The world’s technologies and inventions are becoming more sophisticated by the minute. And even though we are still pretty far away from the technological singularity. It’s gradually harder for ordinary citizens to keep track of all the latest novelties, especially in the white noise of mainstream media and soulless content. Logically, it is best to understand that the world is moving forwards – with or without you – and that you should try your best to keep up, lest you want to be left behind. You may not even know it, but the solutions to your problems could have already been found.

For example, it is quite possible that you are suffering from excessive chronic stress – a natural consequence of post-industrial urban life. However, there is a modern solution created to be the best way to assess your daily stress and, therefore, be able to fight it. This solution is called Heart Rate Variability (HRV).

A myriad of questions is following this revelation. First, what is heart rate variability? How to measure HRV and choose a heart rate variability measurement device?

Here is a brief remark:

  • To measure heart rate variability, the apple watch will do just fine here.
  • Which program is the best heart rate variability app? – the Welltory app – providing the heart rate variability chart of the highest quality.
  • Next, what is good heart rate variability, and how to improve mine?
  • Finally, what is HRV mean to my daily life? You will find the answer here. All of them will be responded to in due time.

What is heart rate variability?

It is easy to track your health status at home these days. Almost every household has portable floor scales to assess weight, a smartphone able to identify just how many steps today have been done, and a tonometer to look whether the arterial blood pressure is in check. Now, heart variability is joining them as a possible predictor of body resilience and flexibility. Let’s have HRV explained.

The HRV definition is as follows: it is a measure of how much the time between two heartbeats varies from beat to beat. Take notice, the intervals between heartbeats are never totally identical, and even with a perfect heart rate of 60 bpm, you are not getting 1 second flat between each heartbeat. It’s just that the average heartbeat interval during the measurement is 1 second. Therefore, heart rate variability assesses just by how many your intervals differ from this 1-second mean.

Physiological background

Heart rate variability as a physiological phenomenon is caused by the two kinds of pulsations simultaneously inducing heartbeats. These pulsations are produced by the heart’s pacemaker cells and autonomic nervous system (ANS), respectively.

Pacemakers are quite complicated

Pacemaker cells can be described as a short circuit within the heart that generates electrical impulses that send a wave of depolarisation, effectively resulting in a heartbeat. Pacemaker cells are divided into primary (sinoatrial node, generating 60-80 BPM) and secondary or ectopic (atrioventricular node, generating 40-60 BPM, and bundle of His – 30-40 BPM).

Heart Rate Vector Design Element Over White

The sinoatrial node is responsible for a heartbeat by default; secondary pacemakers are only taking part in an emergency when primaries are, for some reason, “turned off.” So, to conclude, pacemakers are responsible for your “normal” heartbeat. Since pacemaker impulses are seemingly random to the naked eye while they are working on their own, your HRV is high.

The autonomic nervous system isn’t simple as well

As an umbrella term, the autonomic nervous system describes all the nervous activity that is not conscious and can’t be regulated by higher nervous activity (= sheer power of will). ANS includes two main branches – sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. They are antagonistic both in nature and functionality – here’s how.

Sympathetic nervous system

The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) regulates “fight-or-flight” responses in dangerous or stressful situations. The organism is ready to do whatever it takes to survive. Yet, a lot of energy is required for such activity – the breathing becomes more rapid, the heart beats faster, and nutritive reserves of carbohydrates and fat dissolve and enter the bloodstream.

Additionally, all of this enriched blood is diverted to the organs crucial to surviving – brain, heart, lungs, and muscles) – while other systems are avoided, their functionality is temporarily halted. Amazingly enough, SNS can even block “useless” pulsation – you don’t need to know you’re hurt, hungry or desperate to urinate while fighting for your life.

Parasympathetic nervous system

The parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) regulates the “rest and digest” pattern and focuses on the accumulation of resources and wound healing. It calms down the lungs and heart, diverts blood where necessary to refuel and heal the body, and induces the anabolism of nutrients. PSNS kicks in when you are relaxing after a day’s hard work.

What does HRV tell you?

