HRV is directly connected to areas of the the brain implicated in stress and emotion regulation.
If, via recovery practices, we can still our beating heart it will have neuroplastic effects on our brain and the regulation of emotion and stress. Equally if we meditate and alter the functioning of areas implicated in this study such as areas of the medial PFC and cingulate gyrus we improve our control over our heart. Ultimately if we can learn to relive the inherent distress at the heart of addiction we can recovery function of not only the heart but also of areas in the brain which interact with heart rate variability.
So ultimately we need only to know how to quell a distressed heart via prayer, mediation, loving others.
If we can do we improve our emotion and stress regulation.
But do we need to do this if we have been in recovery long terms?
I believe that stress and emotion dysregulation continues to play a role in our recoveries too, and into long term recovery also. We thus have a continual “allostasis” not automatic homeostasis.
Allostasis is the process of achieving stability, or homeostasis, through physiological or behavioral change. This can be carried out by means of alteration in HPA axis hormones, the autonomic nervous system, cytokines, or a number of other systems, and is generally adaptive in the short term (McEwen & Wingfield 2003).
Allostasis is linked to stress (and consequently) emotion dysregulation.
We have to be this change in our behaviours such as in the managing of distress. We manage this allostasis via our adaptive behaviour otherwise our behaviours turn into compulsive behaviours.
Neural structures associated with HRV
Over the past several years however a number of human neuroimaging studies have appeared in which researchers have explicitly examined the brain structures associated with HRV. In the present paper we provide a meta-analysis of eight published studies in which HRV has been related to functional brain activity using either PET or fMRI.
The goal of this meta-analysis was to identify areas that were consistently associated with HRV.
In the overall analyses three regions show significant activations One region in the medial PFC (MPFC) is the right pregenual cingulate (BA 24/32).
Another MPFC region is the right subgenual cingulate (BA 25).
The third region is the left sublenticular extended amygdala/ventral striatum (SLEA). This region extends into the basolateral amygdalar complex, and also covers the superior amygdala (central nucleus) and extends into the ventral striatum.
More generally, the pgACC/rmPFC correlation with HRV in our meta-analysis suggests thatthis region is part, and the most reliably activated part in studies to date, of a descending “visceromotor” system that controls the autonomic nervous system and possibly other responses (neuroendocrine) based on emotional context.
The meta-analysis provides supportfor the idea that HRV may index the degree to which a mPFC-guided “core integration” system is integrated with the brainstem nuclei that directly regulate the heart. Thus these results support Claude Bernard’s idea that the vagus serves as a structural and functional link between the brain and the heart. We have proposed that this neural system essentially operates as a “super-system” that integrates the activity in perceptual, motor, interoceptive, and memory systems into gestalt representations of situations and likely adaptive responses. These findings suggest that HRV may index important organism functions associated with adaptability and health.”
How is this HRV related to longer term recovering alcoholics?
We cited and use excerpts from a study (2) into short term and longer term (2) of up to six months which shows that alcoholics with years of recovery still have low HRV although it improves although this is dependent of severity of the alcoholism.
“It is known that chronic and heavy alcohol use has a toxic effect on the nervous system, including effects on autonomic nervous system. Specifically, heavy alcohol use can cause cardiac autonomic neuropathy, which in turn, is associated with greater mortality.
Resting cardiac autonomic function reportedly favors energy conservation by way of parasympathetic dominance over sympathetic influence. Heart rate is characterized by beat-to-beat variability over a wide range, which has been reported to indicate vagal dominance and thereby parasympathetic dominance.
A study of 24-h ambulatory HRV found significantly reduced HRV in alcohol-dependent men with established vagal neuropathy and in some without. Alcohol dependence has been shown to compromise vagal output measured before sleep onset, which correlates with loss of delta sleep and morning sleep impairments.
Reduced HRV was found in alcohol-dependent patients with negative mood states and compulsive drinking. Rechlin et al., reported reductions in HRV in patients with alcohol dependence, and this has been consistently reported in subsequent studies.[21,22]”
“Heart rate variability (HRV) was studied in 11 chronic alcoholic subjects (3) , 1–30 days after the beginning of abstinence and again 5, 12 and 24 weeks later. Two patients could be re-examined after 19 and 22 months, respectively. In the follow-up study, the total patient group showed a statistically significant increase in HRV with prolonged abstinence of at least 6 months.
No recovery of efferent vagal function was found in 4 patients. It is suggested that the vagal neuropathy may improve in chronic alcoholics, but perhaps only in patients with a short to moderately long duration of drinking history (3)”.
Thus it seems thee is a partial recovery in HRV as recovery proceeds although there may be work required depending on severity of one’s alcoholism.
1. THAYER, J. F., AHS, F., FREDRIKSON, M., SOLLERS, J. J., & WAGER, T. D. (2012). A meta-analysis of heart rate variability and neuroimaging studies: Implications for heart rate variability as a marker of stress and health.Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews, 36(2), 747-756.
2. Ganesha, S., Thirthalli, J., Muralidharan, K., Benegal, V., & Gangadhar, B. N. (2013). Heart rate variability during sleep in detoxified alcohol-dependent males: A comparison with healthy controls. Indian journal of psychiatry, 55(2), 173.
3. Weise, F., Müller, D., Krell, D., Kielstein, V., & Koch, R. D. (1986). Heart rate variability in chronic alcoholics: a follow-up study. Drug and alcohol dependence, 17(4), 365-368.