By now, you’ve heard of the mind-body connection.

But…have you heard of the brain-heart connection?

During February, American Heart Month, what better time to learn more about it?

In this post, I’ll explore this topic in greater depth.

Then, in a follow up post, I will review some of my favorite naturopathic medicine tools for holistic and integrative cardiovascular care. Of course, essential oils will be a focus.

Now, let’s get started with learning about some biology on the heart-brain.

I promise, I’ll keep it non-intimidating.

The Biology of the Brain-Heart-Stress Connection

The science of the interplay between the nervous system and heart, neurocardiology, has many dimensions. For example, studies have revealed that the neurotransmitters, norepinephrine and epinephrine, cause changes in heart physiology and function at a cellular level. Furthermore, the heart has been shown to entrain with the nervous system. (R, R, R)

This means that any stressful trigger acts as a stimulus for the heart. These concepts have not only been validated through association and mechanistic studies, but have also been demonstrated and measured through the electroencephalogram (EEG) and Heart Rate Variability (HRV). (R, R, R)

In a review of how stress impacts the body, the authors summarized the effects of stress on the heart via the nervous system response. These include influencing:

  1. blood pressure
  2. blood lipids and blood clotting factors
  3. heart rate and rhythm
  4. oxygenation to the heart

For those who wish to dive into the details on how these processes can lead to pathology and heart disease, I encourage you to read the cardiovascular section in the review.

Of interest on the mind-body realm, the authors also reported on considerations to mitigate these consequences:

  • Of course, there are individual differences in terms of the level of autonomic-based responses due to stress, which depends on the personal characteristics of a given individual (Rozanski et al., 1999 [93]). Thus, training programs for stress management are aimed at reducing the consequences of stress and death resulting from heart disease (Engler and Engler, 1995 [29]).
  • In addition, there are gender-dependent differences in the cardiovascular response to stress and, accordingly, it has been estimated that women begin to exhibit heart disease ten years later that men, which has been attributed to the protective effects of the estrogen hormone (Rozanski et al., 1999 [93]).

In other words, paying attention to an individual’s personal characteristics (e.g., resiliency, coping strategies, hormones, and gender) and stress management could help mitigate some of the negative outcomes of stress on the heart.

See why I focus so much on mind-body medicine and patient empowerment?

If we start with the mind, where stress is interpreted, we can prevent many of the negative downstream effects, including its psychological impact.

Speaking of, let’s look more into how the heart and brain are linked to mental health.

The Psychology of Heart-Brain Health

Beyond the physiological mechanisms that link the brain to the heart, there is a connection between our psychology and heart biology. In a commentary in Medscape, it was stated:

Depression, chronic stress, anxiety, anger, pessimism, and life dissatisfaction are all associated with potentially harmful biologic responses. These include irregularities of heart rate and rhythm; increased digestive complaints, blood pressure and inflammation; and reduced blood flow to the heart…

“A large body of study data now make it clear that psychological health can impact a patient’s heart health, just as diabetes, hypertension, and hyperlipidemia can, and that improving our patients’ psychological health is likely to lead to reduced cardiac risk down the road,” Levine said.

Since mental health and physical health are interwoven and cannot be separated, it is unsurprising that brain health and mood are also linked to heart health. This idea is becoming more accepted in mainstream medicine.

In 2021, the American Heart Association (AHA) issued a scientific statement that encourages healthcare professionals to consider the emotional health of adults with or at risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD). The statement, Psychological Health, Well-Being, and the Mind–Heart–Body Connection, reports:

There are good data showing clear associations between psychological health and CVD and risk; there is increasing evidence that psychological health may be causally linked to biological processes and behaviors that contribute to and cause CVD; the preponderance of data suggest that interventions to improve psychological health can have a beneficial impact on cardiovascular health; simple screening measures can be used by health care providers for patients with or at risk for CVD to assess psychological health status; and consideration of psychological health is advisable in the evaluation and management of patients with or at risk for CVD.

