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  • Writer's picturePatricia Faust

The Brain/Heart Connection

February is American Heart Month. Heart disease is still one of the leading causes of death in the United State. 1 in 4 deaths are caused by heart disease. There has been a tremendous amount of research and education about heart disease. Let’s talk about how the heart affects the brain and the brain affects the heart. They do have a special relationship!

Energy Requirements of the Brain

The brain is an energy cannibal. It doesn’t store any energy itself. It is dependent on the heart to get the needed blood, oxygen and carbohydrates to it to produce energy. In fact, 25% of the blood, oxygen and carbohydrates from each heartbeat goes directly to the brain. If the heart is suffering from disease this vital pipeline of nutrients is affected. For example, with congestive heart failure the heart weakens to the point that it cannot sufficiently pump blood. Without enough nutrients the brain cannot produce enough energy to function at a high level. Cardiovascular disease can block the arteries going to the brain and not allow enough nutrients to facilitate brain function. Vascular dementia is the second most prevalent type of dementia.

The Effects of Stress

Our hearts are very sensitive to the effects of stress. Our hearts can actually fail and go into cardiac arrest from stress alone. There have been many studies and discoveries about the relationship between heart disease and stress. A study summarizing 26 previous studies examining the influence of workplace stress on heart disease found that a hostile work environment increased the risk of heart attack, stroke, and high blood pressure. Lifestyle changes that benefit the brain will have a direct impact on the heart.

How the Brain Protects the Heart

Let’s look at how the brain actually protects the heart. Our brains create a protein: brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This protein is responsible for helping the brain and nervous system grow, helps nerves communicate, and is involved in the ability of nerves to change and adapt. It is essential for nervous system parts that need repair, learning, and memory. A team of researchers at John Hopkins University found that BDNF signals the heart and affects its function. As BDNF increases and binds to a specific receptor in the heart, it helps the heart blood vessels and nerves grow and develop. This research has opened many questions about the relationship between BDNF and the heart. When BDNF levels are low the heart is susceptible to many problems. Research is looking at drugs that replicate BDNF, improve the heart’s response to it under certain conditions, or increase its natural production. Living a brain healthy lifestyle through exercise, diet, sleep quality, and healthy relationships can raise BDNF levels in our brain and body.

The heart and brain are indeed intricately connected.


Bunch,T. (January 14, 2015). Mind-body connection: how the brain can protect the heart. Retrieved February 4, 2016 from

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