Heart Rate Variability, The Fascinating Indicator of Your Heart and General Health

Good health means not just working out and eating healthy; you need to monitor your vitals, such as Body temperature,  pulse rate, breathing rate (respiration), and blood pressure. Your body is a complex network of systems, and within this complexity lies the fascinating phenomenon of heart rate variability (HRV). You may not have heard such a term before, but measuring your heart function isn’t just about an EEG or an ECG; HRV or Heart Rate Variability offers a more comprehensive understanding of health and well-being, it is a valuable marker of  cardiovascular disorders such as Hypotension, cardiovascular disease and the risk of heart attack. HRV is extremely significant in today’s fast-paced lifestyle, and by understanding yours, you can do much to improve your health.

What is Heart Rate Variability

Heart rate variability is the variation in the time intervals between your heartbeats. These intervals fluctuate slightly and are extremely small to detect by regular monitoring devices. These variations are regulated by the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which controls involuntary bodily functions such as heart rate, digestion, and respiratory rate. Your ANS, which includes your brain and nervous system, supports your heart, where your senses relay information to your brain about everything happening around you. The brain, with a hotline to your heart, signals it when to work slow or faster.

The ANS Consists of Two Branches:

  • SNS (sympathetic nervous system): responsible for the body’s “flight or fight” response in a stressful situation. In a stressful situation, your body’s adrenaline levels increase, helping you react faster; this increases your heart rate to pump more blood and oxygen into your muscles in case you need it.
  • PNS (parasympathetic nervous system): Promotes a “rest and digest” response when relaxed and recovering. The PNS takes over after the SNS response, telling your heart to cool down and relax, your blood pressure decreases, and your body systems turn normal.

Both PNS and SNS systems work together to maintain a balance in the body, and this balance is one factor reflected in heart rate variability.

The Importance of HRV

Your HRV is an important indicator of your ability to recover from stress. Those with a higher HRV are generally considered healthier individuals with optimum ANS function. When your ANS functions well, your heart adapts faster to changing situations to manage stress and relaxation. In contrast, low HRV is often associated with stress, anxiety, and a higher risk of various health issues, including cardiovascular diseases, metabolic disorders, and psychological problems. High HRV means faster recovery from intense physical or mental activity, while Low HRV means your body struggles to return to its normal relaxed state.

Low HRV is usually considered a sign of existing or potential health problems and is common in people with a higher resting heart rate. The faster your heart beats, the less the chances of variability, and it is often observed in conditions like hypotension, diabetes, heart arrhythmia, asthma, anxiety, and depression. Studies have found how low HRV has been shown to be independently predictive of increased mortality in post- myocardial infarction patients, and heart failure patients.

Factors That Influence HRV

Several conditions and situations can impact the level of HRV, including Age. Your heart rate changes depending on your activity, beating faster when stressed, active, or in danger and slower when at rest or relaxed.

  • Stress: Chronic stress leads to a reduced HRV, which negatively impacts your general health.
  • Physical Activity: Exercise increases HRV, evidence of good cardiovascular fitness.
  • Sleep Quality: Sleep is vital in maintaining a healthy HRV. Lack of quality sleep leads to reduced HRV and increased stress.
  • Age and Gender: HRV usually decreases with age and varies between genders. However, healthier individuals with a good diet and physical activity can maintain a good HRV.

How To Measure HRV

Modern medical technology has made it possible to measure HRV and make it accessible to people. Heart monitors, smartwatches, and other wearable devices are integrated with photoplethysmography (PPG) or electrocardiography (ECG) to measure heart data and analyze HRV. Several mobile applications use a smartphone camera and flashlight to measure your HRV from a fingertip pulse. But, while they may not be 100% accurate, they offer some insight into the status of your HRV to help you make healthy lifestyle changes. Devices that offer better accuracy are those worn by athletes, which wrap around the chest or look like an oximeter that measures blood oxygen and pulse levels.

