17

votes

Heart Rate Variability/Parasympathetic System and its impact on Sex, Digestion and Recovery - Does Paleo pay enough attention?

Answered on August 19, 2014
Created August 04, 2012 at 7:18 PM

I've been reading a lot lately about the autonomic nervous system (i.e. Sympathetic and Parasympathetic systems), and have noticed many interesting tie-ins with paleo theories.

BACKGROUND

The Parasympathetic system modulates:

  • sexual arousal;
  • salivation;
  • lacrimation (tears);
  • urination;
  • digestion; and
  • defecation [1]

It is also associated with a "plan and decide" response that engages the prefrontal cortex, in contrast to the sympathetic nervous system, which is associated with a "fight or flight" response that shunts energy away from the prefrontal cortex and other "rest and digest" activities.

SHOULD WE VIEW HEALTH ISSUES MORE THROUGH AN AUTONOMIC NERVOUS SYSTEM LENS?

GERD and Heart Palpitations

I've seen a number of paleo folks ask questions about issues that appear to be related to autonomic nervous system imbalance, primarily sympathetic system dominance. One example is GERD and heart palpitations, which I believe to often be related to each other via vagus nerve interactions [2]. Solid advice is often dispensed related to electrolyte balance, etc., but nobody mentions the ANS. Why? See Footnote 4 for more information on the ANS and heart issues.

Digestive Troubles

Another common topic is constipation and digestive troubles. Often the advice is to increase carb intake, eat fermented foods, decrease FODMAPS, etc. This is all great advice, but what about the ANS? Should we also advise interventions that focus on restoring ANS balance? For example, for me, nothing gets the bowels moving like a nice long walk. Also, from a GERD perspective, research is emerging that indicates that GERD may be a function of ANS imbalance. Refer to the following paper, which also discusses Heart Rate Variability, which I will introduce below.

http://www.jpp.krakow.pl/journal/archive/06_04_s2/pdf/77_06_04_s2_article.pdf

Sex and Testosterone

Further, what of all the questions about sex and testosterone? Yes, adequate saturated fats/cholesterol, weight lifting and sleep is important, but why don't we move higher upstream, and start with the brain and autonomic nervous system? You can squat twice a weak and follow it up with steak and eggs, but if you're chronically stressed and screwing up your ANS, I doubt testosterone levels will be optimized.

Additional Thoughts

  1. Everyone's favorite low carb surgeon, Dr. Kruse, uses sweating as a proxy for leptin sensitivity. If sweating is driven by the parasympathetic system, it would stand to reason that sweating dysfunction would also indicate ANS dysfunction, specifically sympathetic nervous system dominance. Is it possible that the "leptin reset" is just as much an "autonomic nervous system" reset?

    Still on Dr. Kruse, what about his favorite health intervention, cold therapy? The mainstream use of cold therapy is post-exercise recovery. This makes sense, as cold water immersion appears to stimulate the parasympathetic system pretty effectively. Some studies have also indicated that cold water immersion improves heart rate variability, introduced next. Is it possible that cold therapy is as simple as balancing the ANS, rather than all of the complicating craziness that Dr. Kruse espouses?

  2. Heart Rate Variability ("HRV"), which I've seen mentioned occasionally by Art Devany and Robb Wolf, is an objective physiological measure that seems to correlates well with a number of interesting outcomes, such as:

    -Willpower [3] (high HRV is positively associated with willpower; more accurately, the ability to engage the prefrontal cortex to "plan and decide" in alignment with our long term goals, rather than immediate desires)

    -Heart rhythm irregularities [4] (low HRV correlated with heart rhythm irregularities)

    -Heart Rate Recovery ("HRR") [5] (low HRV correlates with low HRR). Incidentally, Heart Rate Recovery (specifically, lack thereof), is associated with increased incidence of cardiac disease, especially following cardiac surgical procedures [6]

  3. Sympathetic system dominance (i.e. chronic stress; sound familiar?) tends to depress HRV. Interestingly, in the weeks and months following 9/11, researchers noticed a pervasive decrease in HRV in the Americans they studied [7].

