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Tracking HRV: Spying on the autonomic nervous system.



Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is the window into our autonomic nervous system. This means, we can look at the HRV value and get an idea of our general well-being. The higher the number, the better. The trouble is, we don't quite know what are appropriate cutoff numbers. The science community is still figuring this out. But what we do know is, when you start tracking your own HRV value, you start to learn which lifestyle choices are in your health-and-wellness favor, and which aren't so great and should be done sparingly. Here is a great scientific article about HRV on Pubmed.


Quick brainiac lesson: Our autonomic nervous system is comprised of our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Overall, it dictates our arousal, blood pressure, heart rate, digestion, breathing, and sexual arousal. These are all important for our survival as a species! Our sympathetic nervous system is going all the time. It is known for our flight or fight response. We also have a freeze response that's slightly different but wanted to give it a mention. Our parasympathetic nervous system pumps the breaks for our sympathetic nervous system. It is responsible for the rest, digest, and heal functions in our body. When parasympathetic is working well, we have a higher HRV because there is more variability of our heart rate during inhalation and exhalation. Heart rate is higher during inhalation and lower during exhalation.


How can you find out what your HRV is? Unfortunately, you need equipment. That's just how it is. The good news is you have options! Here are a list of what's out there to my knowledge:


  1. The Apple Watch: Tracks average HRV.

  2. Many GPS or fitness tracking devices. Read the find print to find out which models provide HRV tracking because not all of them do. Some brands out there are Whoop, Fitbit, Garmin, Coros, Suunto, Oura, Polar, and many more. They track average HRV.

  3. Elite HRV: This app is great because it shows your HRV in real time (biofeedback!). Your HRV is forever fluctuating from moment to moment. This app helps you watch your HRV improve with vagus nerve stimulating exercises/activities and watch it plummet when you're staring at your computer while you're not breathing (in my case!). The only bummer is, you have to purchase a wrist band or chest band separately. They share the links to those devices on their website.


So you find out your HRV is low. What can you do? Here are some of the many ideas that are out there:

  1. Breathing exercises.

    1. Make your exhales longer than your inhales.

    2. Nasal Breathe.

    3. 4-7-8 Breathing as designed by Dr. Weil

    4. Diaphragmatic breathing

  2. Good Sleep.

    1. This deserves its own article. Coming soon!

    2. By the way, if you snore, you aren't getting good sleep. If you don't wake up feeling restful, you aren't getting good sleep.

  3. Healthy food and drink choices.

    1. Link up with a registered dietician to help navigate this territory.

  4. Mindfulness

    1. Apps like Headspace and Calm are great ways to have a guide through meditation

  5. Regular exercise that you enjoy

  6. Time spent with people you love (in person!)

  7. Humming and gargling

  8. Vagus nerve mobilization with your favorite PT ;)


Did you look at this list and see some areas that could use some focusing? With some great manual techniques, I can help you with airway, diaphragmatic breathing, vagus nerve mobility, and visceral mobility. Just schedule an appointment and I would be happy to help!


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