Heart Rate Variability
Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is a measure of the variation in the time between each heartbeat. The HRV evaluates the balancing act between the sympathetic nervous system (fight and flight) and the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). This is known as the autonomic nervous system. It works regardless of our desire and regulates, among other things, our heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and digestion.
An imbalance in HRV is the #1 risk factor for sudden cardiac death. Heart Rate Variability (HRV), as monitored from an individual’s heart rhythm, is the most powerful indicator of both cardiovascular health and general well-being*.
The brain is constantly processing information in a region called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus, through the ANS, sends signals to the rest of the body either to stimulate or to relax different functions. It responds not only to a poor night of sleep, or that sour interaction with your boss, but also to the exciting news that you got engaged, or to that delicious healthy meal you had for lunch. Our body handles all kinds of stimuli and life goes on. However, if we have persistent instigators such as stress, poor sleep, unhealthy diet, dysfunctional relationships, isolation or solitude, and lack of exercise, this balance may be disrupted, and your fight-or-flight response can shift into overdrive*
Why check heart rate variability?
HRV is an interesting and noninvasive way to identify these ANS imbalances. If a person’s system is in more of a fight-or-flight mode, the variation between subsequent heartbeats is low. If one is in a more relaxed state, the variation between beats is high.
The healthier the ANS the faster you are able to switch gears, showing more resilience and flexibility.
Over the past few decades, research has shown a relationship between low HRV and worsening depression or anxiety. A low HRV is even associated with an increased risk of death and cardiovascular disease.
People who have a high HRV may have greater cardiovascular fitness and be more resilient to stress. HRV may also provide personal feedback about your lifestyle and help motivate those who are considering taking steps toward a healthier life.
How to improve your Heart Rate Variability
Incorporating mindfulness, meditation, sleep, diet and especially physical activity into your lifestyle can enhance your HRV. The HRV can be used to track how your nervous system is reacting not only to the environment, but also to your emotions, thoughts, and feelings.*
Since your HRV pattern is a reflection of how much stress your body is under, virtually all facets of your lifestyle can affect it. Remember that stress is more than mental -- things like illness, emotional hardship, lack of sleep and dehydration are all examples of things that place stress on your body.
Everyone encounters some amount of stress (and some types of stress, like exercise, can be helpful), but it's important to understand how well your body is handling it. If not, you could risk overtraining or pushing your body when it may be best to take a break. And this can quickly lead to feeling burnout, getting sick or just exhausted overall. *