  4. So how do we increase Heart Rate Variability? Not so coincidentally, paleo principles help. Among them:

    -Intermittent Fasting [8]

    -Low-carb [9]

    -Art Devany/Mark Sisson style workouts (i.e. lots of low intensity movement, with intermittent high intensity workouts comprising sprints/kettlebells/weight lifting) [10]

    -Diaphragmatic/belly breathing at a rate of 4-6 breaths per minute [11][12]

    -Yoga [13]

UPSHOT

So this leads me back to my question- does Paleo pay enough attention to the Autonomic Nervous System? As Paleo continues to move mainstream, we should continue to look for objective ways to quantify and scientifically corroborate the health benefits we claim, as Mat Lalonde has prominently urged. Perhaps Heart Rate Variability and discussions of the Autonomic Nervous System should play a more prominent role in our methodology.

Selfishly, I hope this question will spur some dialogue on the topic, as I find it incredibly interesting and you all are a heck of a lot smarter than I!

FOOTNOTES

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parasympathetic_nervous_system

[2] The Dorsal nucleus of the vagus nerve sends parasympathetic output to the viscera, especially the intestines; the Nucleus ambiguus of the vagus nerve sends parasympathetic output to the heart (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vagus_nerve)

[3] See Wait: The Art and Science of Delay (http://www.amazon.com/Wait-The-Art-Science-Delay/dp/1610390040) and The Willpower Instinct (http://www.amazon.com/Willpower-Instinct-Self-Control-Works-Matters/dp/1583334386/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1344101881&sr=1-1&keywords=the+willpower+instinct)

[4] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3342624/

"Vikman et al. calculated the approximate entropy (ApEn) and short term scaling exponent, ??1, of heart rate variability (HRV) over 20-min periods and found that a reduced complexity of HRV dynamics and altered fractal properties usually precede the onset of [Paraoxysmal Atrial Fibrillation] as indicated by decreasing value for ApEn and ??1."

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22260941

"Our data show that among ARVC/D patients HRV analysis might be helpful in identifying those with increased risk of major arrhythmic events."

MY NOTE: This study examined patients with existing heart issues; they were not individuals. Extrapolate to healthy individuals only as you feel comfortable.

[5] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16630090

[6] Don't have time to source this one, but pubmed has some good studies in this area.

[7] Supra at Note 3 (The Willpower Instinct).

"Researchers at Yale University School of Medicine found that during the week after September 11, 2001, patients heart rate variability decreased significantly. We were a nation overwhelmed, and its not surprising that rates of drinking, smoking, and drug use increased for months following the attacks of of 9/11."

[8] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16581971

[9] I haven't fully vetted this; it's my speculation. Here is my circumstantial evidence:

  • Type 2 Diabetics have been shown to have low HRV
  • Carbs stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, sometimes chronically (especially if you get addicted to them), thereby depressing the parasympathetic system.
  • Those with high willpower instincts (see Notes above) have been shown to have high HRV. Anecdotally, I've noticed that my willpower and cognitive instincts are highest on a high fat, medium protein, low carb diet. Higher carbs tend to make me more "jumpy" and impulsive, which are characteristic of the SNS/"Fight or flight"/low HRV package, versus the PSNS/"Pause and plan"/High HRV package.

[10] I need to vet this out with the research more fully; any help would be appreciated. I do remember Devany making a post about weight lifting and "fractal" heartbeats, but I couldn't find it for this post, and can't remember if he mentioned HRV specifically.

[11] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19629309

[12] Supra at Note 3.

"Slow your breathing down to four to six breaths per minute. That's ten to fifteen seconds per breath--slower than you normally breathe, but not difficult with a little bit of practice and patience. Slowing the breath down activates the prefrontal cortex and increases heart rate variability."

[13] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22707866

A41e7132894bd2d2f16d22d6359c893a

(110)

on August 07, 2012
at 02:53 PM

I eat animal protein -gave up all fruits/veg/nuts/dairy. Baseline supps: folic acid, iron, b12, b6, dmae, super probiotic, mag, zinc, calc, C, and ones targeting my brain/nervous system; nac, bcaa, 5-htp, taurine, l-glutethione, borage oil, fish oil, etc. After 2 years of paleo, my blood work doesn't show me as being deficient but I'm using the supps to keep my body fighting the dysautonomia and as part of biomed treatment to heal the food intolerances so to replace supps with food. With this system in place, no symptoms except fatigue, fainting, heat intolerance, without this -disaster.

9c4ba98a3b480408bcf207f558fe659b

(355)

on August 06, 2012
at 08:44 AM

Very interested in how you treat dysautonomia. Which supplements do you take? What are your major symptoms?

0bc6cbb653cdc5e82400f6da920f11eb

(19235)

on August 05, 2012
at 10:10 PM

Your questions get deleted because you keep making insulting remarks about Dr. Kruse.

