Your central nervous system affects so many different parts of your body, and whether you are operating from the sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous system will determine your overall quality of life and health. When the body is operating from a state of rest-and-digest (parasympathetic mode), proper digestion occurs, the immune system is able to fend off intruders, and the other life-sustaining processes are able to be carried out.
Suppose the body is operating in a constant state of fight-or-flight. In that case, the body focuses its energy on being able to flee if necessary, putting the other vital processes on the back burner. Measuring your heart rate variability is one way to tell if your body is operating from a parasympathetic or sympathetic state. With this information, you can work on getting your body into a healthier state.
What Is HRV?
As the heart beats, the amount of time between heartbeats isn’t the exact same. These fluctuations between heartbeats are measured to determine heart rate variability. The fluctuations are undetectable unless they are measured with specialized devices. Heart rate variability can be a good indicator of current or future health problems. People with mental issues, including depression and anxiety or heart conditions, often find their heart rate variability is lower than people who don’t have heart or mental health conditions.
How is heart rate variability measured?
HRV measures the variance in times between heartbeats. For example, if your resting heart rate is 60 beats per minute, it’s not consistently beating once every second. Within the 60 seconds, there may be one heartbeat and then 0.8 seconds until the next one, and then 1.20 seconds until the next one. Generally speaking, the greater the heart rate variability is, the healthier your body is and the better your body is able to handle stress. Heart rate variability is highly individualized, and a “normal” measure depends on many factors. As people age, heart rate variability decreases dramatically. 20-25-year-olds can have an average measure in the 55-105 range, but 60-65-year-olds tend to measure between 25-45.
Does Anxiety Affect HRV?
When a person experiences stress, it can have a ripple effect on the body. The person’s heart rate can increase with a minimum of 1 beat per minute. Men and women observe similar heart rate changes due to stress, but their resting heart rate in response to stress can be negatively impacted as people age. Those in the age group 29 years and younger can experience an adverse reaction in 58% of occasions. Ages 30-49 will experience it around 60%, and ages 50-59 can experience it 64% of the time.
In regards to heart rate variability, women are more susceptible than men to report unfavorable side effects of stress. Anxiety can greatly impact heart rate variability, as people who suffer from anxiety also can experience heart palpitations, racing heart, and arrhythmia. Learning how to cope with chronic stress can be monumental in affecting heart rate variability and the overall quality of one’s life. Luckily, there are many things you can do to reduce stress or your body’s response to stress, therefore helping increase your body’s resilience.
What Causes A Decrease In HRV?
As people age, their heart rate variability naturally decreases, but other factors can cause a decrease in heart rate variability. In addition to stress, intensive training, sports, and competitions can cause a temporary decrease in heart rate variability. Some more unique scenarios can also decrease heart rate variability, including the body’s exposure to heat, noise, and pain. When the body is exposed to heat, noise, or pain, it can activate the sympathetic nervous system. Exposure to cold generally doesn’t affect heart rate variability. Heart rate variability declines in situations of stress, but can increase with rest.
An interruption in circadian rhythm can also cause a decrease in heart rate variability. When the body is under stress, the circadian rhythm can be affected as well. Lab work has shown higher inflammation levels in people with lower heart rate variability. Middle-aged men that don’t have autonomic dysfunction or cardiovascular disease but did have a decreased heart rate variability had higher levels of c-reactive protein and IL-6 on lab work.
How Does Stress Affect Your Heart Rate?
The heart rate increases when the body is under stress, whether it be acute or long-term. During periods of stress, the body releases stress hormones including adrenaline, which can have an impact on heart rate. The heart rate speeds up and blood pressure rises in response. Some people may experience heart palpitations or arrhythmias. Many people have found that when they lower their amount of stress and increase their body’s resilience, they experience a better overall quality of life and are able to naturally reduce their resting heart rate. In turn, this can also have a positive effect on heart rate variability.
Tips On Reducing Stress
There are times when experiencing stress is unavoidable, but you can always control your response to stress. Life is stressful enough without having to worry about your health. There are some things you can do to help increase your health and happiness, and most of them will cost you nothing more than your time! Practicing mindfulness, doing yoga, and following proper breathing techniques can all help increase your body’s resiliency to stressful situations. While these are extremely effective, they can be harder for some people to achieve. Here are some easily attainable goals to help lower your stress levels.
Spending Time With Your Family
Spending quality time with loved ones is a great way for the body to get into the parasympathetic nervous system. When spending time with those you love, your body gets a “dose” of positive neurotransmitters including dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins. These are all chemicals that have a direct influence on our overall happiness. When the body releases these chemicals it affects the body on both mental and biological levels.
When you exercise, your body naturally releases endorphins, which can help decrease mental health issues and increase overall mood. Interestingly enough, the perception of pain can be reduced with the release of endorphins. Endorphins are responsible for triggering a positive feeling in the body. Regular exercise has been linked to better sleep, self-esteem, and a reduction of stress. It has also been shown to lead to an improved heart rate variability at any age.
While many people think that consuming alcohol makes them feel better, it actually acts as a depressant and can affect more than mood. When you reduce your alcohol consumption, you are making a healthy choice for your body. It’s been shown that consuming alcohol can cause heart rate variability to drop while the resting heart rate increases. This leads to more sympathetic stimulation and parasympathetic activity.
Caffeine can have a direct effect on heart rate, and it usually causes it to increase. When people consume caffeine, the heart beats faster, by about three beats per minute, while blood flow also accelerates. Some people are very sensitive to caffeine, and it can cause heart palpitations. The effects from caffeine can be noticed in as little as fifteen minutes, and can take up to six hours to wear off. Stress and caffeine are both responsible for elevated cortisol levels, which has been associated with negative health effects.
Making sure you eat a diet full of healthy foods like good quality meats, fruits, and vegetables is imperative to your overall health. When you eat a healthy diet, you can lower levels of inflammation in the body. Lower levels of inflammation are linked to a higher heart rate variability. Taking supplements is a great way to help fill nutritional gaps and increase your longevity. High quality supplements may help to improve your heart rate variability.
Why Tracking Your HRV is Important
Tracking your heart rate variability is a great way to keep an eye on your overall health and be aware of any current or future health concerns. When you measure your heart rate variability, there are a few factors to keep in mind to get the best readings. When you measure your heart rate variability, it’s best to measure while your body is in an upright position. If you measure your heart rate variability while lying down, it can cause parasympathetic activation, which can give a false result. Good posture and proper breathing can also impact the reading. Variations can vary from day to day, so tracking your heart rate variability over time is a good idea to get a baseline.
Lowering Stress Can Only Benefit Health
Stress is detrimental to the body in more ways than one, and keeping an eye on your heart rate variability is a great way to be aware of your overall health. When you lower your stress levels, you’re only going to increase your body’s resiliency and longevity. Whether you start eating better, exercising more, or track your heart rate variability, your quality of life is likely to increase as you notice positive results in your life.