Rhythm is it! Heart rhythm and health

By Christoph Hueck, April 2012

The most important educational objectives of Waldorf education, Rudolf Steiner said in 1919, were to learn to breathe correctly and to develop the right rhythm between waking and sleeping. The soul and spiritual being of the child had to be connected with the body in a healthy way and this happened in the rhythmical interchange of breathing in and breathing out, of waking and sleeping, of concentration and relaxation, of spiritual and physical activity. Because Waldorf education was intended to make the physical body a permeable tool for the individual intentions of a person in later life, into the “least possible obstacle for what the spirit intends” (Rudolf Steiner).

Oscillating heart

Medical research today makes it possible for us to view such suggestions from Rudolf Steiner as being physiologically well-founded. Heart rate variability (HRV) has been investigated in the last 15 years as a significant indicator of health and illness. The heart does not beat in a regular rhythm but sometimes faster, sometimes more slowly within a matter of seconds, depending on physical, but also mental stress. That variability is a sign of health.

The less the heart beat reacts to different influences, the more potentially ill a person is. That has been known about for a long time. As long ago as the third century, a Chinese doctor wrote: “When the heart beats as regularly as the rain drops off the roof, the patient will die within four days.”

The variability of the heart beat is due to the balanced interaction between the “sympathetic” and the “parasympathetic” branches of the vegetative nervous system. The sympathetic branch is the “performance nerve” which during the corresponding physical or mental effort (doing mental arithmetic, for example) leads to a increase in the heart beat and breathing, constriction of the blood vessels, reduced digestive activity and reduced immune reactions. By contrast, the parasympathetic nervous system  as the “recuperative nerve” is associated with better blood circulation into the skin and inner organs, with digestive, sleep and the anabolic processes. The flexible, adaptive interaction between both branches is healthy.

When there is permanent stress, the heart’s ability to oscillate is reduced through the permanent activity of the sympathetic nervous system. People under stress are little rested even after sleep because the vegetative functions are still dominated by the sympathetic nervous system. Depression and chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, disorders of the heart rhythm, heart attacks and diabetes are also associated with reduced HRV. It would seem that the stress-related permanent activity of the sympathetic nervous system could ultimately contribute to the development of such chronic diseases because it is permanently physiologically active.

The breathing is one thing that exercises a positive influence on HRV. Slow deep breathing has a strengthening effect and introduces rhythm to the oscillation of the heart (so-called respiratory sinus arrhythmia). The popular consciousness is aware of that as well in the saying: “First take a deep breath before doing anything rash” – the heart begins to oscillates again, we are put back in the situation of being able to react flexibly. Various studies show that HRV can be improved through measures which influence the interaction between the heart and breathing such as for example sport or a healthy life rhythm, but also through creative speech and eurythmy.

Catabolic and anabolic processes in balance

From an anthroposophical perspective, the action of the two branches of the vegetative nervous system can be understood in a broader context. Rudolf Steiner once explained the polar interaction of what he called the “upper” and the “lower” human being. The “upper human being” is associated by Rudolf Steiner with the functions of the nervous and sensory system, that is, above all with the consciousness processes which have a primarily catabolic effect and which are therefore “death processes” in the organism (sympathetic nervous system). Such catabolic action is countered by the activity of the “lower human being” which has an anabolic effect in the learning processes of the metabolism (parasympathetic nervous system). While the nervous and sensory processes are associated with a high degree of alertness, the anabolic processes of the metabolism take place at a deeply unconscious level. Rudolf Steiner describes how the upper catabolic processes are also found in reduced form in the respiration, while the lower anabolic processes come to expression in the blood circulation and the heart beat, and he reaches the conclusion: “If the process which takes place between the breathing and the pulse is in order, then the lower human being is connected in the proper way with the upper human being and then the human being ... should basically be healthy.”

Here we have a wonderful definition of health: the rhythmically flexible, adaptable harmony between the upper, consciously awake catabolic nervous and sensory system and the lower, dormantly anabolic metabolic system, mediated by the “correct” interaction of pulse and respiration. These connections come to expression physiologically in HRV.

We can only assume (and this would be worth investigating) that the physiological foundation for the long-term, healthy ability of the heart to oscillate is developed in childhood and youth and that this development is also influenced by the psychological experiences of the child.

Children who are subject to sustained intellectual demands and emotional stress at a young age can develop a predisposition towards reduced HRV and thus have an increased risk of HRV-associated chronic diseases in later life. Initial studies have shown that changes in the HRV pattern occur in the prepubescent period between the age of 7 and 13. This period is familiar in Waldorf education for the development of the rhythmical system which mediates the interaction between “upper” and “lower” human being through the pulse and respiration. And that is precisely the time when in state schools there is the often stressful transition to one of the various types of secondary school. Could physiological causes for later chronic diseases reside here?

Waldorf schools in the vanguard of sustainability

People often sneer at Waldorf schools for the absence of pressure to achieve, for the lower priority given to intellectual learning and for emphasising artistic subjects. But real artistic activity creates the rhythmical balance between the “upper” and “lower” human being, between concentration and relaxation, between waking and sleeping, observing and doing.

And precisely this balance could be an important foundation for lifelong health. It could therefore turn out to be true that Waldorf schools can be considered to be in the vanguard of the worldwide sustainability movement  because they have always placed the most important resource of human beings, their physical, mental and spiritual health, at the centre of their educational concept.

About the author: Dr. Christoph Hueck is a scientist and lecturer at the Waldorf Teacher Training Seminar of the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart.

Links: www.hrv24.de/index.htm | www.biosign.de/literatur.htm | www.rhythmen.de/downloads/ats_merkurst2.pdf