The human body is often compared to an instrument. When you’re healthy, it’s a well-tuned one. And when you’re sick, it needs a little fine-tuning.
But your body is more than an instrument – it’s an entire symphonic orchestra. When all the various sections of the orchestra are in harmony, the music produced is beautiful. But when someone starts playing out of tune, dissonance strikes and the unpleasant sounds become unbearable. In your body, disease is dissonance.
So how can you tell when your body’s systems have stopped working well together?
At MaxWell Clinic, we use a method called heart rate variability (HRV) assessment on all our new patients. A better way to describe this is a stress tolerance and resiliency analysis. In this article, we’ll discuss what HRV is and what it can tell us about your health.
What is Heart Rate Variability?
Your heart rate is the number of heartbeats per minute.
But your heart is not a metronome.
Instead, it’s constantly fluctuating based on a variety of factors. It’s slower when you’re relaxed or sleeping and faster when you’re active or feel threatened. Your breathing patterns and age can also affect your heart rate.
Heart rate variability is the change in time intervals between two consecutive heartbeats.
HRV can also indicate the presence of health problems, ranging from mental health issues to reproductive issues.
In fact, mounting evidence from research studies supports the value of using HRV as a measure of your behavioral flexibility, resilience, adaptability, and ability to self-regulate.1
In other words, HRV is a great indicator of your overall health.
Heart Rate Variability: More Than Heartbeats
As reactive as your heart is, it doesn’t know when to react on its own. Instead, it relies on your brain.
Your brain feeds your heart information about your surroundings, telling it when it should speed up and when it should slow down.
The part of your nervous system that connects to your heart is called the autonomic nervous system (ANS). This complex network of cells controls many involuntary functions that maintain homeostasis – or balance – in your body. A few of these functions include:
- Heart rate
- Body temperature
- Blood pressure
- Sexual responses
- Production of bodily fluids, such as sweat
Your ANS consists of 2 subsystems, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system, which regulate your body’s response to stress.
The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the “fight-or-flight” response. Like the gas pedal on your car, this collection of neurons gears up your body ready to a stressor. A faster heartbeat, higher blood pressure, and rapid breathing are all changes that occur when your sympathetic nervous system is activated.
What’s more amazing is that these responses don’t require your conscious thought. In fact, they happen so quickly that you might not have a chance to process what’s happening until after the danger passes.
Continuing with the car analogy, you can think of your parasympathetic nervous system as the “brake.” It calms down your revved-up body, returning your heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure to their normal state.
The Importance of Your Autonomic Nervous System
So if much of what the ANS does is unconscious, why do you have to be concerned about its health?
Because poor ANS health can indicate disorder in your body.
Appropriate ANS activity is critical for body composition, circadian function, immune response, stress response, and sleep.2-12 But certain injuries or medical conditions can affect its function, including:
- Damage to parts of the brain14,15
- Parkinson’s disease16
- Fabry disease17
- Certain infections17
- Certain autoimmune disorders like Guillain-Barre syndrome17
- Chronic liver diseases17
All systems in your body are connected to one another. That’s why a dysfunctional ANS can give rise to a wide range of symptoms, such as:
- Decreased pupil size17
- Erectile dysfunction17
- Fixed heart rate17
- Fast resting heart rate17
- Cold extremities17
- Inability to sweat normally17
- Accelerated aging19
The Heart-Brain Connection
Perhaps more common than the medical conditions listed above, however, is chronic stress.
As described above, your body has a natural ability to deal with short-term stress on its own. But with the hustle and bustle of today’s world, we’re under more stress than ever. Chronic stress puts your body in a constant “fight or flight” mode, throwing off the balance between your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
It’s the equivalent of putting – and keeping – your foot on the gas pedal.
Your emotions can also have a considerable effect on your ANS, and therefore your HRV.
Negative emotions, such as anger or worry, and unhealthy lifestyles can create uneven or erratic patterns in your HRV. Irregular patterns suggest that the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems may not be balancing each other out as they should.
A smooth, healthier HRV pattern can be seen in people who practice healthy lifestyle choices and experience positive social interactions. Positive emotions create harmony in your heart’s rhythms and your brain. Your body’s other systems sync up to this rhythm, which is also known as coherence.
