Pacific Wellness Institute Clinic: Bloor-Yorkville Toronto

Acupuncture and Sound Assisted Autonomic Modulation Technique: Part 3 Relaxation and HRV

Acupuncture and Sound Assisted Autonomic Modulation Technique: Patient Guide

Tim H. Tanaka, Ph.D. Director, The Pacific Wellness Institute, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Visiting Research Fellow, School of Health Sciences, Tsukuba University of Technology, Japan

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Many people tend to confuse this exercise with relaxation. While most people do find this breathing exercise relaxing and it can certainly be used as a powerful stress management tool, the intention with this breathing exercise and the response it induces is different than with common relaxation methods. The graph below illustrates the difference. The distinct pattern of heart rate seen in the last 15 min. (a larger variability with a more coherent rhythm) cannot be typically induced by practicing commonly used relaxation methods.  A series of recent scientific papers suggested that when the heart is beating in such a pattern (a coherent rhythm and high variability), the autonomic and hormonal reflexes are actively stimulated.[16, 17]  This leads to enhanced modulation in our internal system. Acupuncture and Sound Assisted Autonomic Modulation Technique: Part 3 Relaxation and HRV


A growing number of scientists and clinicians now emphasize the greater importance of proper physiological Regulation rather than Relaxation for our health. In this age and society, we cannot avoid stress. Rather than only focusing on avoiding stress, it is important to address our innate capabilities to recover efficiently from a stress response. 

For example, whenever we need to perform a physical or mental task our nervous systems should be accelerated (sympathetic mode) and then promptly slow down when the task is over (parasympathetic mode).  In general, the sympathetic system should be more dominant during the day for activities and the parasympathetic system should become dominant at night for restful sleep.  Having proper shifts of our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system (according to the day/night rhythm) is very important for our health.  

For moment to moment regulations, we have a sophisticated homeostatic mechanism in our bodies.  Baroreflex, as an example, regulates blood pressure and heart rate to maintain proper blood flow and to counter various environmental changes. All of us are born with these vitally important physiological internal regulation mechanisms; however, they occasionally get out of order or insensitive. 

This breathing exercise is specifically designed to maximize the variability of a person’s heart rate (instead of primarily aiming to slow it down as in passive relaxation training). Increased heart rate variability, in turn, stimulates our important physiological regulation mechanisms which in turn lead to more optimized nervous and hormonal functioning.[17, 18]

Since most individuals are chronically shifted towards sympathetic dominant mode, it is still recommended to incorporate relaxation activities in their daily lifestyles.  Just like we need to incorporate both stretching and strengthening for physical fitness, it is important to practice both relaxation and self regulation modalities such as HRV based breathing exercise. 

According to neur ocardiology research, our heart and brain work in a highly interactive fashion, sending and receiving signals back and forth from one another [19]. It is logical to conclude that the most powerful short and long-term stress management solution would be to approach both our brain and heart simultaneously.

At The Pacific Wellness Institute, the HRV based breathing exercise has been actively used in conjunction with acupuncture since 2002. Our acupuncture system uses specific acupuncture points and needling method that is targeted to provide stimulus to the autonomic nervous system.[20, 21]  Utilizing our custom made CDs,[22] patients are instructed to breathe in a specific rhythm (frequency between 0.08-0.12 Hz) while lying on the table with acupuncture needles inserted.  The heart rate frequency spectrum is evaluated and feedback is provided to the patients.

Clinical results obtained with this combined approach are noteworthy, not only on autonomic dysfunction disorders but also when the condition is associated with chronic stress or disturbance in chronobiological rhythms (e.g., IBS, menstrual irregularities, certain forms of insomnia, back pain and headaches).

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