When PSNS kicks in, it slows your heart more than the “pacemaker normal” value, with the corresponding increase in HRV value. When SNS kicks in, the heart speeds up, and HRV decreases. There is no place for variability when every beat may be decisive for life-saving.

What does HRV tell you? As a rule of thumb: higher HRV means slower heartbeat means lower stress. And vice versa.

How to measure Heart Rate Variability?

HRV data is essentially a statistical calculation done on the sizable sample of your heart rhythm. The classical old school way to do this is to analyze long strips of electrocardiograms, then calculate the data to get HRV in ms. Needless to say, this is an extremely time-consuming and non-practical method, though it can result in the most accurate results.

The push has made HRV way more available to the general public in recent years. Today, to know your HRV, you simply need a hardware device to track your heart rhythm and a piece of mobile software to do all the statistical calculations.

Hardware

To track your heart rhythm and gather cardiovascular data, you need to use some kind of tracking device. The market variety in both the cost and accuracy is pretty wide – see for yourself.

Smartphone camera

Smartphone cameras are de-facto-free – it is not a stretch to say everyone owns a smartphone nowadays, after all. With the proper software, a camera can detect the micro-changes in the skin color, and every change to red correlates positively with a heartbeat. Thus, a heart rhythm can be drawn. The downside to this method, though, is its obvious and inherent inaccuracy.

Fitness watch

Smartwatches (including Apple Watch) detect how much the soft tissues of the wrist are filled with blood by sending beams of green light to the skin multiple times a second and analyzing just how much of them reflected and returned. This method is a significant improvement upon smartphone cameras inaccuracy. Moreover, it requires just a little investment (or none altogether, should you already have a smartwatch – like a lot of people).

Chest heart trackers

Chest heart trackers gather the rhythm data by capturing and analyzing the discrepancies in electric potential caused by the myocardial depolarization waves. In this way, they are really close to the classical electrocardiography while being way more practical – you can walk, run, or do any other exercise in them without any discomfort.

Chest heart trackers are the most accurate. For this reason, they are typically used by athletes during training. Their downsides are that they are nonetheless mildly inconvenient – at least way more than watches and require a small investment to be made.

Software

Health-tracking apps for HRV measurement are no less variable than hardware. There are, however, fewer actual differences between them – it mostly trickles down to different user interfaces and design language, seasoned with the magic of marketers. Therefore, the best starting choice for a novice in heart rate variability would be the most straightforward, user-friendliest app before venturing into more profound and complex stuff. Just remember – user-friendliness and simplicity do not necessarily mean ineffectiveness. Look at Welltory, for example.

Welltory is considered the friendliest HRV app on the market – not without basis. Its conclusions are divided into neat submenus of Performance (your overall HRV stats), Energy (evaluation of the PSNS), and Stress (same assessment of the SNS). It is pretty simple to catch a grasp of how these work and what they mean. In addition, the app is free-to-use for basic measurements of this kind, and it has the software to use a smartphone camera for measurements! These facts combined lead you to the apparent thought – trying out Welltory requires literally no monetary investment, borrowing nothing but a few minutes.

What does HRV mean?

Ok, it has already been established that HRV reflects the balance of sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. And, therefore, the impact of stress. Well, then, what should normal, average HRV be? Better yet, compared to which thresholds are individual notions of high and low HRV determined? Furthermore, what does high HRV mean and its implications on the health prognosis?

There is now epidemiological data aplenty regarding the average HRV values, which will be expanded further. However, it is worth saying that these statistics mean nothing to the individual. After all, your normal, average HRV is the one you’re having while totally relaxed and laid-back.

Therefore, only consider your HRV higher or lower compared to your personal average. This is where a health tracking app will come in handy. In combination with fitness watch or heart tracker, it can easily compile weeks’ worth of your cardiovascular data to determine just your norm and notify you when you are out of expected values.


