Put your hand to your chest for a moment or grab your wrist and find the pulse. Can you feel it, that (hopefully) steady tick-ticking of your most vital of organs? Pulse rate has long been the traditional go-to for measuring how your heart is working. But if you’re looking to go deeper, uncover some serious ways to improve your health and beat stress, you can’t beat Heart Rate Variability.
What is Heart Rate Variability?
Simply put, Heart Rate Variability (or HRV) is the ‘gap’ between your heart beats. Say your heart drums away at an average of 60 beats per minute. You might have a gap of half a second or longer between each beat.
Your heart beating day in, day out is all thanks to your autonomic nervous system (ANS). This system controls all those automatic responses. Things like your breathing rate and blood pressure, for example.
It can be divided into your sympathetic (SNS) and parasympathetic (PNS) functions. You can think of the SNS element of the ANS like a go button. It triggers your flight-flight-freeze response, increases your heart rate when you exercise and so on.
The PNS function acts as the stop button or like a set of brakes in this scenario. It slows your heart rate after exercise, or if a threat has gone, and helps your body rest and digest.
This push and pull between sympathetic and parasympathetic signals is what keeps your heart beating.
What is a Good HRV?
A higher HRV score in a patient is generally an indication of good health. But as yet the only reliable way to measure HRV is with an ECG. What we want to see is a healthy shifting up of gears by the SNS nervous system when a threat comes our way. Then experience the slowing effects of the PNS when we’re resting after an evening meal. Too long spent under either system’s control is where we start to see problems. We want to see this shifting of gears improve over time.
Imagine the effect on the body when it’s held in the fight-flight-freeze state for too long. The stress on the heart, and the emotions can begin to damage our physical and mental resilience.
Problems occur too when a body stubbornly refuses to take appropriate action in the face of a threat or immediate danger. Not stepping out of the way of a speeding car, you can imagine the consequences.
Wearing a Heart Rate Variability monitor is a good place to start when you begin the process of gathering research from your body. Looking at the figures over weeks, rather than days, starts to build an overall picture. Measure and make recordings of how your body responds to certain triggers. It's a fascinating analysis. But it's one that requires a little knowledge. You need to understand the parameters you're looking at and how to analyze the results.
It's this analysis of your HRV over a period of time that informs your next steps.
Can You Improve HRV?
This is what I get asked most when I’m talking about this subject. Along with how can I reduce stress? You get what it is, you get how it works but what you really want to know is how to improve it. Perhaps I should also add the question: why would you want to improve HRV? How will it help your overall health and general sense of wellbeing? Can it reduce your stress levels? All valid questions.
Let’s start with why you’d want to improve HRV. You’re looking for balance. Your body should respond appropriately between the push and pull of your ANS. Speed up your heart rate when needed and slow it down when the time is appropriate. We’ve talked about why that’s good but how does it feel when your body’s out of balance?
A body stuck in response to the push of the SNS function is under stress far longer than it should be. And you feel that stress physically and mentally. You are more prone to exhaustion, to becoming ill. You feel may feel symptoms of anxiety. Then there's the opposite end of the spectrum. A body pulled back by the parasympathetic function is someone more likely to experience fainting episodes and sweating abnormalities. Though this set of symptoms is less common. You'll find more information in this study.
Without balance, living a healthy and calm life is made much harder.
With balance, you’ll likely perform and recover better after exercise. You could feel more in control and able to deal with life better and experience greater levels of energy. Your stress levels decrease.
When it comes to making improvements, think long term. You’re looking for slow and steady wins over time. The great news is, it’s very possible.
First, Think Lifestyle
Improving HRV is sometimes seen as the remit of the athlete looking for performance gains. More and more it's seen as a mechanism to help a wider audience. You don't have to be looking at blasting your interval training. Improving your stress levels is equally valid.
It’s easy to look for a panacea, a shortcut to fixing ourselves. Very often our lifestyle is the first place we can make some positive changes. Simple things such as getting enough good quality sleep and hydrating adequately will help. And a regular workout routine aids the body along with a rhythm of regular mealtimes.
But if you want to go the extra mile, there are reliable methods for improving HRV, most notably toning your vagus nerve. This nerve runs from your brain stem down through the body, transmitting information to most of the major organs on its way. It also activates the PNS (the body’s braking system).
By toning this nerve, you’ll improve the response of the PNS and the body's ability to calm itself under stress. Two of the very best ways of achieving better tone are through meditation and learning to breathe better. Factor in some time for either of and these activities and its time well spent.
If you’re able, find a way of monitoring your HRV. Then see it change for the better after a few weeks’ meditation and breathing practice.
You may be new to this idea and that’s ok, there’s a lot of information out there with great advice on technique. If you find meditation hard, you could use one of our products to help you achieve the same result but much more quickly.
Long Term Effects
HRV can change with age. So starting good habits now is never a waste of time nor effort. Making improvements to your heart’s health through the vagus nerve is an excellent way of staying healthy in mind as well as body.
The overall effect of helping reduce the body’s fight-flight-freeze response can lead to a downturn in symptoms of stress and anxiety. Over time, you can build greater resilience as the body learns to calm itself. Maintaining good HRV levels comes through consistency. To avoid regression, a consistent practice is necessary. Building great habits is certainly the best way to achieve that regularity.
It’s a fascinating process and I really recommend trying out some methods mentioned above. I wish you great success with it.