“One love, one heart, one destiny.”
Bob Marley

For centuries our hearts have been known as a place of love. We say things like “I love you with all of my heart” and “I am so broken hearted.” But this isn’t what I learned in med school or what you probably believe. We have been taught that love is an emotion, and emotions reside in our brains. Well it turns out that this isn’t actually true and we were right all along. Love lives in our hearts.

The idea that love may be related to our hearts shouldn’t be all that surprising. In fact, I did learn about a condition called Takotsubo cardiomyopathy in med school. This is a fancy sounding term for what physicians have effectively identified as a “broken heart” that occurs after an intense stressor such as the death of a loved one.

However, due to some amazing research by the organization Heart Math, we now know that the story is even more complicated. Our hearts are not only where we feel love, but also where we make decisions and find our inner wisdom. We truly do think with our hearts.

Researchers have discovered that we actually have at least three “brains” in our bodies – one in our head, one in our gut, and yes, one in our heart. We now know that not only does the brain control the heart, but the heart controls the brain. In fact, there are more signals traveling from the heart to the brain than vice versa. Our “heart brains” literally have a mind of their own, and they send messages to the brain, which it obeys, affecting attention level, motivation, perceptual sensitivity and emotional processing. Our hearts make decisions  and can feel and sense things that are brains cannot.

We now know that the heart controls the brain through at least four mechanisms: neurologically (nerve impulses), biochemically (hormones and neurotransmitters), biophysically (pressure waves) and energetically (electromagnetic field). The heart is actually an endocrine gland and secretes multiple hormones and neurotransmitters. We have known for years that the heart secretes atrial natriuretic factor (ANF), which inhibits the release of stress hormones, reduces sympathetic outflow and interacts with the immune system to influence motivation and behavior. We now know that the heart also synthesizes and releases catecholamines (epinephrine, norepinephrine and dopamine) and even oxytocin. Oxytocin has long been known as the “love hormone” as it’s responsible for creating those lovey feelings of attachment between mother and baby and two people in a romantic relationship. However, it turns out that the heart actually secretes more oxytocin than the brain! Our hearts truly are our love factories.

So, why does all of this even matter, you may ask! Well, it matters for many different reasons but one of them has to do with heart rate variability and coherence. Most people are familiar with the idea of heart rate – that’s also called your “pulse” and it’s what the doctor is checking when they touch your wrist. Your heart rate is the speed that your heart is beating and is measured in beats per minute. However, our hearts do not beat like metronomes – the time between each heart beat actually varies, and this variation can be measured – it’s called heart rate variability (HRV). It turns out that having a low HRV is actually very bad for your health and has been associated with the development of numerous conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, inflammation, obesity and psychiatric disorders. Having a Low HRV indicates that you are likely under physical and emotional stress and that your body is not able to cope in a healthy way. A higher HRV indicates that your ability to handles stress is better and that you are more resilient. The really amazing news is that there are many ways that you can increase your HRV, and most of them you’ve probably already heard about such as eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly and reducing stress. There are also other ways to increase your HRV that you might not have heard about which involve stimulating your vagus nerve. These include things like left nostril breathing, and certain yoga poses (especially “inversion” poses where your heart is lower than your head).

Beyond measuring your HRV, it’s also possible to look at your HRV “waveform” – if it’s jagged and uneven, this indicates low coherence. If it’s a smooth and harmonious wave, this indicates high coherence. Your heart’s coherence indicates how well the two branches of your autonomic nervous system are synchronized. The more synchronized, the better your coherence. Now, can you guess what things would increase your heart’s coherence and what might make it take a nosedive?

You guessed it! Positive and uplifting emotions such as appreciation, joy, care, compassion and love create beautifully smooth and harmonious heart rhythm patterns (aka coherence). In contrast, emotional stress, including anger, frustration and anxiety cause our heart rhythm patterns to look more irregular and erratic (aka incoherence). And of course there are many health benefits linked with heart coherence, including increased ability to handles stress, more energy, clear thinking, enhanced immune system function and hormonal balance. Basically, if you want to be happy and healthy, heart coherence is important!

This is all fine and dandy, you might be thinking, but how can I actually use this information? Well, you can start by trying to engage in more of the healthful activities described above. And in addition to that, you can attempt to cultivate compassion, gratitude, and kindness into your life every day. Yes, it’s actually that easy to improve your overall health and well being!

If you are interested in knowing about your HRV and heart coherence, there are tons of nifty gadgets available to use. I have an Oura ring, which keeps track of my HRV and also other information like my sleep and activity. But I also have a Heart Math monitor, which allows me to “train” my “heart brain” live and in color.

Here is a video that I made showing how it works.

So, hopefully you now have a better appreciation of your “heart brain.” Maybe next time you tell someone that you love them with “all of your heart,” you’ll actually know that you mean it! And if you didn’t already have enough reasons to bring more love, compassion and gratitude into your daily life, you can now add mental and physical health to the list!