Most people know that meditation benefits the mind, but the benefits extend far beyond the mind to the whole body, including the heart. Meditation may help reduce heart disease risk, according to studies performed over the last two decades. For those at a higher risk of heart disease, regular meditation may help reduce that risk while also helping calm the autonomic nervous system.
The practice of meditation includes sitting in a comfortable position with your eyes closed while focusing on a mental image, breathing, a phrase, or guided imagery. The goal is to keep the mind focused on the present moment and not wandering to the past or future. Over time, the mind will become easier to focus, and focusing on meditation will be less work. Meditation positively affects the autonomic nervous system and heart health, and one of the ways this can be tracked is by measuring heart rate variability.
What is Heart Rate Variability?
Many people know what measuring heart rate means but may need to familiarize themselves with what heart rate variability is. While heart rate measures how many times the heart beats in a specific time, heart rate variability tracks the variation in time between heartbeats. Unlike heart rate, having a higher heart rate variability is a sign of a healthier autonomic nervous system and heart; having higher heart rate variability shows that the body is more capable of handling stressful situations. One study showed that lower heart rate variability is linked to higher cardiovascular disease and increased stroke or heart attack risk.
An area in the brain called the hypothalamus processes information constantly. The autonomic nervous system sends signals directly to the hypothalamus, instructing the body to relax or become stimulated. Any information that it receives, it responds to. If you have a negative interaction with someone, don't have a good night's sleep, get exciting news, or are enjoying a delicious meal, the hypothalamus responds. The body can handle stress, but when it's under a large amount of pressure for a long time, its fight-or-flight response may become activated and stuck on overdrive. If this happens, your heart rate variability will generally be lower than someone whose rest-and-digest parasympathetic branch is mainly activated.
How Does Meditation Affect Heart Rate Variability?
There is hope if you think your body is stuck in sympathetic mode. With regular meditation practice, you may have success in improving your heart rate variability. If you've measured your heart rate variability and it's lower than you like, there are steps you can take to improve it. One study found that people who meditated just five minutes each day for a period of ten days had higher heart rate variability scores when compared to people who didn't meditate. As a bonus, people who meditate have a lower blood pressure than those who do not.
If you've never meditated before, starting with just five minutes a day is a great start, and then you can build up time as you become more experienced. Some people meditate for hours on end and have to start somewhere. Establishing a consistent meditation routine can help you, and meditating at the same time each day can be helpful to get the body and brain used to the process. Doing even a few minutes of meditation is better than nothing. You may notice more benefits beyond improved heart rate variability scores as you build up your meditation time.
The Benefits of Improving Heart Rate Variability through Meditation
Your body has the innate wisdom to heal and work properly, and it has many features and systems to help it adapt to stress and life situations. Measuring your heart rate variability can be a good reflection of your body's adaptability. Having a highly variable heart rate shows that your body can adapt to different stresses and changes. People who are happier and less stressed generally have higher heart rate variability measurements than those who are depressed and more stressed.
Low Heart Rate Variability
As a general rule, having a low heart rate variability measurement can be a sign of current or future health problems because it reflects your body being less resilient to stress and struggling to adapt to changing situations. People with higher resting heart rates have lower heart rate variability scores because when the heart beats more, there's less time between the heartbeats. When you meditate, you may find that conditions like heart arrhythmia, high blood pressure, anxiety, asthma, depression, and diabetes resolve because the autonomic nervous system is spending more time in the parasympathetic branch, where it can spend its time healing the body.
How to Use Meditation to Improve Heart Rate Variability
Some people enjoy meditating for long periods of time, while others can only get their brains to focus for five minutes at a time. As you begin to meditate, you may find your brain wandering from the meditation to other thoughts, and that's normal. The more you meditate, the easier it will become, and your brain will get used to focusing and relaxing. When you start meditating, you can sit and focus on the present moment with your eyes closed, or you can listen to a prerecorded meditation to help keep your brain focused.
As you meditate, you can help your brain clear away information overload that can build up throughout the day that can contribute to stress. When you meditate, you may notice the following:
- A new perspective on situations
- Greater resiliency to stress
- Increased self-awareness
- Less anxiety
- Reduced negative emotions
- Increased patience and tolerance
- Lower resting heart rate
When your body is more relaxed and able to handle stress better, your heart rate will generally slow on its own, which can immediately help improve your heart rate variability score. Some people find that their body is stuck in the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. As they meditate, they may notice their body operating more in the parasympathetic nervous system. As a result, they can handle stress better, and their heart rate variability score can significantly improve just due to meditation. Starting at a lower time can be good, and build up one minute every day until you're at a time period of meditation that is working well for you.
Other Lifestyle Factors that Can Affect Heart Rate Variability
If the autonomic nervous system operates correctly, heart rate variability can increase while you do rejuvenating activities like meditation, sleep, or rest because the parasympathetic mode dominates. On the other hand, when the sympathetic mode is activated, heart rate variability decreases because the energy is diverted to help the body deal with stressful situations. If you're under chronic emotional, physical, or physiological stress, this can affect your heart rate variability. Throughout the day, your heart rate variability fluctuates and reflects how much stress you are under at any given point.
Is Stress Bad?
Stress isn't necessarily always bad, and some stress is good for the body. Every person in the world experiences various sources of stress at some point in their lives, and it's individual as to how each person's body deals with stress. During exercise your body is under physiological stress, and you're intentionally allowing your body to go through this process. Your heart rate variability is expedited to be low since you are activating your body's sympathetic mode in order to help the heart pump more oxygenated blood to the body because it is needed to power muscles. If you have a chronic illness or certain diseases, you may notice your heart rate variability measurements are lower than you like.
Work On Improving Your HRV
After you take your first heart rate variability measurement, you will have a good baseline as to the overall health of your body. Even if your heart rate variability measurement is ideal, practicing meditation won't hurt your body at all, and you should notice positive benefits. Using a wearable tracking device is an excellent way to track your measurement yourself, and then you can work on improving that score if you need to. Improving your health is always a good thing and a key to a long, healthy life!