The Thinking Heart
Thoughts on the heart brain connection
Keep my commands and live,
and my law as the apple of your eye.
Bind them on your fingers;
Write them on the tablet of your heart. Proverbs 7:2-4
Science is playing a game of catch-up as it slowly finds evidence for what the Bible has proclaimed as fact for millennia. Research has now shown that the heart is more than a pump circulating the life’s blood – it thinks. In fact it communicates with the brain in four different ways, through the nervous system, pulse waves, hormones, and electromagnetic fields. And this knowledge of the thinking heart and its connection to the brain has great implications when it comes to our health.
In biblical terms the heart is our “core,” the centre of our being and the essence of who we are, that works in concert with our mind and spirit to guide our feelings, conscience, and decisions. The wisdom of Proverbs makes the clear connection between the thoughtful heart and our physical and spiritual well-being. The heart that is healthy, wise, and prudent, will be a wellspring of life. Amazingly scripture says that a happy heart is as good as a medicine and that a joyful heart that anticipates good things to come is actually “health to our bones.”
We can accept the advice of Solomon on faith, apply its wisdom, and reap the health benefits without knowing what science has recently discovered about positive emotions and the heart/brain connection. But it is fascinating to add to our heart knowledge and gain some understanding of the mechanisms that guide the heart/brain interactions. In simple terms, when we are happy, the heart has its own “small brain” that sends positive messages to our brain causing the production of hormones that boost our immune system, and lower our blood sugar and blood pressure. Conversely when we are stressed the heart sends the brain a different message and other chemicals are released into our bodies including cortisol.
In recent years a number of investigators have proposed the DHEA/cortisol ratio to be an important biological marker of stress and aging. When individuals are under prolonged stress, a divergence in this ratio results, as cortisol levels continue to rise while DHEA levels decrease significantly. The effects of DHEA/cortisol imbalance can be severe, and may include elevated blood sugar levels, increased bone loss, compromised immune function, decreased skin repair and regeneration, increased fat accumulation and brain cell destruction…(yet on the other hand) effective emotional management can have such profound positive effects on the cardiovascular, immune, hormonal and autonomic nervous systems
As we express the positive emotions: joy, gratitude, patience, forgiveness, love, mercy, kindness in word and deed from a sincere heart, we create within our bodies a positive feedback loop bolstering and normalizing the heart/brain connection and actually bringing the heart into a normal rhythmic pattern.
But what happens all too often in our toxic man-made environments? Our hearts and minds are stressed and like rats in a maze, this stress affects our body in myriad ways. And if we are emotionally reactive in negative ways the stresses can literally, “break our hearts.” Our negative emotions: anxiety, fear, doubt, worry, sorrow, bitterness, jealousy, hopelessness if not overcome can disrupt the normal heart/brain connections and this over time leads to many negative health consequences.
I don’t know about you, but I can see clearly in hindsight that there has always been a major negative emotional incident that precipitated the acute illness that I experienced, whether the flu, pneumonia, fifth disease, strep throat, or shingles. On the other hand, I have often been the only one feeling well, in a household of sick kids, at least as long as I am “heart healthy,” — coping well emotionally. Thinking back on your life, has this happened to you too?
Negative emotions create a chaotic heart rhythm and disrupt the normal heart/brain pulse and we become “heart sick.” But the physical effects do not stop there. Under these negative stressors the heart signals the brain to flood the body with hormones that prepare us to flee or fight. There may be a time for anger, sadness or guilt, if they spur us to make positive changes and the apostle Paul tells us it is OK to be angry and not sin, but we must be careful not to let the anger continue overnight and for good reason. If we harbour these negative feelings over time, the prolonged effect is to decrease our immune system, stress our pancreas and adrenals, raise our blood pressure, and initiate a cascading complex of symptoms we label chronic disease. But God told us these things would happen long before science gave us insight into the amazing inner workings of the cell or the organs. Long before science linked stress and negative emotions to bone loss our Creator told us that “rottenness of the bones” could be the result of an envious heart and He knew a “merry heart” and “good news” would promote “healthy bones.” (Proverbs 14:30, 15:30, 17:22)
Our maker wants us to be in good health, so his advice is that we “keep our heart with diligence, for out of it spring the issues of life.” He knows that we become what we will become through the messages that flow from our hearts. “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.” So our loving Father warns us in the Proverbs: if our hearts are consumed with wanting things we cannot or should not have, if we are snared in envy, if we are despising others or plotting revenge, or if we are proud or arrogant, then these negative heart-sick ways will “dry our bones” and bring physical destruction.
Yet there is an antidote for a sick heart. Broken hearts can be mended. There are ways to restore the healthy heart that enlivens the brain and body. The heart/brain connection is powerful, so in controlling our thoughts and emotions we can actually bring our hearts and brains back into healthy sync.
The apostle Paul understood this principle when he advised people to bring to mind the positive emotions and think on these things: whatever is noble, just, pure, lovely, virtuous, or praiseworthy. Philippians 4:8
In order to accomplish this we may have to give up our “news junky ways,” curb our temper, douse the flames of jealousy, or tame our critical tongue. Not an easy thing, but do-able. Through meditating on the positive and expressing kindness, gratitude and joy we are taking active steps to heal the heart/brain connection. It is within our power to exercise some control over our thoughts and emotions. We can overcome our negative thought patterns and replace them with positive ones.
If we tend to be self-critical or self-deprecating we can put our shortcomings in perspective by doing a better job of celebrating our successes and appreciating the skills our Maker has given us and the work he wants us to do. Or, we can step outside ourselves and find ways, small and great, to give and bring a smile to others, that cannot help but cheer the giver. If we tend to be critical of others, we can extend mercy and compassion, empathizing with their struggles and finding ways to praise them for what is good. If our habit is to focus on what we lack, we can make a conscious decision to rehearse the things we are grateful for, perhaps even write them down in a “Thankful Diary.” I started one a few years back at the prompting of a friend and it has made a big difference in how I view things on a day-to-day basis. Our ability to find ways to transform our “heart-talk” from negative to positive is only limited by our will to change and our imagination.
Yet there are times in life when even our best efforts to calm our hearts and minds may fail us. I have known such times, when in the span of a few short years we experienced multiple deaths in the family, car accidents, loss of career, loss of friends, betrayal, chronic illness, and legal battles. You may have experienced times of trouble like these that would shake or break any heart, so for those times Paul offers the ultimate heart remedy that we find through faith:
“Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplications, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God, and the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” Philippians 4: 6-7
Wishing you all the peace that comes from God and is etched on a wise and thoughtful heart by His loving hand.
- video: The Heart of a Christian
- video:the heart brain connectionInstitute of HeartMath
- You can die of a broken Heart
Disclaimer: The entire contents of this health blog are based upon the opinions of Carolanne Patton, unless otherwise noted. Individual articles are based upon the opinions of the respective author, who retains copyright. The information on this blog is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice. It is intended as a sharing of knowledge and information from the research and experience of Carolanne Patton. She encourages you to make your own health care decisions based upon your research and in partnership with a qualified health care professional..