In recent years, the Heart Rate Variability, or the time difference between two consecutive heartbeats, gained a lot of interest.
It has never been easier to check your Heart Rate Variability. Will it be with a smartwatch/fitness tracker, a heart monitor, or even with a smartphone app, measuring the HRV can be done anytime or anywhere.
Some of the often asked questions related to what a good Heart Variability is and how to improve it eventually?
Before dwelling on how to increase the HRV, let’s first remind you what can be learned from this vital and why it matters.
Why does heart rate variability matter?
Heart rate variability (HRV) accurately reflects the various physiological elements that influence the heart’s regular rhythm.
Reduced HRV has been linked to the onset of various diseases, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, inflammation, obesity, and mental problems—more than a simple biomarker of heart health, Heart Rate Variability.
Heart Rate Variability is highly individual, and there is no good or bad value. What matters is to check your HRV trend and make the necessary lifestyle adjustments to limit chronic stress and increase your RR interval.
We will provide you with seven easy tips to follow to control parasympathetic activity and hopefully improve your HRV metrics in the long run.
7 Tips to increase HRV
Heart Rate Variability is the mirror of the autonomic nervous system. Therefore, all of the tips provided have only one purpose: To lower the excitation level of the vagal nerve, hence decreasing the heart rhythm and increasing the HRV.
Although HRV does not differentiate between different disorders, there is a consistent trend of lower HR variability linked to illness.
Limit your alcohol consumption
Already in 1994, studies described a strong association between alcohol consumption and reduced HRV.
The mechanism of action is somehow still debated. For example, some researchers found that the link between alcohol consumption and decreased heart rate variability may be due to an increase in heart rate rather than a central or peripheral effect of alcohol on cardiac vagal nerve activity. For others, alcohol has a negative effect on the autonomic nervous system, and the analysis of HRV may even be used as a biomarker of desire and relapse.
Interestingly, the amount of alcohol needed to induce a significant increase in heart rate and decrease in HRV is small. Just two glasses of red wine are enough to lower the Heart Rate Variability by 28-33%, according to a study conducted in 2009 at the University Health Network and Mount Sinai Hospital Division of Cardiology, Ontario, Canada.
The effects of alcohol on the HRV measurement are also long-lasting. They can still be detected four days after consumption. So if you are regularly drinking, the best way to increase your HRV is to limit your alcohol consumption to just one glass and drink occasionally.
Focus on your sleep
Heart Rate Variability at night carries a lot of information. It is even considered a biomarker of sudden death risk after myocardial infarction.
When sleeping, the heart rate will progressively slow to reach the resting heart rate, leading to an increased HRV score.
Asleep research conducted in 2017 revealed that there was no significant association between sleep duration and HRV. However, high sleep onset latency (the time it takes to fall asleep), poor sleep quality, and sleep medicine usage were linked to a faster heart rate.
Researchers concluded that “poor sleep quality is negatively related to HRV.”
Likewise, the HRV throughout the day might predict how well you’ll sleep at night. In a 2013 research, university student volunteers were asked to keep a sleep journal for a week. All of the student volunteers were deemed healthy participants in their early twenties.
This study indicated that a higher HRV during awake is associated with increased sleep efficiency, commonly defined as the ratio of time spent asleep vs. time in bed.
Improving sleep quality will hence directly impact the Heart Rate Variability.
Exercise regularly at the right intensity
The critical factor for HRV is exercise intensity, with higher intensity eliciting decreased HRV during exercise up to moderate-high intensity, with little change when increased further.
Routledge et al., (2010) showed that Individuals with cardiovascular disease and diabetes improved their HRV by participating in a variety of supervised and unsupervised exercise treatment regimens of varying intensities.
However, the processes behind exercise therapy’s positive alteration of HRV remain unknown.
In a meta-analysis conducted in 2021 and including 21 studies for a total of 523 Type 2 diabetes patients, exercise training was found to enhance HRV measurements, which might indicate increased autonomic nervous system activity.
