The Heart Brain System – Part 3

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


Read Part 1 | Part 2

Coherence-Based Self-Regulation

Heart brain system and modern lifeThere’s no getting away from the stresses of modern life: the fast pace, the connectivity that brings us closer together yet simultaneously farther apart, the ease of access to health foods and bad news at the same time, the environmental toxins and air pollution, the growing financial demands, and the current unhealthy standards of nutrition and fad diets. All of these variables have a toll on the heart brain system.

So, unless you’re planning on going off the grid or living a secluded life in the countryside, you will have to find ways to build your capacity to handle stress and regulate your emotions. Otherwise, you can end up with a host of physical and psychological imbalances that can really affect your day-to-day life.

Self-regulation seems to be one of the great missing links in the handling of the majority of physical health issues, mental health issues, and even in social problems that are pervasive in our modern world. The fact cannot be denied that people are generally stressed out, exhausted, and overwhelmed, and just don’t know how to manage their reactions.

You know that your emotions affect your physiology – you can feel it in your body. But through testing, we can actually monitor how emotions actually affect your nervous system activity, your blood circulation, your hormones, and your heart rhythm.

We have seen that emotions affect these things much more than thoughts do! In lab tests, we don’t see many changes when you’re thinking; it’s only when an emotion is triggered by a thought, or by some other stimulus, that your circulation, nervous system, and hormones start to be affected.

This is not to say that you can’t change your emotions by changing your thoughts. Positive thinking has its place, and there are many wonderful techniques that can help you calm your mind enough to stop the cycles of negative thinking that trigger negative emotions. Meditation is an excellent practice that helps with this.

But that doesn’t take away from the conclusion that emotions are the primary drivers of the activities in the body’s systems, and that they are what motivates you to do what you do and determine how engaged you are in life. So the bottom line is that, by learning to self-regulate your emotions, you gain a new level of control over the quality of your life and your health that was previously untapped.

Techniques to help you self-regulate and achieve a coherent state in your HRV as recommended by the HeartMath Institute, one of the pioneers of researching the heart brain system, include things like:
Heart brain system and Adrenal Breathing Exercise

  • Adrenal Breathing Exercise
  • Gratitude lists and gratitude journaling
  • Reliving a positive emotional state and then radiating that from your heart area out to the rest of your body and then to other people
  • Using an HRV biofeedback machine

Using such techniques while also following a structured adrenal fatigue recovery program is one way to take the Functional Medicine approach of holistic health. As you begin to get into a state of coherence, your ability to increase mental clarity, emotional stability and resilience to stress will help reduce the pressure on your adrenal glands to produce anti-stress hormones.

There’s one way to make these changes stick – by shifting your baseline in the heart brain system.

Shifting Your Baseline Reference

Basically, one of the brain’s main roles is acting as a pattern recognition and storage machine. It analyzes patterns, whether on a physiological, cognitive, or emotional level. How does it analyze these patterns? By comparing new input with patterns that it has recognized previously and stored as a reference. These stored reference patterns are called inner baselines.

In very simple terms, to the brain, a match between the new input and the baseline is good and a mismatch is bad. So if there is a match, you feel comfortable, with no feelings of unease or threat. A mismatch, on the other hand, will signal for your attention and trigger emotions.

Here is where the problem lies: what if your baseline is maladapted? This can happen when you live in certain stressful conditions for prolonged periods of time to the point that your baseline, your comfort zone, is actually a state of discomfort.

For example, let’s say you grew up in a home with emotionally unavailable parents. As an adult, you feel comfortable, though not fulfilled, with an emotionally unavailable partner because that is your familiar maladapted baseline.

Or let’s say you’re a schoolteacher and you have some kids in your classroom that always create chaos. They may be in an emotionally or materially chaotic home and therefore they need to create that baseline wherever they go because that’s all they know.

Heart brain system and anxietyAnxiety, worry, post-traumatic stress disorder, anger, laziness, and any other negative state may actually become inner baselines if they are lived with as the norm for a period of time. This means that the opposite can also occur. If you sustain a positive shift in your baseline for long enough, this new reference will stick and behavioral changes that come along with it will sustain.

