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Natural Awakenings Twin Cities

‘Now, Where are Those Car Keys?’

May 28, 2020 12:00AM ● By Fran Bieganek

The Heart of the Matter of Good Cognitive Functioning

In recent years, there has been much focus in healthcare literature on how to improve cognitive functioning and slow down the negative effects of aging on the brain. The good news is not only is there hope, but actual action that can be taken to enhance brain functioning. There is a brain-heart connection that is key in efficient cognitive functioning, a simple and accessible intervention which aids in cognitive functioning.

A healthy heart doesn’t beat at a constant rate; it actually changes its rhythm with every beat. This variation in the time interval between heart beats is known as heart rate variability (HRV). This reflects the heart’s ability to respond to different situations. One can get a sense of their own HRV by feeling the pulse on their wrist while taking a few deep breaths. When a person exhales, the intervals between the heart beats get longer (heart rate slows down) and when a person inhales, the heartbeat gets shorter (heart rate increases). There is a strong relationship between heart rate and diaphragmatic breathing phases (inhaling and exhaling). This is referred to as the respiratory sinus arrythmia (RSA).

HRV results from a dynamic interaction between the sympathetic and parasympathetic inputs to the heart via the sinoatrial node. It’s linked to the autonomic nervous system (ANS)—specifically the sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest) branches. The ANS greatly influences how the heart beats. The rest and digest system tells the heart to slow down. This allows for more variability between beats—referred to as higher HRV. The fight or flight system tells the heart to speed up, which limits space for variability—referred to as lower HRV.

In general, higher heart rate variability is associated with cognitive and behavioral flexibility, physiological resiliency and psychological well-being, reflecting an individual’s capacity to adapt effectively to stress and environmental demands. Lower HRV, as well as too much variability, is associated with chronic pain, anxiety and depression as well as numerous other symptoms. There are some situations, however, when a lower HRV is preferred—for example, when an elevated sympathetic nervous system will help your body keep up with the physical demands when stressed (exercise is a good case in point).

The heart and brain are connected via the vagus nerve, the longest of 12 cranial nerves. It functions as part of the autonomic nervous system. The vagal nerve has two branches: ventral vagal and dorsal vagal. The ventral vagal branch aids in the activation of the parasympathetic (calming) branch of the autonomic nervous system. So, a well-toned ventral vagal nerve sets the stage for better cognitive and emotional functioning.

While many factors can contribute to the physiological decline of cognitive functions, a study published in 2012 in the European Heart Journal found the dysfunction in the autonomic nervous system has been correlated with significant impairment in brain functioning. In specific, increased activity of the sympathetic nervous system and decreased activity in the parasympathetic nervous system are associated with poorer cognitive functioning. 

HRV correlates with improved vagal nerve functioning (vagal toning). Research also shows that HRV correlates with improved cognitive functioning, including executive functioning. This means that having optimal HRV promotes better working memory functioning (no more wondering where the keys are), better emotional self-regulation, better planning and problem solving, and better mental flexibility (for example, being able to smoothly switch between tasks). Much of this is due to improved functional connectivity resulting in increased blood flow volume between brain regions involved in working memory and emotion regulation.

What’s so encouraging about all of this is that HRV can be modified. There is a simple yet profound way to train for increased HRV. The first step is to determine a person’s “resonance frequency”. This is the term used to describe when one’s heart rate and breathing (inhalation and exhalation) become synchronized. The average resonance frequency for adults is 6 breaths per minute (0.1Hz), but it can vary from 4.5 to 7.0 bpm. It is a bit higher for children.

After a resonance frequency is determined, a computerized, paced-breathing program can be used to give real-time feedback. This feedback teaches the person’s system to pace inhalation and exhalation (breath) to be synchronous with heart rate—aka coherence. The idea is to train the person to regularly breathe at the rate that reflects the resonance frequency previously determined. This process can be accomplished effectively either with the help of a professional who does biofeedback or by using one of several devices that are on the market for training heart rate variability. Home-training using a breath pacer app either on a cell phone or computer has been shown to be an effective training strategy. Home practice in heart rate variability consists of daily 20-minute sessions that can be done at a time that is convenient for the individual.

Technology is paving the way for clearer understandings of how the brain and heart work together to influence brain functioning. This has led to the development of techniques that greatly improve overall well-being. Heart rate variability training is one of them—such an accessible intervention that can have profound results on brain health, cognitive functioning and overall well-being.

 Fran Bieganek is a licensed psychologist practicing holistic psychotherapy, neuroimaging (brain mapping), neurofeedback and heart rate variability training at Bhakti Wellness Center. She has been practicing for over 20 years and currently specializes in the areas of trauma, anxiety, depression, grief and loss, stress management, developmental transitions and well-being. She works with both individuals and couples. In addition to her therapy practice, she has also taught psychology courses at several colleges in Minnesota. For more information, call 612-564-9947 or email [email protected].

 Guy Odishaw, CST, NFP, has been a complementary and alternative medicine provider for over 28 years. He practices at Bhakti Wellness Center, specializing in treating trauma, ranging from traumatic brain injury (TBI) to psycho-emotional trauma to orthopedic trauma, using neuroimaging (brain mapping); neurofeedback (brain training); neuromodulation (neurotherapy); integrated manual therapies; and bioelectric medicine. For more information, call 612-895-7709 or email [email protected]. To make an appointment, visit