I am a gadget freak by my own admission, especially those that have anything to do with health, so I was quite excited with the new features of the Apple watch, especially the heart rate variability or HRV. So what does one understand from that number? Also, let me add that there is no substitute for a true healthcare professional and medical-grade devices so please do consult a cardiologist if you do have a family history of heart diseases. Mapmygenome can help you with some of the genetic risk assessments with its Cardiomap product. Now let's move on back to HRV.
Heart rate variability is the difference or variation in the amount of time between heartbeats. So is this a good thing or a bad thing? First, let me say that it is mostly a good thing. But let me also explain why?
You probably have heard about the mind-body connection. Well, it's because there is a connection between brain, nervous system, and heart. What you see, hear, smell, taste and touch send information to the brain about what it needs to do. And yes, the sixth sense too…
So the hotline between your heart, brain, and a set of nerves is known as the autonomic nervous system. This connection is always on, even when we are sleeping or just being couch potato. There are two parts to this autonomic nervous system, and they are known as the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
Interestingly, the sympathetic nervous system is the one that increases your heart rate and blood pressure and where the fight or flight response comes from when you see a tiger in front of you, for instance. The parasympathetic nervous system is the cool one that controls the relaxation process and slows it down. So once you realize that the danger is over, it gets your heartbeat back to normal. It is not just in the presence of tigers but other day-to-day activities also have the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems working to keep the balance.
So back to the important question, is HRV a good thing?
Let me quote Charles Darwin
“It is not the strongest of the species, nor the most intelligent that survives; it is the one most adaptable to change.”
Ok, he did not mean from an HRV perspective, but you get the picture. The HRV reflects how adaptable your body can be to these changes. So the higher the variability, it means your body can adapt to many kinds of changes. They are also the cool cucumbers like me who don't get stressed easily.
A low HRV, on the other hand, can signal an underlying disease like hypertension, depression, diabetes etc and is less resilient as it cannot handle changes. Usually, you will find that with people who have high resting heart rates.
While my apple watch can track HRV to some extent, it has limitations as it tracks it through our skin. An ECG is a much better indicator. But for me, the trends are useful, and I notice changes based on my nutrition, exercise and other factors.
As one grows older, the natural tendency is for HRV to reduce. But there are ways to improve it through exercise and nutrition. Genetics can be a good guiding force in this journey towards better health. One last thing is to do meditation or yoga as it helps calm us.
Keep calm and carry on!