Your heart rate variability (HRV) measures the variation in time between each heartbeat. Low HRV has been linked to depression and anxiety, and high HRV has been linked to better heart health and stress management.
Why is it important to monitor heart rate variability?
Monitoring your HRV is a great way to identify whether your ANS, or autonomic nervous system, is balanced and functioning optimally. Your ANS regulates body functions like your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing. It also controls your:
- Sympathetic nervous system, or fight-or-flight response
- Parasympathetic nervous system, or relaxation response
The healthier your ANS, the higher your HRV. When your HRV is high, you are more likely to adapt to your environment, be more resilient to stress, and perform at your best. However, an unhealthy diet, poor sleep, and lack of exercise can disrupt the balance of your ANS, lower your HRV, and force your heart into overdrive.
HRV monitoring can therefore help you:
- Understand how well you respond to stress
- Detect your reaction to your emotions and environment
- Increase your awareness of your habits and behavior and motivate you to make lifestyle changes to improve your health
9 ways to improve heart rate variability
- Exercise and train properly. Regular exercise is one of the most effective ways to improve HRV. However, athletes should avoid overtraining, however, since strenuous exercise lowers HRV in the short term. Therefore, it is important not to put the body under too much strain without allowing it enough time to recuperate.
- Eat healthy food at the right times. While eating a nutritious diet is good for your HRV, it’s also important to keep in mind that having regular eating patterns will also help your circadian rhythm. Not eating 3-4 hours before bedtime can enhance the quality of your sleep by enabling your body to focus on other restorative processes instead of digesting food.
- Stay hydrated. The amount of blood in your body is determined by your level of hydration. So the more liquid in your system, the easier it is for your blood to circulate throughout your body and supply it with oxygen and nutrients. Make it a goal to drink an ounce of water per pound of body weight every day.
- Avoid alcohol. According to some studies, drinking alcohol can lower HRV by an average of 22 milliseconds the following day, and lingering effects of alcohol in your system may even reduce your HRV for up to 4-5 days.
- Get good, consistent sleep. In addition to getting enough quality sleep, it’s also important to maintain a consistent sleep schedule. Consistent sleep helps you have more REM and deep sleep, thus improving your circadian rhythm and increasing your HRV.
- Be exposed to natural light. Biological processes that regulate sleep-wake times, energy levels, and hormone synthesis are triggered when you are outside in natural sunlight, especially in the morning.
- Take a cold shower. The vagus nerve, which activates the parasympathetic branch of your ANS and controls HRV, is stimulated by exposing your body to low temperatures for brief periods of time (cold showers, ice baths, etc.)
- Practice intentional breathing. Slow, controlled breathing has been shown to boost HRV and help fight stress, which can decrease HRV.
- Practice mindfulness. For some people, practicing meditation or other mindfulness techniques can have a positive impact on HRV, helping with relaxation and stress reduction.
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Nunan D, Sandercock GRH, Brodie DA. Quantitative Systematic Review of Normal Values for Short-term Heart Rate Variability in Healthy Adults. Pacing Clin Electrophysiol. 2010;33(11):1407-1417. https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/732555_1
Colberg S. Why Heart Rate Variability Is Key to Longevity and Healthy Aging. http://www.diabetesincontrol.com/why-heart-rate-variability-is-key-to-longevity-and-healthy-aging/
Lampert R, Bremner JD, Su S, et al. Decreased Heart Rate Variability Is Associated With Higher Levels of Inflammation in Middle-Aged Men. Am Heart J. 2008;156(4):759.e1-759.e7597. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2587932/
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