This year, the American Heart Association (AHS) released additional data that further demonstrated why it is important to pay attention to the heart-brain link. According to Medscape:

The report highlights some of the research connecting heart and brain health, including the following:

  • A meta-analysis of 139 studies showed that people with midlife hypertension were five times more likely to experience impairment on global cognition and about twice as likely to experience reduced executive function, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease.
  • A meta-analysis of four longitudinal studies found that the risk for dementia associated with heart failure was increased nearly twofold.
  • In the large prospective Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) Neurocognitive Study, atrial fibrillation was associated with greater cognitive decline and dementia over 20 years.
  • A meta-analysis of 10 prospective studies (including 24,801 participants) showed that coronary heart disease (CHD) was associated with a 40% increased risk of poor cognitive outcomes, including dementia, cognitive impairment, or cognitive decline.

“The data we’ve collected brings to light the strong correlations between heart health and brain health and makes it an easy story to tell what’s good for the heart is good for the brain,” Tsao added.

The Psychological Factors of Cardiovascular Disease

Acknowledging there is a link between brain health and heart outcomes is meaningful, but what other aspects of the mental domain are important to consider for heart health?

In one review paper on the role of psychological factors and cardiovascular disease, the following factors were explored and shown to impact heart health in several studies:

  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Social isolation and social support
  • Psychosocial work environment
  • Acute and chronic life events
  • Personality type and hostility

The strongest connections between the brain and heart were for stress, mental health, and relationships. The impact of chronic, unrelenting stress on the brain has been implicated in mental health issues so it makes sense that they are both factors and most likely interconnected.

The authors reported the following in the research:

  • Depression was an independent predictor of heart disease
  • Anxiety, stress, lack of social support, and psychological work characteristics were linked to coronary artery disease
  • The research on hostility and type A behavior was inconsistent
  • The role of chronic life events is likely to effect heart health but is hard to measure

The strong role of social support as the number one predictive factor for heart risk was expanded on as follows:

  • One of the major protective factors for CHD is social support. Some studies have shown that perceived social support during hospitalization decreases depressive symptoms in subsequent months.1
  • In addition, many studies have shown that after myocardial infarction the rate of depression depends upon the amount of social support.14
  • This study also showed different types of stress such as anxiety, depression, social isolation, social support, acute and chronic life event, hostility, and type A behavior. Among these variables, social support is more important than other variables. Not only is the lack of social support associated with the occurrence of CHD, but it is also an independent risk factor for mortality.6,66,71,108

This last statement just proves how much power we have with our choices to not become a statistic.

Although the numbers that associate heart risk with various factors may seem scary, they are not absolute and there is a lot we can do!

Minding Heart Health

Today, cardiovascular disease is still the number one cause of death in America.

Being mindful of our emotional state and our relationships to others are critical features to keeping a heart healthy.

Could it be that the reason why heart disease is still so prevalent in America is because we are focusing too narrowly on cardiovascular metabolic markers and not as much on these aspects?

I’ve discussed previously that healthcare needs to do better job at taking care of our hearts and implementing an integrative approach that considers the impact of stress, mind-body techniques, and personalized risk factors.

In my upcoming posts, I’m going to summarize how naturopathic medicine and essential oils can support mind-body-heart health. I will also highlight some of my favorite oils for the cardiovascular system.

In the meantime, if you haven’t yet explored some of the areas in mind-body health that can improve your overall wellness, including supporting your heart, you may wish to now.

In a post in my wellness series, I provided information on the vital role of mindset, emotions, and spirituality for mind-body balance. Topics relevant to the month of love include:

  1. Mindset as medicine
  2. Spirituality in healthcare
  3. The benefits of laughter on health
  4. Essential oils for mental health and addiction
  5. The healing power of love

Click here to read it.

Please take the time to care for your emotional and mental health. It’s important for not only a happier life, but a heart-healthier one too.

Feel free to share your comments below so that we may all benefit from your feedback.

Soon, I will have an invitation for you that truly incorporates all these aspects of health.

I’d love for you to join me and allow me to guide you in the process of becoming a more vibrant, healthier, happier person! Stay tuned!

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Disclaimer: This material is for information purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prescribe for any illness. You should check with your doctor regarding implementing any new strategies into your wellness regime. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. (Affiliation link.)

This information is applicable ONLY for therapeutic quality essential oils. This information DOES NOT apply to essential oils that have not been tested for purity and standardized constituents. There is no quality control in the United States, and oils labeled as “100% pure” need only to contain 5% of the actual oil. The rest of the bottle can be filled with fillers and sometimes toxic ingredients that can irritate the skin. The studies are not based solely on a specific brand of an essential oil, unless stated. Please read the full study for more information.

Thanks Pixabay and Canva.