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Emotional upsets have been found to precipitate heart failure – we can literally die of a “broken heart”! Conversely positivity, gratitude and self-regulation skills have been shown to prolong health and significantly reduce premature mortality.
As a Functional Medicine Nutritionist, I’m all about the benefit of nutrition and physical activity to support longevity and resilience to stress; however, there is so much more to heart health than looking at cholesterol and activity levels. Our mood, our emotions, and our ability to hold gratitude and present awareness may even matter more than other risk factors!
How can this be?
Well, 60% of heart cells are neural cells like those in the brain! These connections provide the pathway of dialogue between our head and our heart. Research by the Heart Math Institute shows that the heart communicates TO (YES! TO!) the brain in at least four ways:
- Neurologically through the transmission of nerve impulses.
- Biochemically via hormones and neurotransmitters. Our heart actually manufacturs neurotransmitters, just like our brain (and our gut)! Namely norepinephrine, epinephrine and dopamine are produced and also the heart secretes oxytocin which acts like a neurotransmitter and is the “hormone of love” (rather fitting for the heart!).
- Biophysically through pressure waves.
- Energetically through electromagnetic field interactions.
Over one-half of heart disease cases are not explained by the standard risk factors such as high cholesterol, smoking or sedentary lifestyle! Given the connection between our brain and our heart, it’s essential to look at how our mood and our resilience to stress affects our heart organ:
- A Harvard Medical School Study of 1,623 heart attack survivors found that when subjects became angry during emotional conflicts, their risk of subsequent heart attacks was more than double that of those who remained calm.
- A 20-year study of over 1,700 older men conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health found that worry about social conditions, health and personal finances all significantly increased the risk of coronary heart disease.
- According to a Mayo Clinic study of individuals with heart disease, psychological stress was the strongest predictor of future cardiac events such as cardiac death, cardiac arrest and heart attacks.
You can also think of it in relation to our nervous system and how connected our heart is to our nervous system and thought patterns. When we are in “fight or flight” mode (sympathetic nervous system dominance), our heart rate is increased and we are in a state of stress (often accompanied by anxiety and thoughts of worry or fear). When we are in “rest and digest” mode (parasympathetic nervous system dominance), our heart rate is slowed and our nervous system is calm. Our mind is present to the moment.
Given that our heart actually produces and synthesizes neurotransmitters that are specifically connected to our ability to upregulate our nervous system and calm down our nervous system – it is essential when working to overcome depression or anxiety that we also work on supporting our heart health. More on this in the video above!