If you’re a regular here on the Happy Gut® Blog you’re already familiar with the fundamental ways to take care of your gut. Avoiding processed foods, eating plenty of fiber, and inoculating your gut with probiotic-rich fermented foods are just a few of the many tips I write about on a regular basis.
But is that really all there is to having great gut health for life?
February is American heart Month, so this week, I want to dive into an often forgotten and frequently overlooked way to promote great gut health — taking care of your heart. Cardiovascular disease will get a lot of attention this month. It is, after all, still the number one cause of death worldwide and one of the major risk factors for a severe case of COVID-19.
But here’s something you might not hear along with all the other heart-healthy tips: You can’t take care of your gut without also taking care of your heart.
It’s true! There’s an intricate connection between heart and gut health that we should all know about, which is why this week’s blog is dedicated to this little-known link.
The Role of the Heart
Experts often refer to the gut as the “second brain” because it helps produce serotonin, influences your mood and memory, and is also known as your “intuitive center.” Well, your heart also has a mind of its own. I like to refer to the heart as the “third brain” because you can’t talk about emotions, feelings and passion without talking about the heart. Thus, the saying, “Your heart wasn’t in it.”
The gut is to intuition and instinct, as the heart is to love, passion, and the “fire of life.”
As you go through life, you can try to ignore it, but you can’t override what your heart longs for in the long wrong. Eventually, it will get the better of you. Think about it: When you go through a crisis, like when a relationship or job comes to an end, you often realize that your heart wasn’t fully in it. Even this past year, many of us have broken old thought patterns, realized certain people or things in our life no longer serve us, and reimagined certain aspects of our life. If there’s anything we’ve learned from the pandemic, it’s that life is too short to not be about what you love, feel passionate about, and what fuels your enthusiasm.
Heart intelligence plays a bigger role in our overall health and happiness, both in our personal and professional lives, than you may ever have imagined.
In other words: Finding a way to honor our hearts is critical to long-term gut health.
And here’s the secret: Having a healthy gut isn’t just about taking care of your gut — it’s also about taking care of your heart. To truly have a happy gut, you must also have a happy heart.
The Connection Between Gut Health and Heart Health
You might be wondering how, exactly, the heart and gut are connected. Well, researchers have actually found an answer to this. The HeartMath® Institute is a non-profit organization based on 25 years of scientific research that tests the effects of meditation and gratitude on heart and overall health. What they have found is that both the heart and the gut are intricately connected to the longest nerve in the body — the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve is one of the most important nerves in the body; it travels from the brain all the way down the body and intersects most major organs. It’s also in charge of the body-wide effects of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS for short), which is also known as our “rest and digest” response. The PNS helps bring our heart rate down and puts the body in a relaxed, restful state that is optimal for digestion. The vagus nerve is also associated with an increase in “happy hormones” like serotonin and dopamine and can inhibit the release of chemical messengers in the body called inflammatory cytokines, which are associated with an increase in clinical depression.
What is different about this connection?
Both the heart and gut are connected to the brain through the vagus nerve, but what is different about is that most of the nerves are firing upstream to the brain, not downstream. In fact, 70% of the fibers in the vagus nerve point up towards the brain. That means your heart and gut have a much bigger impact on your thoughts than you may have ever realized before. Fascinating, isn’t it? That’s the physiology of how the gut’s intuition and the heart’s desire weigh heavily on what we think and feel.
Heart Rate Variability: Why is it important?
One of the main measurements that the HeartMath® Institute and other lead mind-gut-heart connection researchers use is something called “heart coherence” or “heart rate variability.” Essentially, heart rate variability, or HRV for short, is a measure of the variation in time interval between your heartbeats.
Why is it important to know the beat-to-beat variation in heart rate? HRV is controlled by the autonomic nervous system and regulates your heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, and even breathing rate. The parasympathetic branch causes your heart rate to slow down, whereas the sympathetic branch causes your heart rate to speed up. It’s your internal yin-yang.
In other words, HRV is a measure of how balanced your autonomic nervous system is. When you are feeling stressed, angry, frustrated or anxious, your heart rhythm will appear erratic and irregular. This means your parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems are out of sync with each other. It’s like driving a car with one foot on the brakes, and the other on the gas. It’s going to feel really uncomfortable and bumpy.
When you are feeling happy, grateful, appreciative, compassion, and love, your heart rhythm will mirror this by becoming smooth and harmonious. This is what we call a coherent heart pattern. When your heart is in coherence, your body also feels more harmonious. Think of a day when you were so elated you felt like you were soaring in the sky. What an incredible feeling!
Just like the heart — your gut is also sensitive to and responds to the balance between the parasympathetic “rest and digest” and the sympathetic “fight or flight” nervous systems.
But here’s the good news: There are many factors in your direct control that can influence and improve HRV and vagal tone. By exercising the vagus nerve and activating the parasympathetic nervous system, it’s possible to improve heart rate variability, get into a coherent heart rhythm, and reap the benefits that come with that, including a happier, healthier gut.
5 Ways to Rewire Your Heart for a Healthier Gut
1. Try Diaphragmatic Breathing
This is how to breathe with your diaphragm. When you inhale, your belly and diaphragm should actually be the part of the body to first expand. What does this look like in simple terms? Breathe in — belly out; breathe out — belly in. The good news is I have a simple exercise for you to do to practice and get used to breathing with your diaphragm, so that you can activate your parasympathetic nervous system and feel calm and harmonious in your body.
Lay on your back on a comfortable surface, like your bed. Or if you prefer, on the floor or rug.
