Everything is connected. You’ve probably heard that quite a bit in reference to how the body works – and it’s true. The body functions in miraculous ways and everything seems to work together in a strangely perfect way. We often don’t realize, or are still learning about, how certain body systems work together. A mind-heart connection, for example, is an area researchers are actively exploring in order to learn more about how what’s going on in your head can affect how your heart works.
Heart rate variability (HRV) refers to the change in the time interval between heartbeats. HRV is controlled by two systems in the body: the sympathetic (which increases heart rate) and the parasympathetic (which decreases heart rate) nervous system. Analysis of HRV data stems from its power spectral density – lower frequencies are associated with parasympathetic activity, while higher frequencies suggest sympathetic activity. The LF band expresses a mixture of both systems.
So what’s so important about HRV? Studies show that reduced HRV exists as a predictor for death after heart attack, and is also linked to conditions like congestive heart failure, diabetic neuropathy (nerve damage from diabetes), depression, post-cardiac transplant issues, and poor survival rates among premature babies. Therefore, finding ways to increase HRV can provide obvious benefits across the board, and meditation may be a way to do so.
Researcher Shari Matzner gathered HRV data from subjects before and during 15 minutes of Kundalini Yoga meditation, which consists of chanting and breathing exercises while sitting cross-legged. Subjects tested were advanced in their practice of this type of meditation. Her findings showed significant changes in HRV during meditation, specifically in the form of increases of power in the LF band, which represents both parasympathetic and sympathetic systems. These findings suggest a meditation-based increase in HRV, even after only 15 minutes!
Luis Carlos Delgado-Pastor and his team of researchers published a 2013 study in the International Journal of Psychophysiology that looked at both event-related potentials (ERPs) and HRV with regards to mindfulness (Vipassana) meditation. ERPs are measures of brain responses that are a direct result of a certain sensory, cognitive, or motor occurrence – in this case, brain responses to meditation. Vipassana is a form of Buddhist mindfulness meditation that seeks to gain insight and experience the true nature of reality. By looking at ERPs and HRV, this study explores the physiological markers for attention (from ERPs) and autonomic control (from HRV). Experienced Vipassana meditators went through 30 minute bouts of no meditation and meditation, both of which were followed by an auditory task to determine the “oddball” noise. The study found that after meditation, subjects were able to identify the “oddball” noise better compared to both before meditation and during the no meditation session. Subjects also expressed increased HRV during meditation. Both findings suggest increased attentional control and autonomic regulation due to meditation.
This area of research continues to grow, but findings so far are promising for meditation-based interventions to increase HRV. Since decreased HRV is associated with mortality post heart attack, heart disease, nerve damage from diabetes, depression, and other serious conditions, these findings can promote the use of meditation for better health. The mind-body connection absolutely exists, as clearly demonstrated in these studies of meditation-based HRV increases.
So if increasing HRV is so important and beneficial, and you know you can use meditation to do so, how do you monitor it? Heart Math offers both a desktop and mobile answer to that question. The desktop program, emWave Pro, is a desktop program with a pulse sensor that plugs directly into your computer’s USB port. It collects pulse information and displays coherence (an optimal level of heart/mind/emotion balance and immune/hormonal/nervous system coordination) information on your computer screen. This information is used to generate games and exercises based on your level of coherence and how to improve it.
And, if you’re like most people this day and age, there’s a mobile version for your smartphone too! Heart Math offers the Meditation Assistant with Inner Balance. The Inner Balance app and sensor allows you to enter how you’re feeling in that moment, and then takes you through a session that focuses on a positive moment to help relieve stress and induce calmness. The Meditation Assistant book can help you, in addition to Inner Balance, get the most out of your meditation sessions.