Attention all patients! Has your healing plateaued? Are you sensitive to most medications and supplements? Do you have gut or brain issues? How about a history of emotional trauma, toxic exposure, or chronic infection?
In the first part of The Key to Healing, we learned that the breath can act as a brain-body bridge, calming down the nervous system and allowing the body to access greater healing and health. This second article will outline why that is, and how this can help with the above concerns.
Let’s start by defining three terms: Heart Rate Variability, Coherence and the Vagus Nerve.
Heart Rate Variability:
Heart Rate Variability (HRV) measures the number of times your heart rate changes in a given time period. Since the 1990s, scientists and clinicians have used HRV to assess the interaction between the heart and brain, as well as autonomic nervous system dynamics. Below-average HRV reflects depletion of the autonomic nervous system, and is associated with poor health outcomes, including heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, weight gain, inflammation, and metabolic syndrome. Higher HRV is linked to greater cognitive performance, improved gut health, psychological resilience to stress, and better overall fitness level.
Heart rate “coherence” describes when the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system are in sync with each other. With high coherence, the body is highly adaptable to stress as it can smoothly transition from excitation to relaxation depending on the situation. Heart rate coherence is increased by the consistent practice of cultivating positive mind states.
The vagus nerve is your 10th
cranial nerve. It regulates many organs, including the heart, the lungs, and the intestines. Often, when we see disease or imbalance in these areas, the origin of the issue is not the organ itself; rather, the neural regulation of the organ is the root cause. The vagus nerve is made of 80% sensory fibres. These fibres act as a “surveillance team” for the organs. The information collected by these sensory fibres is interpreted by the brain stem to determine how safe or unsafe a given stimulus is. The essential question of the vagus nerve is: “Can I interact, or do I have to protect myself?”
Heart Rate Variability provides for clinicians a reliable measure of vagal activity- individuals with higher HRV and higher coherence have better ‘vagal tone’, meaning their body can more seamlessly transition from a stressed or ‘activated’ state to a calm state.
As described in the first article, your body, brain included, relies primarily on pre-patterned programs which determine how we interpret and react to stimuli. These pre-patterned programs, according to Dr. Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory, are organized hierarchically based on when they appeared in evolution.
When exposed to a stimulus, the programs activated are one of the following three:
1. Social Communication
- The most sophisticated (‘newest’) response. The body’s first choice.
- Controlled by the myelinated branch of the vagus nerve, which calms you by inhibiting the sympathetic influences to the heart and dampening the HPA axis.
- Related to perception: evaluating and interpreting the environment.
- This is when you “let your guard down” and creativity, happiness, expansiveness, and trust can grow.
2. Mobilization (Fight/Flight)
- The body’s second choice.
- Controlled by the sympathetic nervous system.
- Related to sensation and feelings.
- Individually oriented and socially isolated. Defined by risk, mistrust and a ‘lack’ mentality.
3. Immobilization (Freeze/Shut Down)
- The most primal response. This is response is shared with most vertebrates, even reptiles.
- Controlled by the unmyelinated (“vegetative”) branch of the vagus nerve.
- Does not require awareness. Your body constantly assessing risk through neuroception.
- Numb, depressed, fatigued, dissociated from feelings.
These three circuits are dynamic, providing adaptive responses to safe, dangerous, or life-threatening events and contexts. Numbers two and three, however, are meant to be short-lived. Immediate protection from dangerous situations. It is when the body can't discriminate from past and present that problems arise. When 'scary sensations' aren't resolved or dissolved (as is often the case with emotional trauma, toxic exposure, and chronic infection) and the nervous system is stuck in either fight/flight or shutdown, we see the development of many concerns which are minimally impacted by any form of treatment. Commonly seen are issues involving the brain, the gut, and the heart.
If you answered "yes" to any of the questions in the beginning and you learn to override your automatic, evolutionarily-organized responsed, your life will change. The practices of yoga, breathwork, and meditation are optimal tools to do this. With different techniques, they heal both the sympathetic hyperreactivity of someone caught in the second response and the "shutdown" of someone caught in the third. With diligent application of the appropriate techniques over time and some positive thinking, you will be able to transform your health by increasing vagal tone, heart rate variability, and coherence. This will lead to improved decision making and productivity, better sleep, brain health, gut health, and heart health (including lowering high blood pressure), increased resilience to pain, and a greater sense of connection with life.
At Lynne Murfin MD, one of the first things we measure in a new patient is their Heart Rate Variability and Coherence Score. On April 1st, 2019, we will be opening The Sanctuary: a space dedicated to teaching individuals how to tap into their body's innate healing powers through positive thinking and the ancient wisdom of yoga, breathwork, and meditation.
I hope to see you all in class!
RN, Bilingual BScN, RYT
2. Neurocardiology: The Role of the Nervous System in Cardiovascular Disease. Presentation by Dr. Joel K. Kahn, MD in association with the Metabolic Medical Institute