By Dr Matt Stacey, Osteopath at North Carlton Osteopathy
There is no doubt that life is stressful and it is well documented that too much stress can have a negative effect on both our mental and physical wellbeing. Stress can come from many sources such as work, family, study, finance, poor sleep, bad diet choices, sickness and injuries. It can also come from sources that are also positive such as exercise or having a couple of wines with friends on the weekend. All these stresses contribute to our overall stress.
What if we could get a measure of this overall level of stress and then use this to help reduce or prevent the negative effects it may have on our health? I’ve been experimenting with doing this lately by measuring my Heart Rate Variability or HRV.
What is HRV?
HRV is a
measure of the variation in time between each heartbeat and is controlled by
the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS).
The ANS is divided into two halves that have different roles in the body. The
first is the more commonly known Sympathetic
Nervous System which when activated causes a fight or flight response. The
second is the Parasympathetic Nervous System
which is responsible for the relaxation response. These two systems operate
in conjunction with each other with the balance going one way or the other
depending on the state we are in so if we are stressed we get more input from
the sympathetic nervous system and when relaxed the parasympathetic system is
HRV can simply be thought of as a measure of the balance between these two nervous systems. If our HRV decreases then it indicates we are in a more fight/flight or stressed mode whereas an increased HRV means we are more relaxed.
How do we
HRV can be measured in multiple ways such as
- using a heart rate monitor strap
- ECG machine at hospital
- or more conveniently our smartphone camera
I have been using the HRV4 Training App along with my iPhone’s camera to record my HRV each morning.
It is important to try and measure HRV in the morning before doing anything (unless you need to go to the bathroom) as this gives a consistent measurement before we’ve introduced any other daily stresses which could include reading something on our phone, walking downstairs or our morning coffee. The measurement should be taken in a seated or standing position as opposed to lying down and usually only takes a minute where you hold your index finger over the camera on your phone.
HRV is very individual so it is important that you get a consistent week of measurements before analysing any information so that you can establish your own baseline HRV as any increase or decrease should be relative to what is normal for you.
Most apps also allow you to record subjective measures for other things that may influence HRV such as sleep quality, alcohol intake, work stress, exercise levels or sickness. This allows us to measure over time how these things affect our HRV.
How to use HRV to optimize health
track of HRV over time allows us to identify trends in our stress levels and
then address these in order to prevent them from having negative physical and
mental effects on our health. For example – we may see that when we are really
stressed at work and then go out for a couple of drinks our HRV goes down. This
means our body is under higher stress – we might be better off going home
earlier and getting extra sleep. Such practice is very useful in preventing
sickness as it is common to see consistently low HRV scores prior to getting
sick – it means your body is getting run down. Being able to identify this
early means that you can implement diet and lifestyle strategies to manage it
before you do start to get sick.
HRV is very useful for people who do a lot of exercise to monitor the effect it is having on their body. For example – if your HRV score is low in the morning it is recommended that you do more lower intensity exercise so it might be better to go for a relaxing walk with the dog versus doing a high intensity gym class.
Being in pain correlates with higher stress levels too. This might prompt you to address your joint or muscular pain and stiffness with your Osteopath.
My personal experience
I started using HRV to look at how my body was responding to cycling training and have found that it gives me a good insight as to when my body is run down and needs a day off, versus when it is good to train.
The biggest learning I found was the effect that stresses other than exercise – such as my 18 month old son who isn’t gifted when it comes to sleeping. This was evident a couple of times where I had a hard training session planned so had taken it easier the day before and eaten well so as to be able to get through it – but our son woke multiple times during the night meaning I had to settle him. Whilst I felt ok the morning of the session my HRV was low. I decided to give the hard session a go anyway and sure enough I felt terrible as soon as I started pedaling.
If you have any experience with HRV or want to know more feel free to join in the discussion and comment below.
Dr Matt Stacey
HRV4 Training app
Podcast about training and how to use HRV