By Michele Keenan

Want a healthier heart? It can be as simple as taking a deep breath for a few minutes every day to help clear your mind and relax your body and bring in back into balance. A little exercise goes a long way too. There's no better time than now to make healthy choices to help prevent heart disease.Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States. Every year, 1 in 4 deaths are caused by heart disease. So there's good reason to take steps to lower your risk.

In the last decade, the National Institute of Health reviewed evidence-based research surrounding yoga and daily breathing exercises. They found that these practices have proven to lower heart rate and blood pressure, decrease stress and anxiety, increase metabolism and circulation, help detox the body and release emotional blocks creating improved sense of well-being and internal calmness.

Recent research revealed that 20 minutes of yoga and five minutes of deep breathing twice a week decreased angina episodes, waist circumference, serum cholesterol, LDL levels and plasma insulin levels. The studies suggested a decrease in the frequency of revascularization and may help in the regression and progression atherosclerosis with a mechanism similar to that of statin therapy. These benefits are significant and we can take advantage of this by reducing the stress we place on our bodies over time.

As the field of psychoneuroimmunology grows, we are learning more about the mind body connection and its role in cardiovascular disease. In the ground breaking book, “The HeartMath Solution,” the authors Doc Childre and Howard Martin reviewed over 30 years of research on the complex role of the heart. They discovered that the heart has its own nervous system and it strives to maintain balance or homeostasis in the body. Negative emotions of fear, anger and hostility created an irregular heart variability — the time interval between heartbeats. This places more stress on the body. Positive emotions of gratitude and appreciation, maintaining a nonjudgemental attitude and acts of forgiveness create more order in the heart rhythm. They found that positive energy can shift our internal environment, reducing stress that helps to heal and transform our mind and body.

Daily breathing exercises have proven to reduce stress. According to Deepak Chopra, MS, noted author and Alternative Medicine Practitioner, breathing is a tool to quiet the mind and body to help you return to a place of internal stillness. He states, “Our breathing is influenced by our thoughts, and our thoughts and physiology can be influenced by our breath.” When you experience stressful thoughts, your sympathetic nervous system triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response, giving you a burst of energy to respond to your perceived danger. Your breathing becomes shallow and rapid, and you primarily breathe from the chest and not the lower lungs. This can make you feel short of breath. At the same time, your body produces a surge of hormones called cortisol and epinephrine or adrenaline, which increases your blood pressure and pulse and puts you in a revved up state of alert. With deep breathing, you can reverse these symptoms instantly and create a sense of calm in your mind and body. When you breathe deeply and slowly, you activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which reverses the stress response in your body. Deep breathing stimulates the main nerve in the parasympathetic nervous system called the vagus nerve — slowing down your heart rate, lowering your blood pressure, and calming your body and mind.

There are many breathing exercises to try. Here’s one that is good for the heart:

Sit comfortably and direct your focus to your heart area. Place one hand over your heart. As you breathe imagine breathing through your heart. Breathe naturally and deeply. Allow any emotions that surface to be released without judgement. Notice your thoughts as they can be clues of what you may be holding inside your body. The more you practice this breathing, over time you will begin to discover the very quiet, peaceful and warm place within yourself where you will be able to listen to your heart and hear what is saying to help guide you to greater healing. Practice this exercise daily for 5-10 minutes. Visit Chopra.com to learn more about other types of exercises.

Negative emotions or energy that you choose to hold on to in your body like fear, anger, hostility or revenge only serve to hurt you and your heart. Breathing can help to release this energy and promote optimal emotional or mental health. This is now being recognized as an important factor in primary and secondary prevention of heart disease.

Take time to relax and renew — unplanned and unplugged. Allow yourself to relax deeply and re-balance. Take time to focus on what truly matters. Learn to slow down and soothe your nervous system. Re-charge your batteries. Your heart will love it.

Michele Keenan, MA, CMA, is the coordinator of the Heart, Health & Wellness Center at Memorial Hospital in North Conway.

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