace of mind it induces. “It takes you out of your daily life and to-do list and reminds you of your deeper nature and your existence beyond the outer pulse of life,” said Gass. He adds that vocalizing through chant — really belting it out if you like — can also energize you and create a sense of real joy. But Gass said that chanting has other very specific benefits as well, including…

Deep breathing. Chanting has a strong impact on breathing patterns. When you chant, you begin with a quick deep inhalation followed by a slow exhalation. This changes your ratio of blood gases — in fact, researchers have found that chanting boosts levels of nitric acid, which relaxes smooth muscles in arteries and aids in blood flow, including to the brain. This helps bring mental clarity and focus.

Good vibrations. At the core of chanting is a technique called toning, which involves intentionally elongating a vowel sound (such as eeeeeeee) in a monotone that becomes sort of an “internal massage” that helps induce relaxation in your bones and other tissues. To experience it, try this: Loudly tone the sound ahhhhhh and sense the vibration it makes in your chest… now switch it to eee and notice how the vibration moves up into your throat. Studies have found that toning can improve lung function for people with Parkinson’s disease. It has also been shown to enhance the flow of cerebrospinal fluid, therefore stimulating the organs and bones as well as the frontal lobes of the brain.

Sharpens focus. Chanting can provide cognitive benefits of meditation without the stillness required — in fact, some people who find it difficult to quiet their minds enough to do standard meditation do quite well with chanting instead. It can also be an effective way to begin a meditation, says Gass, especially at the end of a busy day.

Affirmation practice. Chanting can serve as an opportunity to repeat and reinforce affirmations such as “I am at peace” or “Life is good” or whatever has personal meaning to you at the moment. In fact, Gass used this chanting technique when he was battling a life-threatening melanoma a number of years ago. Several times each day, every day, he chanted the words “I choose life,” an affirmation that he says helped him endure the rigors of treatment and strengthen his courage.

Chanting 101

Though it sounds mystical, the truth is that chanting is totally practical — not least because it requires no equipment or preparation and doesn’t cost a penny. You can chant in the car to calm yourself and pass the time… in the shower to start your day on a cheerful note… whenever you need it to eclipse a bad mood… or as a distraction from temptations (food, smoking… what’s yours?).

You can chant anything you want. You don’t have to say anything meaningful, though many people do — you can choose words or a phrase from your own religious tradition, perhaps the word “amen” or “aleinu.” My friend who chants to control her blood pressure uses a classic and popular Buddhist chant, “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo,” (it means, roughly, “I dedicate my life to the mystic law of the Lotus (karma) and the teachings of Buddha”). Or you can simply open your mouth and intone “ohmmmmmmm.” Gass told me that his grandmother, healthy and spry well into her 80s, told him that she had heard it was good to chant an Indian word every day. And so she did, and the word she chose… Cheyenne.

Other ways to explore chanting: You can buy chanting CDs (or download chants to your iPod or MP3 player). Just a few of the popular chanters include Gass, Krishna Das, David Newman, Deva Premal and a female artist called Wah!. You also may want to try group chanting, which Gass says is both powerful and exhilarating. He said you can find group chanting events in most cities today — search “chanting” (or “kirtan” which is a call-and-response version often practiced with yoga) to find programs in your area.

Practice, Practice…

Whatever sounds you select to chant, you will gain the greatest benefits if you do it at least once or twice a day.

Here is how…

  • Choose a quiet place where you will be undisturbed, and sit in a comfortable position with your eyes closed.
  • Chanting for even a few minutes will be of benefit, but, as Gass points out, longer regular sessions will strengthen your chanting vocal cords (making the chanting less tiring) and also deepen the experience for you.
  • Take a quick deep breath, then exhale slowly as you chant. The more you practice, the more you’ll be able to chant on a single breath.
  • Try different sounds and chants till you find a style that feels right for you.
  • When you finish, sit quietly for a few minutes and “listen” to the calmness… and feel the vibrating energy the chanting produced within you.

Eventually you will begin to think of your chant as an old friend. It is always there to relax and comfort you no matter what situation you may be in.


Robert Gass, EdD, coauthor of Chanting: Discovering Spirit in Sound (Broadway Books), has a background in psychology, music and spiritual studies, among other disciplines, and has taught and led group chanting around the world. He is based in Boulder, Colorado. He is on the faculty of Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, in Rhinebeck, New York. He is also a composer and has recorded more than 20 CDs with his singing group, On Wings of Song.

Excuse for eating chocolate # 384

  According to recent estimates, nearly one in three American adults has high blood pressure. But for the Kuna Indians living on a group of islands off the Caribbean coast of Panama, hypertension doesn’t even exist. In fact, after age 60, the average blood pressure for Kuna Indian islanders is a perfect 110/70.

 So what makes these folks practically “immune” to hypertension — and lets them enjoy much lower death rates from heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and cancer?

 Harvard researchers were stunned to discover it’s because they drink about five cups of cocoa each day. That’s right, cocoa!

What Mosquitoes Hate Most

   by Carole Jackson, Bottom Line Health

It’s not your imagination — mosquitoes really do find some people tastier than others. I’ve always suspected this, and now new UK research confirms that some lucky individuals produce certain skin oils that seem to repel mosquitoes… but, while fascinating, these findings aren’t at a point where we can put them to practical use. Since it’s summer, I thought it would be good to check on the latest expert advice about what’s effective and not effective… safe and not so safe… for keeping mosquitoes away.

