Sun, 17 March 2019
When things run well, we often assume, they run regularly. From the pistons in a car to the daily changes in the tide, we often expect that processes run optimally when they progress or move forward in the same or a uniform way. Or if they change, the change is gradual and moves slowly from phase to phase – like the seasons or the way the sun rises and sets. One important body function is an exception!
WHAT WE TALK ABOUT:
Heart rate variability (HRV) is a strong indicator of health – of good mental and physical health as well as the potential or resiliency of the body to survive problems, stressors, and illness. It’s a big topic but today I want to introduce the concept and make you aware of what it is and how it can help you both short and long-term.
Your heartbeat is controlled by your body’s autonomic nervous system (ANS). This system runs and regulates parts of your system that are always “on.” Things like your breathing, digestion, blood pressure and heart rate. The autonomic nervous system itself is divided into two main aspects: the fight or flight response or the relaxation response.
When the autonomic system is relaxed, the heartbeat becomes more variable, demonstrating resilience and flexibility. In contrast, the “fight-or-flight” version of the autonomic system is triggered by stress (caused by an unhealthy emotional or physical conditions). If this stress response of the autonomic system is maintained, heart beat variability decreases as it moves to a more consistent high pitch. This racing heart beat is a symptom of high stress and is also an indicator that the body is being pushed towards an unhealthy and brittle state.
It makes sense, then, that healthy heart rate variability would be an indicator of a person’s ability to bounce back from severe illness – and indicator of that person’s resilience. And, indeed, it is. One recent study showed that subjects suffering from cancer who had decreased heart rate variability were strongly associated with shorter survival time.
This great indicator of overall health is surprisingly easy to access and read by being in tune with your body. It’s essentially your pulse. As you’re feeling your pulse, you’ll notice that time between heartbeats increases when you exhale and decreases when you inhale. If there are some good differences between the two, congratulations: you may have healthy heart rate variability!
A large range of heart rate variability is a sign of health and resilience. The resilience pertains to both mental health and physical health, especially the potential to survive bouts of severe illness.
Heart rate variability: the variation in the time interval between heartbeats.
Autonomic nervous system: This system runs and regulates functions in your body that are always “on” and work without conscious control. This includes your breathing, digestion, blood pressure and heart rate
Sympathetic nervous system: part of the autonomic nervous system that activates the “fight or flight” response.
Parasympathetic nervous system: part of the autonomic nervous system that helps to slow heart rate, relax the sphincter muscles and increase intestinal and glandular activity.
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Angela J. Grippo, "Opinion:“Heart Rate Variability, Health and Well-Being: A Systems Perspective” Research Topic," Frontiers in public health 5 (2017): 246, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpubh.2017.00246/full, accessed January 2019.
Oura Crew, “What Is Heart Rate Variability and What You Can Learn from It,” Oura, September 14, 2019, https://ouraring.com/heart-rate-variability-basics/, accessed January 2019.
Marcelo Campos, “Heat rate variability: A new way to track well-being,” Harvard Medical School Publishing, November 22, 2017, https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/heart-rate-variability-new-way-track-well-2017112212789, accessed January 2019.
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