From a medical point of view, the EKG can accurately detect heart rate variability using sensors attached to your chest. Your healthcare provider may also provide a strap-on heart monitor to track your HRV for longer.

Normal Levels Of HRV: What Is a Good Number

HRV is not easy to interpret because it decreases by age and varies from individual to individual. Your doctor or healthcare provider is the best person to help you understand your HRV and what to do about it. In most cases, an abnormal HRV isn’t always a medical emergency, but it indicates your existing health and can indicate health issues or future problems. Normal HRV can range anywhere from below 20 to over 200 milliseconds, depending on various factors such as age, sex, physical fitness, and genetics; studies have found that HRV can even change with the season.

A common range of HRV for 20-29-year-olds falls in the 24-62 millisecond range; 45-year-olds are around 35-60,  while the mid-range of HRV for 60-69-year-olds is closer to 16-28. Females of the same ages see a similar dip, from about 45-90 to 30-55. The preferred number for a good HRV is 50ms; however, measuring HRV can be extremely confusing. You must monitor your HRV over a certain period to determine your baseline or average number. HRV at night is the ultimate metric of heart health.

HRV At Night Is the Ultimate Metric of Heart Health

Heart rate variability is best measured when you sleep. This is because your HRV is unaffected by internal or external factors like exercise or mental stress. Moreover, being an extremely sensitive metric, HRV can be affected by drinking a glass of water, going to the bathroom, or watching TV. Sleep provides a clean window to measure and keep track of your HRV over a certain period to deduce your general health and whether you are stressed or relaxed.

How To Improve Your HRV

  • Get Enough Sleep: According to research, the magic number for sleep is 7-8 hours. Sleep is important for a good HRV, but not just sleep; you need deep sleep. Deep sleep is an important stage of the sleep cycle, without which you aren’t sleeping. Ensure you get at least 7-8 hours of sleep a day. Working professionals rarely get this much, but if you value your health, at least ensure you get more than 6 hours of sleep at that time of night, making it easier to fall into deep sleep.
  • Deep Breathing: Activating your parasympathetic nervous system can help you escape the fight or flight response. Perform deep breathing exercises for 10-20 minutes per day. It will help you take control of your body and stop the stress hormone. You could also meditate in a way that works best for you and combine it with deep breathing.
  • Hydration: Your body is about 60% water, critical for performance and well-being. Try to drink at least 2 liters of water per day.
  • Stress Management: Stress will be a major part of your life, but it doesn’t have to control your health. Performing stress-busting activity increases how you manage stress and adapt to situations better. What seemed very stressful for you earlier in time becomes a normal activity that needs getting over. Incorporate relaxation techniques into your daily routine, such as meditation, yoga, or spending time in nature. Mindfulness is a great way to combat stress.
  • Regular Exercise: A sedentary lifestyle triggers almost every health condition, including poor HRV. Engage in moderate aerobic exercises for at least 30 minutes most days of the week to boost cardiovascular health and HRV. According to international guidelines, you need at least 150 minutes of moderate to intense weekly activity.
  • Healthy Diet: Consume a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins with more fresh fruit rather than fruit juice. Lay off processed foods, fried snacks, sugar-rich treats, and colas as much as possible, and don’t forget to eat a good healthy breakfast
  • Be Social: Being a loner is not good for your well-being, but being a party animal is just as bad. Cultivate meaningful relationships and social support, and meet up with friends occasionally because social interaction can positively influence mental and emotional well-being, ultimately affecting HRV.

Your Take Away

Heart rate variability is an accurate and in-depth indicator of your general health. You can improve HRV by caring for your body and mind through exercise, good nutrition, and sleep. A health checkup is recommended annually.

At Enso Integrated Medicine, we understand the factors that impact your heart health which is why our model of health and cardiac care support comes with a comprehensive package to ensure optimum cardiovascular support and care. You might want to give us a call to know more.