Follow Your Heart to Better Health and Performance

Saturday, November 17, 2007 by: Luke J. Terry
Tags: heart health, health news, Natural News

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(NaturalNews) For thousands of years, human beings in many cultures have considered the heart to be the seat of consciousness. From the Buddhist Heart Sutra to the Bible, to Aztec and other First Nation indigenous cultures, the heart has been revered as the seat of the soul.  Even our common language encourages us to 'follow our heart,' or to 'listen to one's heart,' giving a nod to the notion that our hearts hold our greatest knowledge about our life's path and how to best live in happiness.

In the past, western reductionist science has largely cast out these ancient ideas as folklore, myth, or fiction, and has instead promoted the idea that brain is the only important organ of consciousness.   Indeed, reductionist science attempts to explain consciousness as something that entirely happens inside the cranium, and attempts to 'de-romanticize' the heart as nothing more than a blood pump.

Many recent and not-so-recent scientific studies show that the heart wisdom of the ancients is far more accurate—and useful—than we could have ever imagined.  The heart is the most electrically active organ in the body, generating a pulsed electromagnetic field that is 10 times stronger than that of the brain. These electromagnetic pulses can be measured, and the resulting analysis reveals much about our health, vitality and emotions.

By studying the way the heart's electrical patterns change in time and in relationship to brainwaves, scientists and researchers have demonstrated the complex interaction between the heart, skin, brain, and overall health.  This area of research also documents the powerful role the heart and its rhythms play in creating consciousness, including emotional states and mood.

In the realm of athletics, trainers and elite athletes have known for years that minute changes in the heart rhythm are the first sign of over-training and excessive physical or psychological stress.  Cardiologists look for specific changes in the way the heart changes its speed, known as heart rate variability, or HRV, as an indicator of heart disease.   In a healthy person, and in an athlete that is training effectively, but not over-training, the heart can change its rhythm very quickly to respond to changing physiological conditions.  This state could be described as a state of enhanced HRV.   For example, if an athlete begins to sprint, a very healthy, adaptable, and relaxed person will be able to go from a slow heart rate to a very rapid one very quickly.  However, that same change would happen much more slowly and erratically in a person with heart disease, in an athlete who has trained beyond the body's ability to recover, or a person who has a high level of emotional or psychological stress.  These states can be characterized by a diminished HRV.  After the sprint is over, a healthy, calm person would be able to normalize their heart rate quickly. Not so for the cardiac patient or over-trained athlete, or the overstressed homeowner.

Many commercial products are available to help people analyze HRV to enhance performance.  Heart rate monitors from several companies including Polar and Suunto have HRV functions, allowing users to chart changes and progress as they increase their HRV.  HRV is often measured in the distance from the big peaks in electrical signal during each heart beat cycle, known as R-R interval.  This technology analyzes the mathematical difference between R-R intervals, creating a numeric value for how 'adaptable' one's heart rate is. A more adaptable one's heart rate shows a healthier and stronger person.

Cardiologists can also analyze the heart rate by frequencies of its many components, and can come up with a surprisingly accurate assessment of one's risk of cardiovascular disease. Yet athletic performance and the detection of heart disease, while helpful and certainly desirable, are perhaps the most mundane applications of this powerful technology.

An academic organization known as the HeartMath institute has been researching HRV for over 15 years.  Their research and that of others in the field demonstrates a deep interaction between the electrical signals in the heart and the brain, and even throughout the body, including the skin and the digestive tract.

This area of study is concerned with how closely the electromagnetic signals of the heart and brain mirror each other, in a measurement called heart-brain coherence.  The more the heart and brain have coherence, the more their electromagnetic rhythms align and harmonize with each other, and this state shows greatly enhanced HRV.  Heart-brain coherence is largely a function of how relaxed one is.  A calm and relaxed person shows great heart-brain coherence, and simultaneously the HRV elevates, meaning that a calm and relaxed person is very adaptable to stress.  Someone who is meditating very deeply will show very calm, slow brainwaves, and the heart, too, will mirror this state.  In fact, electrical changes in the skin show that the skin becomes more able to transmit electrical signals, even the stomach is and digestive tract are more able to secrete stomach acid as well as to transmit electrical signals.   The changes in the skin's electrical conductivity are called galvanic skin response, or GSR, and are closely related to HRV. 
Someone who is angry, agitated, frustrated, or fearful, will show chaotic brainwaves and a heart rate that is chaotic, yet not capable of rapid change.  The same changes, as one might expect, are seen in the skin and in the stomach—the skin is less capable of conducting electrical signals, as is the stomach lining.

These physiological changes elicited by stress are a sign of sympathetic nervous system activity—our fight-or-flight system has taken over.  On the other hand, when a person is relaxed, calm, and alert, the parasympathetic portion of our nervous system dominates.

Perhaps the most intriguingly, this line of research has discovered that the state of gratitude has an amazing ability to enhance HRV and decrease stress.

This research has inspired many products designed to help us cope with stress. The Heart Math Institute offers such a product, called the emWave PC Stress Relief System.  This system, to be used with a personal computer, allows the user to track one's HRV and the changes that are associated with exercises that are part of the stress relief system.  In one such exercise, we are invited to first focus on the area around our heart, then to bring to mind something or someone that we have great gratitude or appreciation for.  When a user is successful in this exercise, they can see the changes in their HRV as their heart literally becomes healthier and stronger, solely through this visualization!

Another popular family of products that use HRV technology is the Journey to Wild Divine family of products, including the eponymous product and several "expansion packs" for this game-like software, and Healing Rhythms, a more clinical and technical interface. Both products from Wild Divine use the same hardware, an USB-compatible unit with 3 finger pads that monitor both HRV and GSR.  Journey to Wild Divine is set up like a game, with richly textured graphics that are appealing to children and adults.  Users of this game move through levels by following instructions from narrators like Deepak Chopra, one of the project's backers.  Because HRV and GSR can illustrate many states of consciousness, Wild Divine can guide users not only through relaxation exercises, but also through breathing exercises intended to stimulate and invigorate the user.  Because of the game configuration, Journey to Wild Divine can be a bit of a bore for more serious-minded users, though children seem to love it.  For users more familiar with HeartMath's product or other more technical forms of biofeedback, the more expensive Healing Rhythms product may be more enjoyable and informative.  The Healing Rhythms product, which also has very high end graphic and rich narration, also provides the opportunity to select the activity from a menu, while the Journey to Wild Divine is only navigable by sequentially navigating the game.  The Healing Rhythms software also allows users to view the raw data coming into the USB device by clicking on a small icon in some screens, providing an experience similar to other, older biofeedback systems.   You can watch your HRV and GSR changes while listening to a guided meditation narrated by Tibetan flutist Nawang Khechong, or perform a series of invigorating yogic breaths with narration from Andrew Weil.

While many technologies are available that take advantage of this research, we can still access this great wisdom without any devices at all but our own heart and mind.  Simply sit comfortably, focus on the powerful organ of love beating in your chest, smile, and feel gratitude for being alive.   Simple practices like these may demonstrate the wisdom of the ancients, anywhere, for anyone, at any time. 

About the author

Luke practices acupuncture, Oriental & natural medicine, and conducts wellness retreats in the mountain resort community of Breckenridge, Colorado.
He sees clients at Sacred Tree, an integrative healthcare & wellness spa, located at the base of Peak 8 at Blue Sky.
Visit us at http://www.sacredtree.com

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