Have you ever simply stopped and wondered just how important your heart is? It’s but a simple muscle organ working non-stop for decades, completely independent from your mind, and even a 15-second pause can leave you unconscious, 5 minutes – dead. Furthermore, most people do not check their heart status until it’s too late, and some pathology has already developed. So why do they act like this? Well, it is considered cumbersome and not worth the time. But even though it may have been like this, thanks to the ever-evolving technologies, every ordinary citizen now has the opportunity to screen its heart. The only requirement is to use an HRV measurement device, measure heart rate variability here and subsequently analyze the chart to get your HRV score meaning.
Because of the usefulness of HRV, it is especially astonishing and sad to see prevailing ignorance of this topic. Not many people understand the general concept of normal heart rate variability, and even fewer can give a correct answer to the questions like “What is a good HRV number?”, “What does low HRV mean?” and “How to increase HRV?” Furthermore, there are certain HRV health and more specific HRV breathing links that should be explored. So, let’s jump into educative action regarding heart rate variability features, subtleties, and implications.
Measuring heart rate variability
What is heart rate variability?
Heart rate variability (acronym – HRV) is a novel cardiovascular measure that tracks the variance of the intervals between the heartbeats.
What causes heart rate variability?
The variance of beat-to-beat intervals is caused by the tender balance between two branches of the nervous system. Imagine it like this: there are sympathetic neurons that exist to mediate “fight-or-flight” reactions and parasympathetic neurons, which, in their turn, mediate the “rest-and-digest” pattern. The brainstem formations additionally regulate both types of these neurons.
While the sympathetic branch is active, it throws all the available resources to the essential organs, among which the first is the heart. That means the heart beats faster and at constant intervals to ensure a consistent flow of blood to the brain and muscles. On the other hand, the parasympathetic branch allows the heart to relax, slowing it down. In this scenario, the heart’s pacemaker cells wedge into the rhythm, making it variable.
Indeed, the perfect situation where just one branch is active is impossible, yet a parasympathetic system should be prevailing most of the time. Therefore, HRV keeps high. Sympathetic influence should only take over in times of stress, which is unfortunately far too common nowadays.
The device to measure HRV
Traditionally, HRV measurements were gathered after a deep analysis of an electrocardiogram. It may still be a golden standard, yet there is no denying that this method is quite cumbersome and impractical – there is no way you can do this on your own!
Due to the technological breakthroughs, though, everyone now has access to easy in-house measurements with the help of a chest strap heart monitor (to gather essential data) and health-tracking app like Welltory to do all the brainy math stuff.
Clinical implications of low and high HRV
Both low and high heart rate variability status directly result from the influence of sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, respectively. Therefore, the primary assumption is that they should correctly reflect your body and mind’s situations.
For example, it is normal for your HRV to be low when exercising (due to physical load) and high during relaxation and sleep. Consequently, if you notice your heart rate variability being too high during demanding situations or low during rest, be wary of this. This can be a sign of chronic stress.
There are some exceptions, though. Although, for example, athletes and trained people, in general, tend to have lower HRV, the basis for such a phenomenon lies in the following: their muscles become more effective in energy consumption. Therefore they require less oxygen; therefore less heartbeats are needed; thus, HRV is increased. Additionally, the heart muscle is also trained and can send more blood volume with each pump.
This is where a fitness app will come in handy. After some observation, its sophisticated algorithms will decide what is normal for you – and which measurements are abnormalities.
Ways to improve your HRV
Gathered statistics suggest that optimal physical load can ensure an HRV improvement in healthy adults. Furthermore, being more fit and always trained positively influences cardiovascular and psychological status, helping you deal with anxiety, chronic stress, insomnia, and burnout.
Getting quality sleep
You should always try your best to sleep at least 6 to 8 hours – it’s a medical axiom. Of course, it sounds cliche and is easier said than done but should be reminded of nonetheless. Sleep is crucial to your organism’s systems of self-regulation, which can easily be disrupted without it. Indeed, there are situations when accomplishing some task before that scary deadline is more urgent and takes the highest priority – but such cases should be kept to a minimum. If necessary, rethink your time management strategy.
Another cliche advice that should be easy to follow, yet surprisingly many people can’t. You should drink at least 1.5 liters of water per day – more depending on your physical load – and that number excludes food. The strategy of trusting your feelings won’t work – during the hectic and stressful day at the office, for example, you won’t feel thirsty – there will be another neural dominant taking up all space in your brain! Notice that water, in this case, means exactly water – not tea, not coffee, and definitely not sweet soda.
Embrace natural sunlight
Your brain needs the body’s exposure to natural sunlight to correctly regulate the circadian rhythms and induce the synthesis of various hormones, which, in turn, regulate how your energy levels throughout the day-night cycles. Additionally, ultra-violet rays hitting your skin are essential to the production of vitamin D – the substance responsible for the proper calcium balance, which can modulate your neural excitability and bone hardness.