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If you have ever had concerns about your heart health, there’s one important and easy-to-measure marker that you should be keeping an eye on.

Heart rate variability is an important indicator of heart health. Long before someone has their first heart attack or blockage, their HRV can tell them about their heart health in ways that blood pressure cannot. HRV is a little complicated, so pay attention to these numbers if you really want to understand it. Between every beat of your heart there is a space. For example, if your pulse rate is 60 beats per minute, then the space between beats is one second. However, it does not beat at exactly every second—at least, it shouldn’t. It should vary by between 25-125 milliseconds per beat. There are 1,000 milliseconds in a second. So, one second it might be 950 milliseconds between beats and the next it might be 1,025 milliseconds. The difference between 950 and 1025 is 75, so for that gap your HRV would be 75. If you keep a running average, you will find what your HRV is.

The higher the HRV, the better. Why? It means your heart is changing and adapting to your environment all the time. It’s a good measure of cardiovascular resilience. Like with many functional medicine treatments, higher resilience is a key factor. Low HRV has been shown to be a strong predictor of who will die from a cardiovascular issue as well as heart attacks. Anything you can do to improve your HRV will make a huge difference in heart health, energy, and overall quality of life.

At a higher level, HRV is actually measuring the impact that your nervous system is having on your heart. It is basically the balance between sympathetic (flight or fight) or parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system activity. Anything that balances your nervous system will be helpful. One of my favorites? Chiropractic! More on ways to balance your nervous system in a bit.

Measuring HRV was once a very expensive undertaking. Nowadays it is as simple as owning a Fitbit or other wearable smart device. These handy devices can track your overnight HRV to give you both a running assessment as well as the ability to see what is impacting your HRV. You can see what poor sleep, alcohol, bad food, and even exercise can do to it. Alcohol will have an especially negative effect.

While tracking HRV for cardiovascular health is important, there a number of other areas where it is also extremely helpful. Athletes with a better HRV have a definite edge. One former D1 wrestling coach noted that he could predict which of his wrestlers would win based on their morning HRV. And these were national champions, not just average wrestlers. He could also tell who got enough sleep and who had been drinking based solely on their numbers. Another area is longevity. Centenarians, people who live longer than a hundred years, typically have good HRV. People with known cardiovascular issues can vastly improve their risk factors by increasing their HRV.

Is there any evidence that drugs can impact HRV? As much as I hate to admit it, statins improve HRV by lowering the sympathetic tone of your nervous system. Then again, there are many better ways to do that which don’t also have side effects. Chiropractic, acetylcholine boosters, low impact aerobic exercise, and yoga can all do this without the nasty side effects of statin drugs. Diuretics such as Lasix and ACE inhibitors like Lisinopril lower HRV, but there are better ways to make your heart strong than turning to medications first. And while there is a time and place for them, it is always after trying natural methods first. Diet, exercise, and functional medicine all have been proven to help in all areas.

Now, how do you improve HRV on your own? As I said before, chiropractic is one of my favorites. It’s important to remember that chiropractic is not only used for back pain relief. It is a neurological intervention that changes your brain and your nervous system. Research has shown that chiropractic alone can dramatically improve HRV. So can regular aerobic exercise. You may see a temporary lowering of HRV the night of an intense workout, but the long-term effect is positive.

Anything that improves parasympathetic tone is going to help HRV. Supplements such as huperzine, ALA, and gingko biloba are just a few. But don’t bother if you think you are going to save money by buying them at a discount store or big box pharmacy—the quality is not there, and you will not get the results you want or deserve. Always buy quality supplements.

For direct heart health recovery there are three very important supplements that increase heart health and resilience. Niacin has been shown to reduce LDL (the “bad” cholesterol) and lower blood pressure. Red yeast rice is a special rice extract that replaces statins without the side effects. CoQ10 is vitally important especially if you are taking a prescription statin drug. Statins block the body’s own natural production of CoQ10, which is vital for heart health—especially the muscular walls of the heart. Make sure you use the “activated” form called ubiquinol, not ubiquinone.

Have a happy and healthy heart month and work on improving your HRV. Positive emotions improve HRV as well. That should make your heart happy!

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