Average HRV by age

Still, average HRV by age should definitely be mentioned for comprehensive completeness. Let’s start with the description of the width of average values – normal HRV can be ranging from 20 ms all the way up to 200. According to the data collection of fitness app, 25-year-olds are averaging at 78, 35-year-olds – at 60, 45-year-olds – at 48, and 55-year olds – at 44. A trend of HRV lowering along the aging can clearly be noticed, and it’s presumed that’s due to the fact of SNS becoming weaker as people age. There is also, quite interestingly, almost no gender difference – 65 average for men and 62 for women.

The meaning of high HRV

High HRV, meaning high variance of beat-to-beat intervals, bears some additional connotations. For instance, high HRV can be caused by a lack of stress or be a byproduct of a well-trained athletic body. The mechanism of the latter interaction is as follows: a trained body is more effective in metabolism (requiring less oxygen to operate while resting) and simultaneously has stronger heart and chest muscles, bringing more air with each intake and pushing more blood with each heartbeat. Because of this, the heart beats slower while resting, and a slower heart means higher HRV.

Rationally, people with high HRV are more resilient to stress – both physically and mentally. HRV provides beneficial feedback on how your routine impacts your health status and can also be an excellent motivator for those considering setting on the healthier path. A direct connection of HRV to the incorporated life changes – like mindfulness, meditation, quality sleep, regular exercise – can be easily seen, which is a perfect way for all data-loving geeks to be able to assess their progress freely.

Good HRV

Most of the time, normal heart rate variability during sleep equals high HRV equals good HRV. However, the range for high HRV is pretty wide – it’s anything over your average values, as discussed earlier. High HRV, after all, presupposes that your organism is at its peak responsiveness to both the SNS and PSNS. It is a sign of steady HRV balance, which results in your organism being able to adapt to and overcome any external factors, maintaining optimum Performance.

On the other hand, low HRV can be a good thing as well – it all comes down to the context. While HRV is low, SNS pulsation prevails over the PSNS, which is immensely useful in running a race or after a pickpocket. You need your blood in the legs, not digesting the food – and it will be done as ordered.

But if you are experiencing low HRV that clearly does not match the external situation, something is going wrong. Your body is still working hard – you just don’t know why exactly, which can be caused by fatigue, dehydration, stress, or illness. Due to this, less energy remains at the disposal to exercise or compete successfully.

Out of this, another perspective of high HRV can be seen. It means that the sympathetic branch is totally inactive and can result in a bigger effect when kicking in. It’s like a balance of kinetic and potential energy – and with high HRV, you are sitting at maximum potential.

What affects HRV?

To better explain Heart Rate Variability and what affects it, predetermined physiological factors that influence your heart rate should be kept in mind, like age, gender, or circadian rhythm pattern. For example, HRV increases significantly in the deep sleep phases and decreases just before waking up. HRV is also considerably affected by lifestyle, overall somatic health, and the cerebral cortex’s reactivity. Correct HRV must be taken into account in short time measurements ranging from a couple of minutes to a few hours.

What affects HRV the most?

The nervous system affects HRV the most. It obviously decreases during stress, but stress can also be a false positive if your mental status is unstable – the cortex is not able to correctly determine what should be considered “stressful” and what should not. You may have been in such a situation when you are pretty nervous without any obvious reason for this nervousness.

However, the nervous system can also have warped, decreased perception of surroundings when not overreacting but rather underreacting. The common example of this is people being drunk and lacking proper awareness about external threats, not understanding all the danger, like rabid dogs – or criminals.

HRV changes

Actual heart rate variability is never a staple on changes after every heartbeat, so it is practical to use averages like daily HRV. HRV day-to-day changes are based upon the overall activity throughout the day and the amount of endured stress. Stress can be external – from outside situations and interactions, and internal, caused by organism disturbances – poor nutrition, alcohol, and nicotine consumption or illnesses.

What causes a decrease in HRV?

A decrease in HRV means the active onset of the sympathetic nervous system, mediating fight-or-flight response. This onset is triggered to combat factors that want to throw you out of balance – homeostasis.

Should your HRV be high or low?

