How Can We Increase our Heart Rate Variability?
And why do we want to?
In the West, we worry about heart disease. But in ancient belief systems – like Taoism and the tenets of Traditional Chinese Medicine – they worry about the heart in a different context.
In Taoism, equilibrium is achieved by nurturing the heart-mind – the balance between educating the mind and educating the heart, and it’s more than metaphorical.
The “xin” in the heart mind refers to the literal heart (and the literal mind, but that’s beside the point.) The teachings of Taoism explain that if the heart is healthy and balanced, that condition will extend to the rest of the senses.
And in TCM, the heart is considered “the king” of all organs. It doesn’t just dictate the health of the rest of the organ systems…
It dictates the health of your consciousness, the level of your resilience, and your ability to metabolize your experiences. Of the five systems in the body, the heart system is heralded as the most important in TCM – both philosophically and physically.
There’s one metric we can use to measure physical heart health (and endless, myriad methods by which we can measure philosophical heart health): HRV, or heart rate variability.
HRV: the literal variance in between each individual heartbeat. This variance is regulated by the autonomic nervous system (ANS), the primitive department of our nervous systems that performs its work without our conscious input.
First, let’s understand why HRV is such an important indicator. Then, we’ll get into how we can improve it.
Aren’t Heartbeats Supposed to Be Regular?
The old adage about a healthy heart mimicking a metronome isn’t accurate. There is – and is supposed to be – constant variation in the number of milliseconds in between heartbeats.
It’s important here that we don’t confuse HRV with heart rate, which is the number of times your heart beats per minute and fluctuates with our level of activity, our diet, our stress, etc.
There is, however, a relationship between heart rate and HRV. Typically, the interval between beats gets longer when your heart rate slows down and the interval between beats gets shorter when your heart rate speeds up.
We want higher HRV… and here’s why.
Sympathetic Nervous System Activation: This is the fight-or-flight arm of the ANS responses – we want to be careful of how often we’re engaging this branch and for how long. That’s because of the biological cascade triggered while we’re in this mode – stress hormones, physical tension, suppression of the impulse-control centers of the brain, etc.
When we’re in our sympathetics, HRV is lower to prepare the heart for a possibly active response: fighting, exercising, running, etc.
Parasympathetic Nervous System Activation: This is the rest-and-digest arm of the ANS responses. We should be striving to live in this mode as often as possible, as this is where our body’s healing capabilities are best supported and homeostasis can be achieved. We can think most clearly while this branch is engaged, as well.
When we’re in our parasympathetics, HRV is higher to allow the body to reach a calm and even equilibrium once the “threat” is over and the body can recover.
So we know that we want to live in a state of higher HRV rather than lower. If a person is chronically stressed or ill, they’re likely spending most of their time in a sympathetic nervous state, with lower HRV, higher heart rate, and a constant outpouring of stress signals.
How do we keep our HRV high, then?
Tips for Raising HRV
Mix and match as much as possible, but here are some proven methods to raising your HRV and retraining your body to thrive in homeostasis and out of sympathetic mode.
Intentional Breathing/Meditation: Sustained and focus breathing exercises, or meditation (if you can) have been proven not only to lower stress but to raise HRV. The key is to make your breathing practices regular and controlled, especially if you can implement them whenever you notice your stress increasing.
Sleeping in Line with Circadian Rhythm: Sleeping enough is vital, but it’s equally important that you keep your sleep schedule natural and consistent. When you sleep and rise at the same time every day, your body spends more time in REM and deep sleep, which gives you your best chance at healing as well as raising HRV.
Abstain from Alcohol: As much as possible! Drinking alcohol lowers your HRV the next day, and may actually continue to suppress HRV for the next 4-5 days. The body’s response to alcohol is pretty hectic, and lowered HRV is just another reason to reconsider boozing.
Cold Showers: Before you panic, you only have to shower in cold water for the last 30 seconds or so of your shower time in order to experience this benefit! Even that short amount of exposure to cold water has been shown to raise HRV because, perhaps shockingly, the heart slows down in the cold.
Mediterranean Diet: Proper nutrition has a vast array of powerful effects on the body, but the Mediterranean diet, in particular, seems to be productive in raising HRV. A higher intake of saturated fats and processed foods is associated with a lowered HRV, while the heavy omega-3 and healthy oil content of the Mediterranean diet are often found coupled with higher HRV.
This is certainly not a complete list of viable ways to raise HRV, but it is a wonderful start to help you bring the HRV biomarker to the top of your mind.
Less stress, more rest-and-digest!