As American Heart Month takes place in February, many people spend this month checking their fitness trackers and giving a little more thought to their cardio wellness, but no matter what time of year it may be, your heart will be working hard for you in the background.
There are a number of ways to track heart health, but despite more than one-in-five of us using some type of wearable technology that monitors our fitness, how much do we really understand about the data displayed before us? One such section that has many people glazing over is the HRV info, and yet it is an essential piece of data in terms of how you are doing physically, and even mentally.
Fortunately, it will only take a few heartbeats to learn the principles behind Heart Rate Variability, as M&F put the pertinent questions to Dr Dave Rabin, a medical professional who has studied the impact of chronic stress on the body for 15 years. He’s also Co-Founder and Chief Innovation Officer of Apollo Neuroscience, the company behind the Apollo wearable device, designed to give patients a way to help heal mental and physical health issues through touch.
Many readers may understand from their wearable tech that HRV is a measurement in milliseconds, between heartbeats, but how is this tracked and when should it be best monitored?
The traditional way is with an ECG (Electrocardiogram) machine in a lab that is electromagnetically shielded when the individual is at rest. Most people can’t achieve this at home so the way they measure HRV is through their phones, smart watch, or wristband. The most accurate devices are probably the Oura Ring because it does a very nice job of measuring heart rate only at rest, when you are sleeping, which is the most accurate time to measure it. It then averages the periods of rest. It’s close to around 95 percent or more accurate, compared to EGC.
Apple Watch is probably second from there in terms of accuracy of HRV. It is important to note that this does not necessarily benefit you on a daily basis, because what we do each day changes the HRV for that day, and so wearables that track HRV over time are better interpreted as week to month trends rather than daily tends.
What does heart rate variability tell us, and why should we pay closer attention to it?
Heart rate variability is important because it is our most accurate measure of recovery in our bodies. HRV is the rate of change of our heartbeat over time. When we are exercising or under stress, our heart rate goes up. When that happens, the amount of time between each beat goes down. And when that happens, there’s less variability.
Then when we get back to a place of safety or recovery, our heartbeat is supposed to slow down quickly. Here, HRV goes up because the time between each beat increases, because our bodies have successfully transitioned into the recovery stage. If the heart rate is still elevated during this time, this is a sign that our bodies or our brains are still thinking that we are under threat, and that is not good for us because it means that the body and the brain is now allowed to recover because it perceives that there is still a threat present. So, HRV, tracked over time, in weeks and months, can be a really great indicator for helping us understand how well we transition out of stress states, and recover.
In terms of recovery, what is the connection between HRV and sleep?
What we can infer is that if your average HRV is 100 milliseconds and this week your HRV is 30 milliseconds, this means that you probably haven’t been getting enough restorative sleep. Deep sleep and REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep are the best ways that we can improve HRV.
Aside from lack of sleep, what else can interfere with our HRV’s ability to recover?
Alcohol and drug use. Alcohol use, in particular, decreases our HRV as do sedative drugs in general because they decrease the quality of our restorative sleep. They basically prevent the body from recovering efficiently.
What are some of the numbers that we should be looking out for?
HRV is hard to put a specific number to. On average, we want our HRV to be over 40 milliseconds and we want that to be trending upward month by month. If we have a bad day, that’s OK. A bad week is also ok, but we want it to be trending upwards month by month, even if just 1 millisecond per month up. There is no known peak to HRV. I think HRV is an excellent metaphor for human potential.
Having a HRV number that is below 30 or 40, consistently over the course of your life, presents an increased risk of all major illnesses; metabolic and mental. That includes cardiovascular disease, it includes injury, orthopedic diseases, fatigue, pain, and inflammatory related diseases. It also includes mental illness. So, although HRV is a biomarker that comes from heart function, it actually has been shown to predict all of these issues. HRV predicts illness that is not unique to just the heart. So, we should be working to improve our HRV as much as possible and to trend it upwards week by week, month by month. It’s a really good goal to have.
What benefits could we expect from increasing our HRV?
Resilience. So, being able to bounce back quickly from stress, being able to recovery more quickly, having more energy, more focus, and adaptability to overcome challenges more easily. These include physical, mental, and emotional challenges. Having a high HRV is a sign that we are more likely to perform consistently well. We are less likely to get sick including colds and chronic illnesses. We are also more likely to be present and empathetic around those who we are interacting with. We may be less selfish, and less survival orientated.
Finally, what advice would you give to someone who is really looking to chase their Heart Rate Variability potential?
Practices like meditation, mindfulness, yoga, healthy mounts of exercise but not overtraining, breathwork, soothing music, and using soothing touch technologies like the Apollo, which can increase REM sleep, deep sleep, and getting to sleep quicker, all help the mind and body to remember that it is safe. The Apollo was
developed out of my research for the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh, and their medical centers. We figured out how to use soothing gentle vibrations, that can be delivered by a small wearable, anywhere on the body. The effects are just like you holding your own hands, or getting a hug from someone. This sends a safety signal to the body that reminds our rest and digest (parasympathetic) recovery nervous system to turn on. Apollo has been show to actively increase HRV.
If you can help the body to remember that it is safe, and help the mind to remember that it is in control, then we can almost completely eliminate a sense of stress. All these techniques are critical, because they are all things that we can do on our own. In addition to that, feed ourselves good quality food that is not toxic, and doesn’t have pesticides or contaminants. These are the things that, through practice, improve our HRV more than anything else.