According to the research, exercise intensity is the critical determinant affecting HRV responses during exercise and post-exercise recovery. Wearable devices such as the Fitbit Charge 5 and Whoop use the HRV as part of their algorithm to predict the state of recovery and provide guidance on whether or not you should train more or give your body a rest.
Regular physical activity is critical for improving the Resting Heart Rate and, in return, benefits from an increased HRV. The critical point is to exercise enough to enjoy the benefits but not to exhaust the body.
A difficult balance to achieve, but that carries numerous physical and mental benefits. In a nutshell, conducting the majority of your exercise below the first lactate (or aerobic) threshold minimizes the body’s stress and inflammatory responses. HRV is lowered by stress and inflammation, but low-intensity exercise will increase HRV.
Take a cold shower
Repeated cold exposure is an effective tool to increase the metabolic rate. This is one of the principles underlying the use of cryotherapy to lose weight.
In 2018, Manuela Jungmann et al., from the University of Luxembourg, Luxembourg, wanted to see if (1) heart rate variability increased and (2) heart rate decreased during cold stimulation using a thermode device compared to a (nonstimulated) control condition.
They applied cold stimuli on the neck of 61 study participants. Cold stimulation of the right lateral neck regions significantly increased heart rate variability. According to the authors, these results were a first step toward developing a cold-producing wearable device to stimulate the vagal nerve, reduce stress levels, and increase HRV.
Without such a commercially available device, a cold shower or cold bath may be a more suitable alternative.
Finland is well known for enjoying cold and hot saunas. However, in 2006, researchers from the Rheumatism Foundation Hospital, Heinola, Finland, found that whole-body cryotherapy increased cardiac parasympathetic modulation and increased HRV similarly to exercise.
According to the American Heart Association, diabetes raises the risk of heart disease or stroke. Thus early detection of problems is critical to lowering mortality. A comprehensive analysis of diabetics found that HRV can assist in predicting cardiac morbidity and death and be used to predict potential difficulties at an early stage.
A growing number of researches show that certain meals, nutrients, and dietary habits affect HRV, indicating that it will help study what we consume.
When it comes to the impact of nutrition, the vast bulk of research has focused on omega-3 fatty acid supplementation.
In 2014, Hansen et al., experimented with increasing the levels of omega-3 through fish consumption.
Participants were randomly assigned to a diet that included salmon three times per week against beef in the control group. Fish-eating caused alterations in HRV that were adversely connected with sleep latency and favorably correlated with a measure of daily functioning.
The Mediterranean diet, which includes fish, is also linked to higher HRV levels. On the opposite, high saturated or trans-fat consumption and high glycaemic carbohydrates have been shown to impair HRV.
The relationships between nutrition and Heart Rate Variability are so strong that Young and Benton suggested that when it comes to the impact of nutrition on mental and physical health, HRV could become the biomarker of choice.
Don’t forget to breathe
According to Li et al., (2018), the rate of breathing is critically important in improving the HRV. From 16 to 8 respiration per minute, breathing exercises and prolonged breathing can shift the sympathovagal balance toward vagal activity to increase HRV and decrease blood pressure.
Breathing exercises, which are basic non-invasive procedures that affect the ANS, can train and develop HRV. For example, resonance breathing is a type of slow diaphragmatic breathing that boosts HRV by activating the vagus nerve, which calms the sympathetic nervous system.
In 2018, a meta-analysis looked at the impact of yoga training on HRV. In conclusion, people who practiced at least 60 minutes of Yoga per week had a substantial increase in HRV and a reduction in stress levels, according to the study.
Reduce your stress
Reduced heart rate variability (HRV) indexes suggest changes in the autonomic nervous system. Autonomic alterations are common in depressed mood states. Thus, they appear to constitute a significant biological substrate connecting melancholy to a variety of medical problems.
One of the best ways on how to increase HRV is to reduce stress. This is, of course, easier said than done. Still, according to a meta-analysis including 42 studies, the regular practice of Yoga can significantly reduce stress and lead to improved HRV.