Find a quiet place and take a seat. Now find the pulse on the thumb side of your wrist and just feel it. Now take a deep breath in through your nose and then breathe it out through your mouth. What you should feel is that your pulse quickens when you breathe in and slows when you breathe out. This is a normal physiologic process and shows the adaptability of our bodies homeostasis.
The measurement of the difference between our fastest heart rate when breathing in and our slowest heart rate when breathing out is called Heart Rate Variability (HRV). In general, we want to have a high HRV which means our body has a higher ability to adapt to different situations in our environment. Adaptability in any part of our physiology is a sign of health. We want to be metabolically flexible so that our body can adapt to burning fat or carbohydrates when it needs to, we want to be neurologically flexible and able to use different brainwaves in different situations, and we want our nervous system to be flexible so that it can give us the proper body wide response to what is happening in our environment. HRV is the single best measurable marker of balance in our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS).
The ANS has two states in which it needs to keep balanced, the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches and the regulation of them is unconsciously taken care of by the body, hence the name “autonomic”. The sympathetic (fight or flight) is revved up when we find ourselves in stressful situations and the parasympathetic (rest and digest) is more active in less stressful situations. They should always be in balance, but especially in stressful situations. Our sympathetic nervous system should never get revved up without a concurrent but lesser stimulation of the parasympathetic. If this gets out of balance it can lead to symptoms of heightened stress like insomnia, digestive issues, sexual dysfunction, chronic inflammation,1 and even predispose you to a heart attack.2
HRV is one of the best tools for being sure our ANS has a healthy balance. The higher your HRV score the better balance and stress response you have in your nervous system. A healthy HRV level is one of the best indicators of true health. If your HRV is too low it means that your parasympathetic nervous system is either not being stimulated enough or being overwhelmed by an overactive sympathetic nervous system. Luckily, if your HRV is low there are many things you can do to help stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and restore balance.
The list of what does this is long, but some of the best things that do this are expressing gratitude, having deep meaningful relationships, being in contact with nature, and building healthy supportive communities around you. There are also many more physical things you can do that will stimulate parasympathetic activity like getting proper sleep, laughing, getting a massage, singing, deep breathing, yoga, tai chi, meditation, prayer, fasting, gargling, acupuncture, stimulating your gag reflex, cold therapy, PEMF therapy, grounding, music, and getting a chiropractic adjustment!3
If you feel like you are stressed, which all of us are, and that your stress is contributing to symptoms then consider tracking your HRV. Companies like Heartmath, Biostrap, and Elite HRV are making this easy for everyone to do. Also remember to do things every day to increase the health of your stress adaptation response.
1. Anagnostis, P., Athyros, V.G., Tziomalos, K., Karagiannis, A., Mikhalildis, D.P. (2009). The Pathogenic Role of Cortisol in the Metabolic Syndrome: A Hypothesis. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 94(8), 2692-2701.
2. Cowan, T., MD. (2014). What Causes Heart Attacks. Townsend Letter,67-70.
3. Nichols, H. (2017, December 29). 32 Science-Backed Ways to Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve - Well-Being Secrets. Retrieved from https://www.well-beingsecrets.com/vagus-nerve-stimulation/