I do believe it is helpful to use objective data to evaluate your health – whether it is blood sugar measurements or biomarkers of heart disease risk as I’ve talked about in this blog.
We know that being in stress-mode impacts your health in a negative way, increasing inflammation and making it hard to support the immune and digestive systems. So, how do you objectively measure stress to know if you are successfully managing it?
Enter Heart Rate Variability (HRV)
Heart Rate Variability is a proven measure of stress. The normal, healthy beating heart has some natural variability in the amount of time between beats. When you are stressed, and your fight-or-flight part of your autonomic nervous system is kicking into high gear, your interval between heart beats evens out to an unnatural degree, exhibiting minimal variability. This is a sign of an overall increased state of stress and decreased state of relaxation. So HRV can give you insight into how stressed your body is, even when you might not be feeling the rise in stress (because guys are notoriously bad at being in touch with their bodies and what’s going on physiologically).
In fact, professional athletes are using HRV as a measure of strain and stress to help determine how intensive a work-out should be depending on stress level. Viewing HRV in real time helps you see the impact of drinking alcohol (which can lower HRV) or meditating (which has been proven to increase HRV), for example. Studies have even shown that low HRV increases risk of death after a heart attack.
One of the leaders in this is Heart Math, a non-profit that sells sensors and has great information and studies on their website about the correlation with higher HRV (which they call coherence) and improved motor coordination and reaction times, clearer decision making and better performance in general. People who have higher HRV have greater resilience to stress. HRV can be improved with diet (green tea helps), yoga, meditation, exercise and better sleep.
There are apps (like HeartMath’s InnerBalance app or Elite HRV) that can be used to measure HRV using a chest-strap or ear clip or others that use a smart phone’s camera, and there are wearable devices like the Oura ring and Whoop band that can measure HRV accurately.
The best use for any of these sensors is to track your HRV and then try various methods of raising it, such as:
- Decreasing alcohol
- Working on sleep habits
That will help you to identify what really works for you.
The negative health effects of stress should be taken seriously, so it’s worth assessing what you can do to make an impact on your nervous system.
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Myles Spar, MD, MPH is board certified in Internal Medicine and in Integrative Medicine. As a clinician, teacher and researcher on faculty of the top Integrative Medical Center in the U.S., he has led the charge for a more proactive, holistic and personalized approach to care that focuses on cutting edge technology and preventative care. Dr. Spar has been a consultant with the NBA, presented a TEDx Talk, appeared on national television, and been featured in publications such as the Men’s Journal and the Los Angeles Times. He is National Director and V.P. of Medical Services for AndHealth, a digital health company utilizing lifestyle medicine approaches to reverse chronic illness. He is available on a limited basis to consult with individual patients interested in a personalized approach to optimal performance and health.