Ed71ab1c75c6a9bd217a599db0a3e117

(25477)

on August 05, 2012
at 07:16 PM

I saw that too......

43f469552cfd3be73fc88a9821b14986

on August 05, 2012
at 07:00 PM

You put a lot out there. The like a whole slaughtered animal. How about breaking it down into little lambchops we can bite into? Most of us are city folks and not butchers. Make it easier for folks to answer.

Medium avatar

on August 05, 2012
at 05:47 PM

Interesting. Which paleo foods did you ultimately eliminate and what did your 'final' therapeutic diet look like?

Medium avatar

on August 05, 2012
at 05:45 PM

Thank you! Now if only we could get some more answers...

Medium avatar

on August 05, 2012
at 05:44 PM

Thanks for the positive feedback! Appreciate it

8508fec4bae4a580d1e1b807058fee8e

(6244)

on August 04, 2012
at 08:29 PM

Great post!Keep it up!

C8b2136ef95ba6aac211825ff38cc0e9

(971)

on August 04, 2012
at 08:20 PM

Oh, and I like your name.

C8b2136ef95ba6aac211825ff38cc0e9

(971)

on August 04, 2012
at 08:20 PM

I love when new perspectives are brought up. I love how Paleo is about linking ideas together. Cool post.

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6 Answers

2
A41e7132894bd2d2f16d22d6359c893a

(110)

on August 05, 2012
at 11:39 AM

being on the paleo diet for 2 years did wonders for my health, and I have autonomic neoropathy. I would really like to see more people with dysautonomia try being paleo and see what tweaks are good for us. While the diet did improve my general health it didn't make much of a hit on my specific neuropathy symptoms until I did an elimination diet that was more restrictive than paleo, and I still need to take a lot of supps. I'd like to see more info connecting diet and the parasympathetic/sympathetic nervous systems.

Medium avatar

on August 05, 2012
at 05:47 PM

Interesting. Which paleo foods did you ultimately eliminate and what did your 'final' therapeutic diet look like?

A41e7132894bd2d2f16d22d6359c893a

(110)

on August 07, 2012
at 02:53 PM

I eat animal protein -gave up all fruits/veg/nuts/dairy. Baseline supps: folic acid, iron, b12, b6, dmae, super probiotic, mag, zinc, calc, C, and ones targeting my brain/nervous system; nac, bcaa, 5-htp, taurine, l-glutethione, borage oil, fish oil, etc. After 2 years of paleo, my blood work doesn't show me as being deficient but I'm using the supps to keep my body fighting the dysautonomia and as part of biomed treatment to heal the food intolerances so to replace supps with food. With this system in place, no symptoms except fatigue, fainting, heat intolerance, without this -disaster.

9c4ba98a3b480408bcf207f558fe659b

(355)

on August 06, 2012
at 08:44 AM

Very interested in how you treat dysautonomia. Which supplements do you take? What are your major symptoms?

0
7c24d8393702fb98fcbf90697e22e237

on August 08, 2012
at 07:44 AM

I have been on low carb diet for a couple of weeks ..had to drop it because I started doing sugar burning hill running and my heart rate variability increased.still low carb but not as low ..I think we all have a sweet spot

0
7c24d8393702fb98fcbf90697e22e237

on August 08, 2012
at 07:43 AM

I have been on low carb diet for a couple of weeks ..had to drop it because I started doing sugar burning hill running and my heart rate variability increased.still low carb but not as low ..I think we all have a sweet spot

0
77877f762c40637911396daa19b53094

(78467)

on August 04, 2012
at 08:10 PM

Good question, but I'd lose the Kruse stuff - unless you want your entire question to unexpectedly vaporize (I know - happened to me).

Ed71ab1c75c6a9bd217a599db0a3e117

(25477)

on August 05, 2012
at 07:16 PM

I saw that too......

0bc6cbb653cdc5e82400f6da920f11eb

(19235)

on August 05, 2012
at 10:10 PM

Your questions get deleted because you keep making insulting remarks about Dr. Kruse.

0
43f469552cfd3be73fc88a9821b14986

on August 04, 2012
at 08:04 PM

Very interesting and well thought out question. You should post more often.

Medium avatar

on August 05, 2012
at 05:45 PM

Thank you! Now if only we could get some more answers...

43f469552cfd3be73fc88a9821b14986

on August 05, 2012
at 07:00 PM

You put a lot out there. The like a whole slaughtered animal. How about breaking it down into little lambchops we can bite into? Most of us are city folks and not butchers. Make it easier for folks to answer.

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