This is important because not only are mosquito bites uncomfortable, they also can give you diseases such as West Nile Virus and encephalitis — even here in modern-day America. Mosquito maven Susan M. Paskewitz, PhD, professor in the department of entomology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, was happy to offer some helpful advice.

What’s In Bug Spray?

Dr. Paskewitz was reassuring about the safety of insect repellents, saying that there’s not much evidence that they are harmful. She told me that just about all the products sold today are formulated using one or more of the following substances…

  • DEET. This chemical (on labels it may be called N,N-diethyl-3-methylbenzamide) was developed by the US Department of Defense after WWII for military personnel stationed in tropical climates. Dr. Paskewitz told me it has supposedly been applied to humans more than eight billion times since becoming commercially available in 1957. Between then and 2002, which is when a report on DEET safety was published in The New England Journal of Medicine, there were fewer than 50 known cases of serious adverse effects from DEET — most caused by incorrect use and most resolving with no long-term consequences. But DEET-containing products do have the potential to irritate the skin of people who are sensitive and DEET should always be kept away from the eyes. Noting that DEET doesn’t accumulate in the body, Dr. Paskewitz said that there’s no evidence that using DEET causes cancer or any other long-term health concerns.
  • Picaridin. This compound (its scientific name is KBR 3023) is odorless, less oily and even less irritating to the skin and eyes than DEET, Dr. Paskewitz told me.
  • IR3535. Derived from natural compounds, this is the proprietary ingredient that supposedly makes Avon’s Skin So Soft Bug Guard products and BullFrog Mosquito Coast sunblock work so well. It can be irritating if it gets in your eyes but is otherwise safe, Dr. Paskewitz told me.
  • Lemon Eucalyptus Oil. An extract from the lemon eucalyptus plant, the active ingredient is para-menthane-3,8-diol, and there is a synthetic version (known as PMD) as well. The only potential issue uncovered by EPA safety tests is that it, too, can irritate the eyes.

How well do they work? Dr. Paskewitz said that all these products are equally effective when tested at 20% concentration — but noted that concentrations vary in commercial products, so check labels to compare strength.

How to use safely: Though none of these products is linked to long-term health concerns, virtually all of them can be irritating to the skin for some people and for the eyes (for practically everyone). Minimize the likelihood that this will happen by using the sprays, creams and wipes only where you need to — on exposed skin, not under clothing. When using a spray product, Dr. Paskewitz advises averting your face and avoiding your eyes (donning glasses can be helpful) and holding your breath while spraying. Wash hands after applying to prevent getting the products in your eyes if you touch your face. Avoid cuts, scratches and irritated skin… don’t get any on or near your mouth… and, after you come indoors, she advises washing all treated skin with soap and water. If you’re prone to irritation, Dr. Paskewitz suggested trying a repellent formulated to be sprayed onto clothing, such as permethrin (Bug Off and Insect Shield are two such products).

Aromatherapy — Natural Scents that Repel Mosquitos

If you prefer to take a natural approach, there are numerous plant-based oils that can be effective at keeping mosquitos away — peppermint, cinnamon, citronella, cedar, clove, lemongrass, rosemary, thyme, lavender, catnip, patchouli, tea tree oil, eucalyptus and sage, to name a few. But be careful — you’ve heard it before from me, but it bears repeating: Natural substances also have the potential for harm if used incorrectly. Essential oils, in particular, are potent and may cause liver problems in susceptible individuals.

How well do they work? These oils haven’t been tested by the EPA for this purpose, but a few smaller independent studies have found undiluted oils of citronella, patchouli, clove, catnip and Zanthoxylum limonella (lemon oil) quite helpful, sometimes offering more than two hours of potent repellent power.

How to apply: Here’s the rub: Undiluted oils provide the best protection when applied directly to exposed skin. But they can also cause irritation and rashes and haven’t been tested for safety. A good solution is to look for these oils in natural skin creams, lotions or oils that use them as ingredients, formulated to be less irritating.

What Else Works?

Preventive advice includes doing all that you can to reduce the number of mosquitoes in your environment, suggests Dr. Paskewitz. This includes taking the following measures:

 Eliminate standing water. Mosquitoes breed like crazy in ponds and other natural pools of water. To avoid bites, avoid these locations, particularly on days that are hot and still. Keep control over the mosquito population around your home by draining water anywhere that it might puddle — even in small containers such as empty flower pots, spare tires, kiddie pools, etc.

Stay indoors at dawn and dusk. Mosquitoes are most prolific in the early morning and at twilight, so if there are lots in your area, try to stay indoors at these times.

Watch what you wear. Mosquitoes are attracted to dark colors, particularly red and violet, so wear lighter and brighter colors — also wear long sleeves and pants.

Don’t drink alcohol. Drinking alcohol may boost the sugar content in your sweat, making you more attractive to mosquitoes.

 If you’re itching to learn more about mosquito behavior and how to stay safe from these pesky critters, visit the Integrated Mosquito Management Web site that Dr. Paskewitz and her team at the University of Wisconsin have developed: It’s an interesting read — and they put lots of home remedies to the test.


Susan M. Paskewitz, PhD, professor, department of entomology, University of Wisconsin, Madison.