But do remember: when you shift your baseline, you are intentionally creating a mismatch between input and current baseline, which will feel uncomfortable for a while. Stick with it long enough and then you’ll relax into the new baseline.

These shifts are basically shifts in the heart rhythm, from a state of incoherence to a state of coherence. Some benefits of making such a shift from HRV incoherence to HRV coherence by using self-regulation techniques include:

  • Improved learning
  • Faster reaction times
  • Increased ability to process information
  • More focus
  • Higher test scores
  • Improved short term memory
  • Improved long term memory
  • Increased capacity to care
  • Improved social awareness
  • Increased ability to self manage
  • Pain relief
  • Improvement in ADHD
  • Improvement in PTSD
  • Lower health risks
  • Better blood pressure

And much more…

Can you imagine the implications this could have for you in your health and personal life, or how you can use this if you work with others as a therapist, physician, teacher, or in any other capacity?

The Power of the Heart Brain System

Creating that healthy inner baseline reference will also affect your hormones. You’ll be much more capable of handling stress. Studies are now showing that it’s not about what the stressor is or how much stress you are exposed to, it’s about how you react to, or interpret, this stress.

If you are able to take a stressful situation as a challenge to extract the benefits or positive effects, you are basically turning something that could damage your health and well-being into a source of strength, resilience, and health. The more you train yourself to self-regulate, the stronger this capacity becomes. The more you are able to do this, the less pressure you put on your adrenals and NEM to compensate for the presence of stress in your everyday life.

An illustration of the heart brain systemDue to the way the heart brain system is organized, with the cardiovascular feedback being a major input in the brain’s pattern analysis, you can actually use the heart to set a baseline reference. Changes in the heart’s input to the brain through the heart brain system actually have to occur in order to reset your baseline.

This means that only using your thinking mind to try to shift your reference will not work. You need to use your entire body, especially the heart, to establish a positive and healthy baseline for yourself.

If you’re still unsure how the heart could possibly affect your mind, think about this: the heart’s electromagnetic field extends beyond the body by several feet, while the brain’s electromagnetic field only extends beyond the body by about an inch. You can actually measure the heart’s magnetic field with magnetometers in hospitals and labs, and when you look at the information carried by these fields, you can see their patterns.

This magnetic field that radiates from the heart can be detected by the nervous systems of other people and animals. This is what’s called “energetic communication” and why you can sometimes enter a room and “feel” the tension without a word being said or a gesture being made that would communicate it directly.

Now let’s say you learn some techniques that get you into a coherent state quickly. You can actually affect the state of those around you as well, as they will begin to sync their energy with yours.

What’s even more powerful than syncing with the coherence of other people is syncing with the earth’s magnetic field. In fact, when you feel good emotionally, your coherent heart rhythm is actually resonating at the same frequency as the earth’s primary frequencies (0.1 hertz).

In Conclusion

Using the heart brain system as a way to establish healthier baselines, improve heart rate variability, and increase resilience through the use of coherence techniques can be a wonderful addition to your AFS recovery toolkit, but it should not take the place of the tried and true “musts” such as diet, exercise, rest, and proper guidance by an experienced professional.

In some cases, especially if you are in an advanced stage of AFS, you will need to consult your doctor first before using biofeedback machines or new breathing techniques. You do not want to increase the risk of adrenal crashes or any adverse or paradoxical reactions. As of yet, these techniques have not been thoroughly studied or researched in regards to AFS recovery.

However, if you’re already recovering from AFS, and you feel your state is not too fragile, you can experiment with one technique at a time. Just make sure you track the changes that occur for long enough in order to be able to assess whether it is really helping you or not.

As always, it is better to take one small step at a time than to overwhelm yourself with too many changes at once. So if you’re just starting your journey of AFS recovery, or changing your lifestyle for any other health reason, it is always better to wait a while first before adding new techniques. Changing your diet and exercise should remain a top priority, and once they have become second nature to you, then you can consider adding other methods.

We are still very excited about this new research in the heart brain system, and how achieving a coherent state can help people self-regulate and face the challenges of modern life with resilience and strength. So do research it further if you feel it could be beneficial for you.

Read Part 1 | Part 2

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


Heart brain system