Why high Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is important for your health & hormones
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HRV measures the variation (in time) between each heartbeat. This variation is controlled by your autonomic nervous system (ANS). It works behind the scenes, automatically regulating your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and digestion among others. How much your heartbeat varies is a good indicator of your mental and emotional state.
Your HRV decreases in response to stress and sadness, for example, and it increases when you’re happy.
Heart rate variability (HRV) is considered to be an essential indicator of overall health and longevity. HRV reflects the ability of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) to regulate the heart rate and other bodily functions.
Higher HRV is generally associated with better health, while low HRV is associated with a higher risk of mortality, cardiovascular disease, and other chronic conditions.
Your autonomic nervous system (ANS) controls the regulation of your heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, digestion, and other bodily processes. The ANS has two main branches:
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and
The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS is responsible for the "fight or flight" response, which prepares the body for action in response to stress, danger, or physical activity. The PNS, on the other hand, is responsible for the "rest and digest" response, which helps the body to relax, recover, and regenerate.
HRV is an indicator of the balance between the SNS and PNS, and it reflects the ability of the ANS to adapt to changing environmental and physiological conditions. The higher the HRV, the more flexible and adaptive the ANS is, and the better your overall health and resilience. Higher HRV has been associated with better cognitive function, improved immune system function, and reduced inflammation.
Low HRV, on the other hand, indicates a rigid and dysfunctional ANS, which is less able to respond to stress, recover from illness or injury, and maintain optimal bodily functions.
Studies have shown that HRV is a strong predictor of mortality, cardiovascular disease, and other chronic conditions. Low HRV has been associated with an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and sudden cardiac death. It has also been linked to diabetes, obesity, depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders.
How can you measure HRV?
HRV can be measured using various methods, including electrocardiography (ECG), photoplethysmography (PPG), and other non-invasive techniques like the Oura ring or a Fitbit tracker (you need a premium subscription though).
You can just purchase a heart rate monitor or an HRV monitor: You can find heart rate monitors at most sporting goods stores or online. HRV monitors are more specialized and may be available at medical equipment stores or online.
How is your HRV linked to your hormones?
There is a complex interplay between heart rate variability (HRV) and hormone balance in the body. Your hormones regulate a wide range of bodily functions, including the cardiovascular system, metabolism, immune system, and stress response. Many hormones, such as cortisol, adrenaline, and insulin, have a direct impact on your autonomic nervous system (ANS) and can affect your HRV.
Cortisol is a hormone that is released in response to stress, and it plays a vital role in regulating the stress response in the body. Cortisol can have both positive and negative effects on HRV, depending on the timing and duration of its release. Acute increases in cortisol can cause a temporary decrease in HRV, while chronic elevations in cortisol levels can lead to a more sustained reduction in HRV. This is because cortisol stimulates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which can decrease parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) activity and thus reduce HRV.
Estrogen has been shown to increase HRV in women, which may contribute to the lower risk of cardiovascular disease in premenopausal women. That benefit unfortunately wanes when you approach menopause as does your protection from heart disease.
Progesterone has been shown to increase PNS activity and improve HRV in both men and women. While research on the direct effects of progesterone on HRV is limited, some studies suggest that it may have an impact on ANS activity, which can, in turn, affect HRV.
Progesterone is known to have a calming effect on the ANS, which is responsible for regulating various bodily functions, including heart rate. It stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is associated with rest and relaxation, and suppresses the sympathetic nervous system, which is associated with the fight-or-flight response.
In a study published in the Journal of Women's Health, researchers found that progesterone administration increased HRV in healthy women. The study suggested that progesterone's effect on HRV may be due to its impact on ANS activity.
Thyroid hormones also play a role in regulating HRV. The thyroid gland produces two main hormones, thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3), which play a vital role in regulating metabolism and other physiological processes in the body.
Studies have shown that low levels of thyroid hormones are associated with decreased HRV.
Thyroid hormones can affect HRV through their influence on the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which regulates heart rate and other physiological processes. Thyroid hormones have been shown to influence both branches of the ANS: the fight or flight/sympathetic and the rest & digest/parasympathetic response.
T3 has been shown to increase sympathetic nervous system activity, while T4 has been shown to increase parasympathetic nervous system activity. So thyroid hormones can affect HRV the same way as estrogen and progesterone by impacting your nervous system.
How can you increase or improve your HRV?
Manage stress: Chronic stress can negatively impact your HRV. To manage stress, try relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, yoga, or progressive muscle relaxation. I've just come across this cool app Nucalm that I haven't tried yet but definitely will and wanted to share with you..
Exercise regularly: Regular exercise can improve HRV by enhancing cardiovascular function and reducing stress. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise most days of the week.
Get enough sleep: Sleep plays an essential role in HRV. Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep per night and maintain a consistent sleep schedule.
Eat a healthy diet: A whole-foods and nutrient-dense diet rich in vegetables, quality protein and healthy fat can support a healthy HRV. Avoid excessive sugar, saturated and trans fats, and processed foods. Looking for more guidance? Check out my blood sugar & hormone balancing cookbook.
Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness practices such as meditation and deep breathing can improve HRV by reducing stress and enhancing emotional regulation.
Avoid alcohol and tobacco: Alcohol and tobacco use can negatively impact HRV. If you use these substances, consider quitting or reducing your use.
Seek help: Certain medical conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and sleep apnea can negatively impact HRV. If you have these conditions, seek help from a skilled doctor or functional medicine practitioner to manage them.
Remember, improving HRV is a gradual process, and it may take time to see improvements.
How to do heart rate variability training?
You use a device that measures the variation in time between your heartbeats
Document or journal on what things affect your HRV
Try to change it by trying different things, like thinking positive thoughts, thinking negative thoughts, changing your breathing, and so on to see how your behavior affects your HRV.
Do this for 15-30 minutes a day
This is a great tool you can use for HRV training: Inner Balance Trainer by HeartMath. It hooks up to your phone and gives you immediate feedback in an app, so you can see your progress in real time.