Most of us have been taught in school that the brain and nervous system controls every organ in the body including the heart. With that said, you’re probably thinking that we only use the brain in every situation, even with dealing with feelings.
However, that’s not the case! Feelings have so much to do with the heart, as they do with the brain. It’s actually a two-way relationship. Our emotions change the signals the brain sends to the heart and the heart responds to the brain in complex ways. Both actually depend and influence each other’s function, very much like how you harmonize with someone when doing a duet.
In fact, recent research from HeartMath has shown that the heart communicates to the brain in different ways. In this article we’ll be talking about just that— how the heart and brain communicate through neurological and biochemical means.
The Neurological and Biochemical Communication
The neurological communication happens when the heart and brain communicate through the transmission of nerve impulses. Like the brain, the heart also has hundreds and thousands of independent neurons in it. It’s almost like a mini-brain and while it does not “think” like the brain, it can send a massive amount of signals to the brain.
The biochemical communication involves the sending of messages with the use of hormones that are in your bloodstream. Since the heart’s main function is to pump blood and oxygen throughout the body, the hormones get to travel to the brain and to every organ. What’s more, the heart also acts like an endocrine gland, where it actually manufactures and secretes a number of hormones and neurotransmitters like nor-epinephrine, epinephrine and dopamine, oxytocin in the bloodstream.
Through the use of nerve impulses and hormones, signals are sent to the emotional centers in the brain where it interprets them. Once the brain has identified what kind of feeling they are, The brain can now respond back and tell the body what to do.
For example, as we experience negative feelings like anger, our heart rhythm patterns become more erratic. These erratic patterns are converted into signals. Epinephrine, the “fight-or-flight” hormone that prepares a person for conflict or danger, is also secreted to the bloodstream. The erratic signals along with the hormones get sent to the brain for interpretation. Once the brain recognizes that you are feeling angry— the brain’s activity will now be influenced by these signals— it will make you sweat, cause you faster breathing or even make you clench your jaw and fists.
The same goes when we experience positive feelings like joy, the heart’s rhythms become more consistent and the body releases the happy hormones like dopamine and serotonin. This change of information from the heart to the brain is recognized as a good feeling. And therefore the brain responds back with increased mental clarity, heightened self-confidence and other positive responses.
Your Feelings and Your Health
As we mentioned before, the two most important organs in the body, the heart and brain, are in a constant two-way dialogue. Through these communication pathways, the brain is always aware of any changes in the heart (heart rate, rhythm, expansion/contraction and hormones). Upon receiving signals, the brain responds back to the heart, and the heart responds again, and the cycle continues.
Understanding how this dialogue works is helpful especially if you are very particular about your health. Imagine yourself always feeling bad about someone or something. Once you keep harboring these negative energy, the brain and heart will constantly respond to each other using these negative energy.
These negative emotions can create incoherent, abnormal heart rhythms (fig 1). which can result in a chain reaction in the body— stress hormone levels increase, blood vessels tighten, blood pressure rises, and the immune system deteriorates. All the more if you are a generally angry or stressed out person— it can put a strain on the heart and other organs, and eventually lead to serious health problems such as heart attacks.
On the other hand, research shows that when you experience positive emotions the heart produces a very different rhythm. This produces a significant increase in coherence, which looks like a very smooth pattern (fig 2). This pattern is said to be an indicator of good heart rate variability, cardiovascular efficiency and nervous system balance. Keeping it this way lets your body recover quickly to stresses.
Any tips for a happy, healthy heart and brain?
Now that we have talked about the heart and brain connection, as well as how feelings affect both organs, we’d like to end this article with some useful tips from Dr Wayne!
- Move a lot. Regular to moderate physical activity is great for your heart. Aim to be active every day. If it’s been a while since your last workout, start small with stretching and build up.
- Eat well. Go for a balanced diet full of healthy fats, lots of fiber, protein and vegetables and don’t forget to drink lots of water.
- Express love. Give a hug. When we show our love, like hugging, oxytocin is released allowing us to feel happy. Hugging also activates pressure receptors in the skin which send signals to the vagus nerve, an area of the brain responsible for lowering blood pressure.
- Be mindful of your negative thought patterns. Learn how to shift out stressful, negative emotions and transform them into positive energy. If you get angry, you can channel that anger into painting or engaging in exercise. If you are envious of someone, you can create an opportunity to improve yourself.
- Prepare in advance. Something simple as organizing your wardrobe, setting up your alarm, preparing your lunchbox in advance can reduce the amount of stressors that you will have to face the next day.
- Manage your stress. Get a break when you need it. This reduces the amount of the stress hormone, cortisol, that is produced in our bodies. Practice your breathing techniques. Go for a yoga class. Getting a massage and acupuncture session works too!
- Come in and get checked by a chiropractor! Chiropractic care helps in ensuring the nervous system is working free of dysfunction. When it is functioning properly, it helps transmit information between the brain and every other part of the body. This way, our organs – including your heart can work at their optimum.