Research: Tefillin may offer heart benefits

Study suggests people who wear tefillin enjoy cardiovascular health benefits.

A pilot study led by researchers at the University of Cincinnati (UC) College of Medicine suggests Jewish men who observe the commandment to wear tefillin, which involves wrapping one arm with a leather strap as part of daily morning prayer, may enjoy cardiovascular health benefits.

The researchers suggest benefits may occur though “remote ischemic preconditioning” that would protect during heart attacks, reports Medical Xpress. The results are available online in the American Journal of Physiology-Heart and Circulatory Physiology.

Cardiovascular Health Division Associate Professor and UC Health cardiologist Jack Rubinstein, MD enrolled 20 Jewish men living in Greater Cincinnati in his study, nine who wear tefillin daily and 11 who do not wear tefillin. The men participating in the study were between the ages of 18 and 40 and all in good health. Researchers recorded early morning baseline information of all participants and then measured additional data after subjects wore tefillin for 30 minutes.

They measured vital signs, drew blood to analyze circulating cytokines and monocyte function and also measured blood flow in the arm not wrapped in tefillin.

“We found people who wear tefillin in either the short or long term, recorded a measurable positive effect on their blood flow. That has been associated with better outcomes in heart disease,” says Rubinstein.

“Blood flow was higher for men who wore tefillin daily and improved in all participants after wearing it just once as part of the study, explained Rubinstein. Men who wore tefillin daily also had fewer circulating cytokines—signaling molecules that can cause inflammation and negatively impact the heart—compared to non-users, suggesting that near daily use elicits an effect similar to that observed with other methods of eliciting remote ischemic preconditioning-like effect,” said Medical Xpress.

Wearing tefillin, also called phylacteries, dates back to scriptural commandments in the books of Deuteronomy and Exodus urging Jews to follow Torah laws and to “bind them as a sign upon your arm”.

“Tefillin are used for morning prayers by Jewish men over the age of 13 on an almost daily basis,” says Rubinstein. “It is placed on the non-dominant arm around the bicep and the forearm in a pretty tight manner. It is never worn in a fashion as to preclude the blood flow. This is worn for about 30 minutes continuously. Prayers are sitting and standing so often you have to retighten the strap around your arm.”

Rubinstein says binding the arm and the discomfort users sometimes report may serve as a form preconditioning and offer a substantial degree of protection against acute ischemic reperfusion injury (a section of the heart is deprived of oxygen and then damaged when re-oxygenated) that occurs as a result of a heart attack.

“One of the ways that protection occurs is through pain,” says Rubinstein, also a member of the UC Heart, Lung, and Vascular Institute. “Feeling pain is actually a preconditioning stimulus.”

Researchers have studied preconditioning by inducing small heart attacks in animal models for years. They found the small, induced incidents protected the animal from larger, more serious heart attacks in the future. This same preconditioning could be used by partially occluding blood flow in one part of the body and thus serving as a protective element in another part of the body to lessen the injury, says Rubinstein.

“The problem with translating this to people is we don’t know when someone will have the heart attack,” says Rubinstein. “It’s almost impossible to precondition someone unless they’re willing to do something daily to themselves. Tefillin use may in fact offer protection as it’s worn on an almost daily basis.”

Rubinstein cites Israeli studies that found Orthodox men to have a lower risk of dying of heart disease compared to non-Orthodox men. The protection is also not found in Orthodox women, who usually don’t wear tefillin.

Several Torah commandments observed by Jews until this day have been found to enhance health, sanitation, social cohesion, economic prosperity, and other areas of life. However, Judaism stresses that while material benefit may indeed result from a Torah lifestyle, such benefit is not the reason for the commandment, which remains inscrutable.