Coherence is a state of increased harmony in your mental/emotional and bodily processes. Being coherent can lead to:
- More mental clarity
- Better appetite control
- Increased creativity
- Better problem solving abilities
- Improved muscle relaxation
Simply put, coherence is the state of optimal function.
This effect may be in part due to oxytocin, a hormone naturally released in response to positive stimuli like warmth and touch. Research has shown that oxytocin increases parasympathetic control over your sympathetic branch activity, resulting in anti-stress effects.20
This means positive emotions, like love and appreciation, not only make you feel good – they’re also good for you.
To sum it up – your ANS plays a vital role in ensuring your body’s functions are in sync with one another. And HRV gives us a peek into the health of your ANS. Seeing your heart rhythms in real-time allows you to quickly change your reactions, increase your coherence, improve productivity, and improve your overall health.
What To Expect During Your HRV Assessment
Our HeartMath HRV assessment gives us a window into the health of your autonomic nervous system. The assessment is a quick, 100% non-invasive procedure.
To ensure we get the most accurate results possible, we ask that you do the following prior to your appointment:
- Fast for at least 2 hours prior to your visit, although 4 hours is ideal.
- Avoid strenuous exercise for 12 hours prior to your visit.
- Avoid using tobacco products or caffeine for 12 hours prior to your visit.
On the Day of Your Test
During your test, we’ll ask you to relax and lie as still as possible.
Once you’re situated, one of our trained technicians will place a small sensor on either your earlobe or finger. This sensor communicates with our HRV assessment software.
The technician will obtain a baseline reading first. He or she will then ask you to relax, utilizing the method you feel is most effective for you. This can be recalling a time and/or place when you felt joy or appreciation. Try to re-experience that feeling – the more vividly you can recall the experience, the more relaxed you’ll be.
Next, the technician will explain paced breathing – a slow, deliberate breathing technique that helps relax your body. To do paced breathing, inhale to a count of 5 and exhale to a count of 5.
Paced breathing is done to measure the changes in your HRV as your body moves into coherence. Our goal is to increase the amount of coherence you sustain and track your progress with each session.
Once the exercises are finished, we will review and discuss your results with you.
HRV Assessment: What Your Results Mean
The HRV assessment transforms your heart rhythm data into a graphical representation, called the Stress Scoring Power Spectrum Graph.
The 3 “zones” of ANS function visible on the Stress Scoring Power Spectrum Graph are:
- Very low frequency (VLF) – fight or flight (sympathetic ANS), associated with a frequency of less than 0.04 Hz
- Low frequency (LF) – zone of balance and coherence (sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are in balance), indicated by a frequency of 0.04 to 0.15 Hz
- High frequency (HF) – digestion and sedation (parasympathetic ANS), indicated by a frequency higher than 0.15 Hz
How do you know if your HRV is good?
Here are some key basics:
- Variability: More variability is good. A higher HRV is a reflection of your adaptability, which means you tend to be more positive and less stressed. A low HRV indicates poor resilience. It can indicate the presence of an existing health issue or something that can become an issue down the road.
- Amplitude (wave height): A higher amplitude is better. Your HRV amplitude is highest when your expiration rate takes as long as your inspiration rate.
- Total LF Power Spectrum: A Total LF Power Spectrum value clustered around 0.1 with higher total power is better.
- Resting heart rate: Lower is better.
- LF to HF ratio: The LF to HF ratio serves as a guide to estimate the balance between your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. A rise in this ratio after eating starchy foods is negatively correlated with body fat content. A greater rise equals better body composition. This means that the better you can maintain ANS balance after eating sugary foods, the better your body composition will be.
- The BMI (body mass index) factor: Increased BMI is associated with decreased HF and LF bands and total power. This means that as someone gets more overweight, there is less power in the LF range.
Don’t worry if this sounds confusing! We will explain your results so you know exactly where you are and exactly what to do to improve your HRV.
Restore Harmony in Your Body with Nashville Functional Medicine
We understand how important your autonomic nervous system is to your overall health. That’s why an HRV assessment is performed as a part of all our new patient consultations. It’s also one of the extensive diagnostic tests included in our comprehensive MaxWell Care plan.
MaxWell Care is a 3- or 12-month program designed to identify the root causes of your health concerns and start you on a path towards maximum wellness.
If you’re in the Nashville area and are looking for a healthcare approach centered around you, reach out today. Schedule a free call with our New Patient Coordinator here. We look forward to seeing you soon.
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