Can you correct your own heart arrhythmias?

Are there natural or nonmedical methods of controlling heart rhythms? (Source: Heart Healthy Meditation)

If you’ve ever wanted to be a doctor — and haven’t we all? maybe? for a few seconds? — you’re probably aware of auscultation, the science of listening to internal sounds of the body, which may date back to the ancient Egyptians. I’ve always been fascinated by what a trained listener can hear through a stethoscope, and what can be deduced by use of the instrument.

It seems a rich avenue for artificial intelligence. In fact, a 2014 Kickstarter initiative, which would have connected a listening device to a smartphone, appears not to have resonated with investors. Go figure.

But…if you understand the importance of heart sounds to medical diagnosis, the next question may be more important: Can I change my own heart rhythms?

You may have heard of research that shows how humans can consciously control bodily functions considered the domain of the autonomic nervous system. Tibetan monks, for example, can control their body temperature, increasing the temperature of their fingers and toes by as much as 8.3°C.

We all know that you can change the heart’s pulse rate — the number of beats per minute — as during sex or exercise, or if you’re into adrenaline-rush activities of some kind, the very definition of what we think of as cardio. But less appears to be known about self-correction of arrhythmias, or conditions such as atrial fibrillation.

Frustration to appreciation. (Source: Dirk Terpstra)

Dr. Andrew Weil recently noted the salutary effects of yoga on atrial fibrillation. A small, preliminary study at the University of Kansas Hospital found that regular yoga sessions (two 1-hour sessions per week for 3 months plus practice at home) lowered the number of atrial fibrillation episodes by nearly 45% in a group of 49 patients.

Harvard professor Ellen Langer found that “average” people can control their heart rate by simply measuring it regularly for 1 week. Her findings suggest that the simple act of paying attention to the autonomic activity of heart rate bestows a level of control over it. (Think biofeedback.) This relates to “mindfulness,” which Langer also measured using a scale that she developed. Sure enough, the people who were naturally more mindful were better able to control their heart rate.

A number of studies link meditation to heart activity, as described in a TED blog a few years ago. “We live in an incredibly busy world. Our pace of life is often frantic, our minds are always busy, and we’re always doing something,” Andy Puddicombe said at the TEDSalon London Fall 2012. “The sad fact is that we’re so distracted that we are no longer present in the world in which we live. We miss out on the things that are most important to us. The crazy thing is, people assume that’s just the way life is. But that’s not really how it has to be.”

This still doesn’t answer the question of whether meditation or other mindfulness techniques can help correct cardiac arrhythmias such as atrial fibrillation, although some evidence exists that it’s possible. But, it can’t hurt to try, and some regular quiet time sounds like a good thing.

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Originally published at kcroes.wordpress.com on February 17, 2016.