“Follow your heart but take your brain with you.”
It is not uncommon to hear sayings that allude to the mind-heart connection. Do any phrases or words of wisdom come to your mind? Take a moment to think about this.
Some simple expressions may include: Follow your heart. Put your heart into it. Have your heart set on something. Learn something by heart. Tears come from the heart and not the brain. Or the brain may forget but the heart remembers …among many more sayings. For many, the heart is endeared as the “second” brain.
(The nervous system of the heart has approximately 40,000 sensory neurites that communicate with the brain and this discovery has been dubbed “the little brain in the heart” by Dr. Andrew Armour, M.D., Ph.D. The recent research and discoveries in this area are evolving and may catch up to some of the things we “know” within our hearts.)
According to HeartMath, the heart communicates with the brain in four major ways via the nervous system, hormones, pulse waves and energetically. The heart is a muscle and part of our vast circulatory system. The brain uses 20% of the body’s oxygen and blood, and accounts for about 2% of total body weight. With every heartbeat, nearly 25% of your body’s blood goes to the brain. The heart helps to fuel the brain and aligns with the recommendation for aerobic exercise (movement that increases your heart rate). But is the heart more than a mere pump for the body and brain?
The brain and heart are dependent on each other, communicate with one another, and are connected. What does the mind-heart connection mean to you? For many, we associate various attributes and actions to the heart such as being a symbol of love (our love center), caring (having a golden heart or big heart), wisdom (time for a heart-to-heart), spirit (a change of heart), emotional truth (broken heart or follow your heart), among others such as eat your heart out. How many times have you “crossed your heart” on something when telling the truth? Think about it; our heart-brain connection is part of our common expressions.
I grew up with the following advice from my mother: If your head and heart disagree, it is time to reflect and make a change. If your head and heart agree, then move forward — onward and upward! Ultimately, the ability for our heart and brain to work together allows us to feel for others and we have all likely suffered a heartache for one reason or another.
Now, we have probably heard what is good for the heart is good for the brain as a health mantra. And this is a fantastic start to your personal brain health and wellness journey. Over the years, you can see a change in heart-healthy food options in restaurant food menus and on the packaging of processed food items. Nutrition is a foundational component for heart health and brain health.
Additional heart health recommendations are to know your numbers or recent numbers — blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, weight, and sleep/exercise patterns (how long you engage). Following the guidelines for a healthy heart can give your brain a boost and decrease your risks for heart attacks, strokes, cognitive decline and dementia.
South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) offers a “Take Brain Health to Heart” campaign. This provides a simple, four-step recipe for the heart.
1. Fuel up right and break a sweat! Aim to have at least 150 minutes of aerobic activity each week such as brisk walking, swimming, biking or other activities. Get the heart rate up for optimal benefits and note that breaking your exercise into smaller segments still yields health benefits such as a short walk for 10 minutes for 3 times a day or 15 minutes for twice a day.
2. Don’t smoke or quit smoking! Smoking is not good for your overall health, especially your heart health and brain health. Individuals who quit smoking can notice benefits in less than a month, which include improved lung capacity, improved blood circulation (recall this direct effect on the brain outlined above), and increased energy to name a few. For individuals who quit smoking, they can reduce their health risks to being similar of non-smokers.
3. Follow your heart! When you are following heart-healthy recommendations and managing any chronic health conditions related to your heart, your brain benefits. Risk factors can include obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes, to name a few. Monitor your chronic health conditions for optimal well-being and reach out to a healthcare provider if there is a change.
4. Protect your noggin! You might recognize some of the health habits that impact the brain including sleep, social connections, and monitoring your mental health from my initial blog. Wear a seatbelt and a helmet for activities that would apply, such as biking or sporting recreation. Protect yourself from fall hazards that could cause injury to the brain and body.
As Nelson Mandela stated, “A good head and a good heart are a formidable combination.” I hope this brief article might inspire you to think about the mind-heart connection and its meaning beyond the physical functions they perform for us. May you use your heart and brain in your daily lives as a guide for optimal wellness: sleep well, move daily, nourish to flourish, stay engaged, and get regular check-ups or annual wellness exams from a qualified healthcare provider. Follow your heart along your wellness path to optimize brain health.
In brain health & wellness,
P.S.- Looking for a punny laugh and brain exercise? Explore the “Awkward Yeti” comics online or in one of their books. Search for comics that are exclusive to the “heart and brain.” One of my favorites depicts a cartoon heart with its arm in a sling, a cast on its opposite foot, and using a crutch. The brain asks the heart, “What happened?” And the heart replies, “I watched the news.” Many of us can likely relate to this comic during our recent times. Enjoy! The heart-brain comics just might make your heart smile.
February is American Heart Month! Learn more at nhlbi.nih.gov.
**Written for “EngAGE Your Brain!” blog series for Northeast Ohio Boomer & Beyond Magazine. Read the original article post here.