Listen to your head and your heart: Heart Rate Variability 101

February 2017/by Morgan Ingemanson

Pop duo Roxette said it best: Listen to your heart. Words of wisdom to remember this Valentine’s Day. And, excellent advice when it comes to taking care of your health. In fact, listening to your heart can help you understand what is going on in your head!

One biomarker to rule them all

It’s no secret that doctors encourage patients to place high importance on maintaining heart health. And for good reason – heart disease is still the leading cause of death is the US. Keeping a close eye on biomarkers like cholesterol, heart rate, and blood pressure just comes with the territory of aging. But you could be skipping over a key biomarker that serves as a broad indicator of overall physical and psychological health for people of all ages: heart rate variability.

An introduction to Heart Rate Variability

Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is a measure of the variation in the time between individual heart beats. Rather than simply counting how many times your heart beats per minute, HRV measures how consistent the length of time between each beat is. HRV helps doctors understand if your heart is beating in a simple and predictable pattern, like a metronome, or in a more variable pattern.

  • Low HRV means your heart beats like a metronome and the length of time between each heart beat is nearly identical.
  • High HRV means your heart beats with intervals of varying length.

Although many people assume that a steady, consistent pattern of heart beats (low variability/low HRV) indicates good health, the opposite is actually true. Yes, you read that right — high HRV is a sign of good physical and psychological health! Think of it this way: a healthy heart pumps as needed. It responds to the demands of the body in real time and doesn’t follow a predictable interval.

So, HRV reflects general heart health. But, it does more than that; it also tells us about the state of one’s autonomic nervous system1. This is the part of the nervous system in control of “automatic” (hence autonomic) functions like blood pressure, breathing rate, arousal and digestion. HRV gives us insight to this very valuable aspect of our health that is otherwise very difficult to assess and monitor.

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