What Is Heart Rate Variability?

Heart rate variability (HRV) refers to the beat to beat changes in your heart, which research has shown is a reliable indicator of the state of your heart health, and even of both your current state of overall health and your long-term health outlook.

High heart rate variability is associated with good health; low heart rate variability is correlated to an increased risk for health problems.

To fully understand HRV as a window into health, you have to understand a little bit about how your nervous system works.

Partners in Health

Your autonomic nervous system operates without your having to consciously influence it. It controls heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, digestion, organ function, and many other aspects of your physiology.

It has two aspects to it: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. They work together to keep you healthy.

The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) goes into action when there is a threat you need to respond to. Often called the “flight or fight” response, it’s all about action. Then, when the threat has passed, the SNS dampens down as the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) kicks in. The PNS counters the SNS, settling everything down, returning you to a balanced, relaxed state

Ideally, these two aspects of your autonomic nervous systems work as partners, each taking over according to conditions and the needs of your body to respond to those conditions.

Heart rate variability is a measure of how well these two partners are working together. In a bit more technical terms, it’s a measure of the differences in the outputs of the SNS and PNS as evidenced by time variations between heart beats. Computer analysis then returns results that reveal how your nervous is functioning, which indicates how stress is affecting your body, especially your heart.

In today’s modern world, we don’t have too many physical threats, but we do have lots of stress. Mostly, this is psychological—it is our response to an over-stimulating and uncertain environment: traffic jams, busy schedules, job and financial pressures, family responsibilities, a flood of emails and texts, and on and on. Our sympathetic nervous system responds to these conditions as if they were physical threats—it gets revved up, and our system is flooded with flight-or-fight hormones and chemicals.

The trouble is that our stress is constant, so our sympathetic nervous system doesn’t slow down. It dominates, overriding the parasympathetic system and so we rarely go back into that balanced, relaxed state that should be our normal state. Over time, this stress response has detrimental physical effects. (Read the “Stress: The Silent Killer” page to learn more about the health consequences of chronic low-level stress.)

In a nutshell, heart rate variability is a measure of how in balance—or out of balance—your nervous system is. When your sympathetic nervous system is continually in a high state of arousal, heart rate variability decreases and your risk of heart disease and various other health conditions increases.

The Importance of Coherence

Although scientists thought for a very long time that the autonomic nervous system was beyond our conscious control, they have been proven wrong. We can consciously shift our system back toward harmony and balance, to a state called “coherence.” Another way to look at heart rate variability is as a way to gauge physiological coherence.

Coherence is just what it sounds like—everything is working together in a coordinated, effective way. There is communication between all systems. In your body, coherence means your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are partnering for health, your cells and organs are working together and “communicating” well, so that your body works as nature intended it to. Coherence is a mark of reduced stress and vibrant health and well-being.

It’s simple to increase your physiological coherence. See the “Stress: The Silent Killer” page for some simple techniques to help achieve coherence. But here is what the effects of coherence look like in terms of your body. The chart at left shows measures of breathing, heart rate variability, and blood pressure. You will notice that the tracings go from jagged and chaotic on the left to rhythmic and more ordered on the right. The tracings on the right are what coherence looks like in your body, and they represent an increased state of health.

One of the easiest ways to shift from a state of incoherence to coherence is through your emotions, or your state of mind. When you are frustrated, angry, depressed, or otherwise stressed out, all the systems of your body respond accordingly, showing the stress response, which is a state of incoherence. But simply shift your
attitude—toward appreciation, gratitude, love—and you will see your

parasympathetic nervous system respond, relaxing all the systems of your body, especially your heart, and sending your entire physiology into a greater state of coherence. As you can see in the charts on the lower left and right above, the state of your heart as shown by ECG measurement shifts dramatically when you shift your attitude and generate positive emotions (in this case, from frustration to appreciation). That shift toward coherence happens in only minutes.(Charts courtesy of HeartMath.org)

Your body truly is a reflection of your state of mind. The good news is that you do indeed have some control over your physiology, and you can influence your state of health no matter what you are facing in your life.

Are Your Ready for HeartQuest?

A simple, quick and non-invasive way of determining your stress level—and, more importantly, how your body is dealing with that stress—is through a measure of your heart rate variability. At Integrative Life Solutions, we use the HeartQuest system. A scan takes as little as five minutes, and the system returns not only your heart rate variability measure, but how HRV is affecting your body in various ways. It provides you a comprehensive look into both the state of your current health and the outlook for your long-term health.

See the “HeartQuest: Getting to the Heart of Health” page for more about the system and how you can empower yourself with important health information by having a heart rate variability scan.


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