How does heart rate variability affect your health?

September 20, 2022 in Complementary & Integrative Medicine, Wellness  •  By Michael Scott, ND, MSA
heart rate variability

If you wear a fitness tracker, you may have noticed a category you’re not familiar with—heart rate variability (HRV). We talked with Brad S. Lichtenstein, ND, BCB, BCB-HRV, a member of our Medical Advisory Board, naturopathic physician, and a former professor and clinical faculty member at Bastyr University about what HRV is and how it can affect your health.

Dr. Lichtenstein has a strong clinical and teaching focus on developing psycho-emotional-spiritual health while dealing with chronic, life-challenging illnesses, and trauma. In addition to his private practice, he speaks nationally on topics ranging from stress-reduction, mindfulness and health, mind-body approaches to healing trauma, and issues surrounding end-of-life.

PinnacleCare (PC): What is heart rate variability?

Dr. Brad Lichtenstein (BL): A person’s heart rate is the number of times the heart contracts in one minute. Heart rate variability is the variation in time between those heartbeats. Many people think our heartbeats are static and the time between each beat is the same. However, unless you have a pacemaker, no one’s heartbeat stays static. Your heart rate is constantly in a state of flux, continually increasing and decreasing depending upon the situation.

PC: How does HRV impact health?

BL: A healthy heart is variable. The heart’s variability means your body is adapting to different circumstances you face. When HRV was first measured, scientists found that a decrease in variability correlated to an increase in mortality and morbidity in people with cardiovascular disease. Low HRV metrics correlate to the body being less resilient. Those studies found that if HRV decreases, that could be predictive of a future heart attack. It is a sign that your cardiovascular system is compromised.

PC: What should people do to improve their HRV?

BL: It’s an extremely complicated issue. There are numerous factors that influence HRV including age, gender, sleep, conditions like heart, lung, and kidney disease, anxiety and depression, overuse of alcohol and caffeine, and even overly intense workouts. Sleep especially has a profound effect on HRV. Even one hour of sleep loss can radically impact HRV.

The autonomic nervous system, which includes the parasympathetic and sympathetic branches, is the regulator of our heart rate. The parasympathetic nerve puts on the brakes of the heart. When you’re experiencing chronic stress or drinking too much caffeine, those activities increase sympathetic dominance, which prevents the heart from slowing down.

Anything that is restorative and helps your parasympathetic system is going to increase your HRV.

PC: Are there recommended practices to help people with HRV?

BL: Breathing exercises are very powerful in regulating HRV because every time you exhale, your vagus nerve communicates with the heart and slows it down. You should take slow breaths of about 5 seconds in and 5 seconds out because, as your exhale, you’re putting the brakes on your heart rate and, as you inhale, you’re releasing those brakes. This regulates your HRV in a healthy way. This practice can also help lower your blood pressure and reduce the incidence of hypertension.

PC: What harmful behaviors should people avoid that negatively affect HRV?

BL: One is dehydration. Be careful about your intake of caffeinated beverages and alcohol, as all these substances can cause dehydration and alcohol increases everyone’s heart rate, thereby decreasing HRV measurements. Movement throughout the day will also improve your HRV. And sleep has a significant impact on HRV. Keeping a strict sleep schedule can be very beneficial to increasing your HRV.

PC: If someone wanted to improve their HRV, who should they look to for guidance?

BL: There are so many fitness trackers on the market and these devices aren’t bad, but unless you’re also tracking the different aspects of your lifestyle as well, like diet and sleep patterns, your data isn’t going to be very useful and useable.

Some apps allow you to keep a journal, which helps you track your lifestyle in conjunction with your heart rate. Most people tend to bypass this function, but it’s the most important aspect of those apps. Without that lifestyle data, you’re not getting a fully accurate measurement of your HRV.

Talk to a biofeedback practitioner or someone who’s well-versed in HRV training to help guide your selection and use of a fitness tracker. Just getting data for data’s sake can actually create more anxiety instead of helping improve your HRV. One easy way to find a practitioner is to go to the certifying body for biofeedback, BCIA. Ask providers where they got their training and what their background is. A health advisor can also help connect you with an experienced provider.

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