I had never heard of the body’s ‘rest and restore’ system until recently when Dr Patricia Bloom* explained it was another name for the parasympathetic nervous system. I don’t know about you but I frequently get the sympathetic and the parasympathetic systems mixed up. One system fires us up and puts us in a state of readiness for action, triggered by threats of some kind or another (fight or flight response anyone?). So blood pressure rises, the body is flooded with hormones, muscles primed for action etc. That’s the sympathetic nervous system, the one I tend to think should be the kind, soothing system – i.e. ‘sympathetic’ but it isn’t). It’s also the system that in today’s modern world gets fired up too much of the time culminating in too much stress.
The other system (the parasympathetic nervous system or rest and restore system) relaxes the body and helps us chill out (technical term there). Personally I can get my head around rest and restore much more easily than parasympathetic…
Patricia explained that these systems work together a bit like a see-saw, so if one is up then the other has to go down. One way to reduce stress is to turn up the rest and restore system – the sympathetic nervous system will then quieten down. This results in us feeling calmer, less irritable and stressed, and generally being nicer to be around!
Apparently in the last decade cardiologists have got really interested in the turning up of the rest & restore system; cardiac coherence is the term used to measure how well we’re doing on this front.
cardiac coherence = when breathing rate and the heart rate are synchronised in such a way that the rest and restore system is turned up.
Did you know that increased cardiac coherence is associated with being more athletic and healthy all of which is great for the heart? Got to be a good thing when you consider that heart disease is one of the leading causes of mortality amongst older adults.
A normal breathing rate is somewhere between 12-18 breaths per minute but most people experience cardiac coherence when they breathe at a rate of between 4.5 to 7 times a minute. Have you ever noticed that for most people when they meditate their breath becomes slower and more prolonged? They’re moving into cardiac coherence and thus reducing their stress.
But what if you don’t have time to meditate for a substantial period?
TRY THIS: practice a minute of slow breathing to get into cardiac coherence.
I’ve been experimenting with getting my phone out – setting the timer for a minute, trying to breathe slowly and counting my breaths. I start off with a rate of about 6 and then by the second minute I drop down to just over 4 breaths per minute. It feels really good and I can’t believe it’s only taking just over a minute to experience cardiac coherence. What about you? What’s your rate?
I’ve tested my normal breathing rate and it’s quite low to start with – about 9 breaths per minute so I reckon being at the lower end of the optimal coherence breathing rate (4.5) is about right for me.
Do have a go and see how it feels to reduce your breathing rate and please let me know below what you find out. Give yourself a minute to help build your ‘rest and restore’ system!
*Associate Professor in the Department of Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, the leading Geriatrics institution in the United States