Heart Rate Variability: What It Is and Why It Matters
January 28, 2022
Heart rate variability (HRV) is a measure of the beat-to-beat changes in heart rate.
It reflects the ability of your autonomic nervous system to respond to stress and adaptively regulate cardiac function. Low HRV has been linked with all sorts of health problems, including increased risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes. High HRV, on the other hand, is associated with better physical fitness, psychological well-being, and overall health.
HRV is a measure of the changes in the length of time between heartbeats.
When you breathe in or out, your heart speeds up or slows down to meet changing circulatory demands when oxygen and carbon dioxide pass from the lungs into your blood.
Your autonomic nervous system – made up of neurons that originate from your brainstem – influences the function of your heart, lungs, gastrointestinal tract, and kidneys (among other organs) and regulates against extremes in your environment to maintain homeostasis.
High HRV indicates that you are better able to deal with stress by recovering quickly during stressful times. This is important for preventing damage to your body. For instance, when you are under stress, your blood pressure increases and your heart pumps more blood. Your autonomic nervous system helps maintain homeostasis by triggering a series of changes in the cardiovascular system to prevent the harmful effects of high blood pressure and high heart rate.
Ways to improve heart rate variability include:
A wide range of light, moderate and intense workouts have shown benefit in improving HRV. Exercise in itself can be a stressor – but a good one, when not overdone! This stress adaptation is what improves HRV.
Practice hatha yoga or mindfulness meditation.
Both of these practices have been shown to improve HRV by helping get the body in a parasympathetic state (rest and digest). This calm disposition helps to regulate blood pressure, stress responses and slows the overall heart rhythm.
Get enough sleep.
Poor sleep has been linked with low HRV, while sufficient quality sleep can help improve HRV. This again goes back to the stress response – when we’re sleep-deprived, our stress response is more highly activated, and our adaptability to life’s events goes down. Getting sufficient quality and quantity of sleep can dramatically improve HRV.
Eat a healthy diet.
For our organ systems and cells to function properly, they need nutrients. These nutrients literally come from the foods we’re eating, digesting, and absorbing. If you eat a diet filled with processed, refined, or chemical ingredients you are not providing those basic building blocks that your system needs to function at its best (and you’re adding stressful toxins that the body has to deal with). Load up on quality proteins, healthy fats, and whole vegetables, while keeping starches, fruits, and refined foods to a minimum.
Practice intermittent fasting.
It may sound silly since the previous point was about what to eat – but not eating can also benefit your HRV! Fasting is beneficial for HRV from several perspectives: it’s a healthy stressor like exercise (when done appropriately), it allows the digestive system to rest, it’s great for helping rid the body of toxins and old broken down cells, and can help tone the parasympathetic nervous system.
HRV impacts your physical, mental, and emotional health by regulating cardiac function, autonomic nervous system activity, and blood pressure. This can be improved with exercise, meditation, or fasting when done correctly! Many of the techniques to improve your HRV are free or can be incorporated into your daily life.