Emotional Rescue: The Heart-Brain Connection 8-8-2019

By: Michael Miller, M.D.   

Editor’s Note: The silent, often subconscious conversation that is taking place inside us is one of the most vital communications we will ever find ourselves engaged in. It’s the dialogue of emotion-based signals between our hearts and our brains, also known as the heart-brain connection. Our author tells us what research has uncovered and some of the keys to a longer, healthier life.

One recent study, for example, found that in a group that had practiced meditation on a regular basis, the expression of pro-inflammatory genes was reduced compared to those who had never mediated. In the second stage of the study, one half of the non-meditating group was randomly assigned to relaxation training sessions incorporating meditation, prayer, and yoga. After two months, genetic expression of pro-inflammatory genes resembled that of long-time meditators. Practicing relaxation also reduced the expression of genes promoting insulin resistance, the forerunner of Type 2 diabetes. The results of this study not only affirmed the importance of brain-heart connections on a molecular level but found that relaxation can have a robust effect in a very short time, supporting the adage “never too late to start.”   

Mindfulness meditation , which has become one of the most popular relaxation practices over the past decade, combines heightened, non-judgmental awareness of one’s surroundings and feelings with slow deep breathing exercises. A stress-reduction program based on mindfulness has been associated with improvement in hypertension and depression, while strengthening the immune system and raising activity of telomerase, an enzyme that slows biological aging.  

Researchers have also studied the cardiovascular impact of practices that incorporate relaxation and movement.
  Yoga and Tai Chi, for example, improve balance and coordination to help the elderly prevent falls and fractures, and bolster strength and stabilization. In cardiovascular terms, yoga is associated with reduced systolic blood pressure and cholesterol: a recent meta-analysis of 49 trials found that three sessions of yoga weekly reduced systolic blood pressure as much as low-dose antihypertensive medication. Tai Chi has been shown to help suppress inflammation and depression, both cardiovascular disease risk factors.

Finally, yoga may also raise brain levels of γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter involved in mood stabilization and stress reduction and both yoga and meditation practices lead to the release of serotonin, another important neurotransmitter involved in mood regulation.

Music to Your Ears
A number of studies have demonstrated that listening to joyful music offers cardioprotective and neurobiological effects, including reduced inflammation, blood pressure and heart rate, improved parasympathetic tone, and shortened recovery following surgery. The “frisson effect,” or the feeling of chills down the spine is a physiological consequence related to the release of dopamine in response to listening to or anticipating pleasurable music.

A pilot study suggested that focusing on this sensation (i.e., mindful music) may be a useful intervention to speed recovery following stroke.


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