Love Hormone (and Heart Rate Variability)

Have you heard about the love hormone? It’s called oxytocin, and research correlates high levels with being in-love, mother-infant bonding, trust, and empathy. Most research focuses on your brain as the production site of this hormone, but your heart actually produces and stores a significant amount of it. Your heart also produces other critical hormones, such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and Atrial Naturietic Peptide. The old idea that the heart is just a “pump”, has not served us well in medicine.

The heart has a direct connection to the brain via the Parasympathetic Nervous System, which some people refer to as the “Rest and Digest” state of the body. In fact, there are more nerves carrying heart signals to the brain than vice versa. What kinds of signals do you think it’s sending, and how much are these affecting your health? Your behavior? Your thoughts?

In medicine, we have an objective measurement called Heart Rate Variability (HRV) that reflects this heart-brain-nervous system interaction. By monitoring the frequency and amplitude of heart beats, we gain good insight into an incredible number of health conditions, including anxiety, depression, asthma, and heart disease. Poor HRV numbers are associated with almost all chronic disease, and increased risk of heart attack, dementia, and death. Higher HRV numbers are clinically associated with reduced risk of these conditions and something we call emotional resilience. This was one of the motivating factors behind my recent purchase of an HRV technology for use with my patients.

There are many ways to improve your Heart Rate Variability score. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of these techniques inherently reduce stress or blunt its impact on the body. Meditation, breathing techniques, exercise, and healthy diets for example, are all associated with better HRV scores. What I’m most excited about though, is the impact that emotions have, on HRV scores. Feeling gratitude, or feeling anger by recalling a stressful experience, will produce profoundly different HRV scores. (In other words, feeling gratitude changes physiology and biochemistry, which is associated with improved quality and longevity of life.

Some researchers, and certainly many older medicines, consider the heart to be an organ of perception. Similar to how eyes receive light waves and ears receive sound waves, the heart receives electromagnetic waves. And whereas the brain translates light waves and sound waves to colour and sound respectively, the waves received by the heart are translated into emotion. It’s the physiological basis of why one can “have a broken heart”, or “wear your heart on your sleeve”.

If this peaks your curiosity, please let me know during our next consultation and we’ll take a baseline HRV assessment. It involves perhaps 5 minutes with a little clip on your ear that senses your pulse, and a subsequent graphic representation of your heart rate variability that we can print for you to take home. Over 4 weeks with 10-minute weekly sessions, we can experiment with methods that increase or decrease your score, and discuss biofeedback technologies or apps that you can purchase online to use at home, to “teach” yourself to improve your score, with corresponding improvements in many desired health outcomes.