Bend your knees to put your feet flat on the floor. This softens your lower belly, allowing you to do this breath more effectively.
Start by putting one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest.
First, simply observe. Which hand rises first when you breathe in. I’m willing to bet it will be the hand on your chest, because that’s what I’ve found to happen every time I’ve done this exercise with a patient.
Now, let’s practice diaphragmatic breathing by breathing into the hand on your belly first, then the hand in your chest as you fill your lungs like a big barrel from the bottom to the top.
Breathe into your belly hand for a count of four, then breathe out to a count of eight. As you breathe in, feel the hand on your stomach rise, and as you breathe out feel it fall back towards your spine. Your chest will follow your belly on the inhale, and initiate the emptying of your lungs on the exhale.
Set a timer for 5, 10 or 15 minutes, and repeat steps 5 and 6.
I’ve had patients do this exercise for 15 minutes twice a day as a way to rewire the autonomic nervous system, lower anxiety, and improve blood pressure, along with aiding in digestion. Re-learning to breathe is critical for heart AND gut health because it activates the PNS and the vagus nerve. In fact, studies have shown that the regular practice of diaphragmatic breathing significantly improves heart rate variability with a favorable prognostic picture in patients with existing heart disease.
2. Meditate With Gratitude
Meditation is one of the best tools we have for accessing the PNS and getting in touch with our heart health. Studies have shown that meditation practices can have a positive action on heart rate variability (HRV) by increasing vagal activity.
My favorite type of meditation is gratitude meditation, which also allows you the time and space to access your heart on a more emotional level and bring your heart into that desirable state of coherence by augmenting feelings of love, compassion, and joy. By expressing and meditating on the feeling of gratitude while focusing on your heart center, you feel calmer, more relaxed, and more resilient to take on life’s many challenges. You also find it easier to listen to your heart and where it’s leading you. Living in harmony with what your heart desires allows you to live in harmony with the rest of your body, including your gut. It was with this in mind that I created the HAPPY GUT® Calm Heart Gratitude Meditation, which you can try out for free today!
3. Practice “Ohm” Breaths
Studies have shown that the sensation of vibration experienced when chanting can stimulate the vagus nerve through its branches that run near the neck and sides of the head. If yoga isn’t your style, you can also stimulate the vagus nerve in the same way by humming along to your favorite song or gargling your mouthwash for a little longer every evening. I recommend gargling long enough to get a tear in your eye. Both activities can achieve the same result as the “Ohm” breath.
4. Become A Cyclitarian™
Being Cyclitarian™ is all about returning to our roots and respecting the body’s circadian rhythm — which is the natural sleep-wake cycle the body goes through every single day — by sticking to a regular, consistent schedule for eating and sleeping. Studies have shown that maintaining a regular bedtime is one of the best ways to get high-quality sleep and feel rested and restored the next day.
In fact, it may even be more important than how many hours of sleep you get!
A healthy circadian rhythm can benefit your heart health in more ways than one. Studies have shown that there’s an intricate connection between vagal tone, heart rate variability, and how well we sleep and how rested we feel the next day. In other words, better sleep means a higher HRV and better vagal tone.
There’s also a strong connection between the microbiome and our circadian rhythm; for example, one study showed that in mice kept on a consistent 12-hour cycle of light and dark the activity of their gut bacteria fluctuated according to the light. During the nighttime hours, the bacteria worked to digest nutrients and repair DNA, whereas during the light phase, the bacteria went into a “housekeeping” phase and worked to detox the gut.
What was really surprising about this study is that clockless mice with a mutation in their inner clock affected the behavior of their gut bacteria, which also lost their circadian rhythm. Somehow, the bacteria were sensing the mouse’s own internal clock. Thus, by following a consistent sleep-wake schedule and honoring this advanged biological clock in your cells, you can give your gut bacteria and nervous system the space to do what they were designed to do to enhance our health.
5. Take A Probiotic
I write a lot about the benefits of beneficial bacteria, especially for those suffering from Candida overgrowth, dysbiosis, or leaky gut. But taking a probiotic can actually have far-reaching benefits for your entire body. How is this, exactly? Well, research has shown that the bacteria in the gut have a huge influence on the vagus nerve; in fact, studies have even determined that specific strains of bacteria can lead to a better mood or even improvements in psychiatric conditions.
For example, one study found that taking the bacteria Bifidobacterium longum had anti-anxiety effects. Why? The benefits actually depended on the activity of the vagus nerve. It’s a complicated study, but essentially what it shows us is that the vagus nerve is the mediator of the relationship between the gut microbiome and mental health. In other words, the vagus nerve is like the telephone wire between your gut bacteria and your brain; they basically pick up the phone and dial up a signal to the brain. And by doing so, they improve vagal tone.
This was also suggested in other research. For example, L. rhamnosus bacteria have demonstrated the ability to transmit messages to the brain — and guess how they travel there? That’s right — again, via the vagus nerve. And since the vagus nerve regulates so much more than just the gut and the brain, including the heart, it plays a major role in both heart and gut health. This is an area of study that in the coming years will only become more and more important in the battle against heart disease.
As you can see, the more you learn the more connections you can draw between a healthy heart and healthy gut. The world of probiotics can feel overwhelming, so I designed my HAPPY GUT® RESTORE probiotic to contain ten of the most highly researched bacterial strains available, enclosed in an acid-stable capsule, so they can make the journey all the way to the intestines where they get to work giving you the easy digestion and bowel movements you can feel proud of.
From my heart to yours… your heart (and your gut) will thank you!