The Heart Brain System – Part 1

By: Michael Lam, MD, MPH; Justin Lam, ABAAHP, FMNM; Carrie Lam, MD


Illustration of the heart brain systemFor millennia, in cultures across the world, the heart has held a central place in discourses about health, well-being, emotions, and especially spirituality. We have so many phrases that revolve around the heart. When in emotional pain, we say things like “heartbreak” and “with a heavy heart,” or when asking someone to be authentic, we say “speak from your heart” or “follow your heart.” Even with the discovery of communication within the heart brain system, science and medicine still keep telling us over and over again that there’s no such thing as intelligence or feelings that come from the heart, but rather that it’s all in the brain. Our physical and psychological attachment to the idea of the heart having its own wisdom, we are told, is just an old wives’ tale.

But this modern brain-centric view is outdated. Studies showing the importance of the heart in the heart brain system have actually been around for decades, and the research continues to accumulate. The heart has its own intelligence, and its neurological system and electromagnetic field are actually much larger and more powerful than the brain’s.

This is really exciting news, which hopefully will spread to the mainstream sooner rather than later. Not solely to validate what we’ve collectively known intuitively throughout the ages, but also because of the potentially profound effects on our health, well-being, and sense of fulfillment.

It is also of particular interest to those who suffer from conditions that are triggered or aggravated by stress. This applies to most chronic conditions, but especially conditions like Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS).

In other articles, we have covered the importance of the gut-brain connection and demonstrated the many reasons why the gut has been called “the second brain” by practitioners of traditional medicine, such as those who work in the field of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda. Western medicine, as well, seems to be increasingly aware of this connection and the impact it can have on our health.

We’ve also seen just how interconnected these two systems are, and just how much the gut influences the brain on a physiological level, which then affects our psychology. Many studies show that chronic inflammation is actually one of the biggest culprits in depression and anxiety issues, and inflammation almost always begins in the gut. The good news is how much you can greatly improve your mood and focus simply by changing your diet.

As you can tell, there is a pattern emerging: the body is interconnected and you are better off treating it as a whole rather than focusing on just one part (such as the stomach or the eyes), or treating just the symptom (such as an ulcer or blurry vision).

This is the approach we work with when dealing with adrenal fatigue, based on the understanding that the adrenal glands affect, and are affected by, every other organ and system in the body. This is especially evident in the NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response, which is the body’s global response to stress, which we’ll discuss in more detail as it applies to the heart brain system.

Taking the holistic view of health and the body is the Functional Medicine approach, and we’ve found that this is the best lens to use when looking at the heart brain system as well.

Functional Medicine vs. Conventional Medicine

Heart brain system and functional medicineFunctional Medicine is an exciting new method that combines the scientific rigor of conventional medicine and the timeless wisdom of traditional medicine by applying the following principles:

  • Looking at the body as an integrated system (systems-based approach)
  • Looking at the interaction between environment, lifestyle, and genetics
  • Identifying the root cause of the disease
  • Addressing the root cause rather than the symptoms
  • Engaging the patient in his/her therapeutic process
  • Promoting health as more than just the absence of disease
  • Focusing on prevention as well as treatment
  • Using nutrition and exercise as central components of recovery and well-being

As you can see, the Functional Medicine approach is the next evolutionary step in modern medicine. This approach gives you, the patient, a measure of involvement and control that you may have never experienced before in conventional medicine. We highly recommend that you try it if you have never done so before, especially if you are suffering from a chronic condition.

Functional Medicine and Stress

The Functional Medicine approach is the antidote to the typical compartmentalization of the stress response. It goes from the organ-centered view of the neuroendocrine system to taking a holistic, big picture view of the entire NEM. And now, with new research coming out about the heart brain system, Functional Medicine will most definitely incorporate it into its methodology as well.

Taking into consideration your lifestyle, environment, and genetic makeup, as well as the NEM model – which is looked at as a global response to stress, made up of all the different systems and organs working together to combat negative effects – is a much more complete and balanced approach to dealing with modern life’s biggest health and wellness challenge.

The NEM is divided into six circuits: the hormonal, the metabolic, the neuroaffect, the cardionomic, the inflammation, and the detoxification responses. The heart brain system is intimately involved in these circuits and in the body’s stress response as a whole. As we will see later, it can be used to your advantage when dealing with stress in order to increase your resilience. It can also be useful in your journey of recovery from conditions like AFS.

Heart brain system and stressAlthough the field of investigation in Functional Medicine becomes much broader and produces a lot more data to work with due to taking so many different things into consideration, it’s a much more hopeful and patient-centric way of getting to the root of the problem and solving it. Symptom relief is not the top priority. This may mean a longer waiting period for relief, but in addressing the root cause, symptom relief will eventually come, and you will have a much greater chance of maintaining that state of healing.

This is also a much safer way to deal with chronic conditions, as it can lessen or prevent the side effects of the usual array of medications used to relieve symptoms rather than deal directly with the underlying cause.