High HRV is overall favorable since it means that your organism is feeling itself alright, accumulates the resources, and has the reserve to engage should the danger arise. While resting, your HRV should definitely be high. On the other hand, low HRV is useful when you need to excel, persevere, and struggle.

How does alcohol affect HRV?

Alcohol decreases your HRV in many ways. To begin with, ethanol is quite literally a poison, so the sympathetic nervous system engages itself upon the poisoning, feeling that something went wrong. Additionally, the chemical properties of alcohol lead to dehydration of the body, throwing it further off balance. Finally, alcohol severely decreases sleep quality, making the organism unable to rest and recover properly.

Tips on getting healthy heart rate variability

It pays back to know how to improve heart rate variability. Still, however, do not get too confident upon having constant high HRV or devastated upon having low – the HRV research is in progress, after all. Instead, a better mindset is to think of HRV as a small practice piece of health data, providing valuable insight into the functionality of your autonomic nervous system.

Here you will also find a useful article with Top 10 Health tips you must follow to improve your HRV as well.

Exercise and train appropriately

Completed research suggests that regular exercise improves the HRV considerably, making your organism more prepared and harden overall. Still, it is no less critical for sportspeople to avoid overtraining. In the short term, exercise, a considerable physical load, decreases HRV. So naturally, it is always advised to supplement training with proper rest.

Good nutrition at the right times

Obviously enough, a healthy diet with enough of every kind of nutrients and microelements is beneficial to the HRV. What a lot of people do not realize, though, is that the timing of food consumption also matters, and very significantly at that. Consider it like this – if the body knows when exactly food will be arriving, it will prepare the digestive tract appropriately for swift and quality chemical digestion. Do not eat close to the bedtimes – it will make organism allocate too many resources onto food.

Hydrate

Hydration defines the overall volume of water in your body, consisting of main blood volume and intercellular liquid volume. Main blood volume is homeostasis constant and is maintained at all costs. Therefore, should you be dehydrated, you will quickly notice the transfer of intercellular fluid into blood volume, resulting in, for example, dry skin, lips, and mouth. It reminds me of when stress kicks in. In addition, dehydration is harmful to your body, also decreasing HRV.

Don’t drink alcohol

The harmful influence of alcohol on the body and HRV is mentioned above. After alcohol consumption, HRV drops by 22 ms on average the next day, and this influence usually lingers for 4 to 5 days.

Sleep well and consistently

Getting enough sleep to recover will undoubtedly affect you positively, but you should also sleep regularly according to circadian rhythms. Needless to say, 8 hours of sleep from 11 pm to 7 am is not equal to 8 hours from 4 am to 12 am – everyone has empirically felt this at least once in a lifetime. So by sleeping along with circadian rhythms, you will boost your HRV and also get more deep sleep.

Natural Light Exposure

It seems miraculous, but observing the dusk and dawn with your own eyes helps trigger positive reactions associated with circadian regulations, energy levels, and hormone synthesis, which will improve your alertness and overall energy levels. Additionally, ultraviolet rays from direct sunlight are required to synthesize vitamin D – vitamin, which regulates the mineral balance in the body and keeps bones healthy and strong.

Cold thermogenesis

Exposing your body to the factors of marginal tolerance is beneficial once in a while. For instance, cold temperatures from ice showers or baths will stimulate the nervus vagus – the central nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system – and bring back a corresponding response.

Intentional breathing

A medium body of research suggests that slow, controlled breathing positively impacts HRV. There is a grain of empirical truth there – breathing techniques are actively helping fight stress, which is a significant HRV inhibitor. Consequently, learning a couple or two breathing techniques may be helpful.

Mindfulness and meditation

Additionally, mindfulness and meditation practices may also lead to improvements in HRV, though there is only anecdotal evidence available. It is suggested that its efficacy is based upon the same indirect mechanism, as with intentional slow breathing – by reducing stress.

Gratitude Journaling

There is a simple mental technique: on the dawn of each day, write down the things that you are thankful for. This simple act will make you delighted and easier, help you understand how precious your life is, and increase HRV!

Image Source: BigStockPhoto.com (Licensed)

 

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