Now that you have a good footing on how Functional Medicine works and how to look at your physical and mental health as a unified whole, we can go a little deeper into how the heart brain system is involved, and how you can utilize it to your advantage when dealing with AFS, or just with daily stress. We’ll start by looking at how the heart’s field affects your health, as well as how it can affect your cognitive processes and even your behavior.

The Heart Rate Experiment

Have you ever been in a situation where someone said or did something and suddenly you found your heart racing and pounding in your chest?

A heart rate experiment was done on a man whose wife had just said something that upset him. Heart rate is measured in BPM, and the normal resting range for adults is between 60 to 100 BPMs. His BPM shot up to 140 for half an hour, and stayed elevated above normal for another hour and a half, even after the argument had ended.

Heart brain system and heart rateNow think about heart rate during exercise. Not even rigorous cardio workouts can keep your heart rate that high for so long after you’ve completed your workout. This indicates how much your emotional state affects your physiology. According to the heart brain system, you can also affect your emotional state by manipulating your physiology.

But you already knew all of this intuitively. You’ve felt it in your body when you were emotionally triggered, and you’ve felt the shift in your emotional state when you take certain postures or do certain breathing exercises. Now, research is catching up with your experience, and there’s even a branch of psychology dedicated to this particular interplay between body and mind, called psychophysiology.

Communication in the Heart Brain System

The heart has its own brain, the “heart brain” – a very complex intrinsic nervous system. If this is news to you, that’s only because it hasn’t made medical headlines. The information and some of the research, however, date back to the late 1800s. It didn’t even take any equipment or technology fancier than a knowledge of basic anatomy to see this clearly.

With more and more accurate research, we are starting to discover that, in the heart brain system, the heart sends a lot more information to the brain than the brain sends to the heart.

Over the last decade or so, there has been an emerging field that focuses on communication in the heart brain system, the pathophysiological interactions between the nervous system and the cardiovascular system, called neurocardiology. This field is where we are getting much of this exciting information.

Studies are beginning to show that the groups of neurons of the heart – the intrinsic cardiac ganglia – have short-term memory, long-term memory, neuroplasticity (the ability to reorganize synaptic connections in response to injury, experience, or learning), and neurogenesis (the growth of new nervous tissues).

We are also seeing that the patterns in the neural signals that come from the heart affect the brain centers that are involved in self-regulation, emotional experience, and perception. This is especially interesting for AFS, as we’ll cover later. Many tools and techniques are now being tested to help in understanding not just the heart brain system, but also how to use it for health, well-being, and resilience.

The Importance of Heart Rate Variability (HRV)

Monitoring the variability in heart rate – the HRV — is one of the most important tools that can help us understand communication in the heart brain system and the state of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). It can also help us predict health problems as early as two years prior to the manifestation of symptoms.

Also, how well the ANS is functioning is an excellent indicator of stress. As we’ve seen over and over again, chronic stress has been one of the biggest factors in aggravating, and sometimes causing, chronic health problems, including, but not limited to, AFS.

The HRV test can be done in-office. And it can be used to conduct a simple stress test. All it takes is attaching sensors to your chest to record your resting heart rate, which is done by getting your reading done while you are lying down. The “stress” results are reached by standing up. That’s because stress is created when you go from resting to standing; when standing, your circulation has to exert against gravity in order to get blood flowing to your head.

Clinically speaking, HRV can help with:
Heart brain system and HRV

  • Health risk assessments
  • Supporting psychological health assessments (particularly the capacity for self-regulation)
  • Detection of imbalances or abnormalities in the ANS
  • Indicating changes in fitness levels
  • Assessing the effects of different interventions on autonomic function
  • Assessing aging rate of the nervous system
  • Assessing changes in autonomic function due to emotional states or stress

HRV in healthy, normal people changes with every heart beat, creating what we call the heart rhythm. The less the HRV, the more the need for concern. HRV decreases with age, and it can also be a good predictor of how well you are aging and how vulnerable you are to age-related conditions. This doesn’t just apply to human beings, but is seen in the aging process across different species.

A lower HRV isn’t just a predictor of health problems such as diabetes, cancer and even all-cause mortality; it is also a predictor of behavioral problems. A strong HRV, on the other hand, is an indicator of the ability to adapt to stress and display psychological resilience.

Higher resting HRV levels correlate with superior performance on tasks that require executive functions of the brain, especially of the prefrontal cortex. This is the front part of the brain that is involved in complex functions, including things like impulse control, planning, prioritizing information, behavioral adjustments, and organizing emotional reactions.

Changes in HRV can actually reflect specific changes in the autonomic state. For example, your HRV while you sleep can indicate whether the emotional quality of your dream is pleasant or unpleasant.

These are just a few examples of how HRV can help us better understand the communication of the heart brain system. But how do you actually read the HRV to determine the emotional state of the patient or research subject?

This is done through heart rhythm patterns.

Read Part 2 | Part 3

© Copyright 2018 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.


Dr. Lam’s Key Question

Emotions have a huge impact on your physiology. By manipulating the heart brain system with coherence techniques, you can regulate your emotions and improve your physiological responses almost immediately. This is the new leading edge of resilience and performance training.


Heart brain system