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Heart Rate Variability

If you go to a doctor’s office for a physical exam, you may be told your heart is beating at 70 beats per minute. This is an average figure because the time intervals between heartbeats are always changing, meaning your heart rate is always changing. Originally developed for Navy Seals to check their fitness levels before intense physical demands, heart rate variability (HRV) is a measure of these beat-to-beat changes in heart rate as the heart speeds up and slows down in different patterns. These heart rate changes are influenced by almost anything the brain and mind process, such as organ function, fitness levels, and thoughts and sounds.

There is a two-way communication system between the heart and the brain that regulates heart rate and blood pressure and it is the interaction of signals flowing between the two that causes the heart rate to vary with each beat. Analysis of HRV is used by doctors to measure the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, two important branches of this communication system. Your organ function, fitness level and emotional reactions are transmitted from the brain to the heart via these two branches of the autonomic nervous system and can be seen in the patterns of your heart rhythms.

The sympathetic branch increases heart rate and the secretion of adrenal hormones, etc., whereas the parasympathetic slows heart rate and has a relaxing, protective role. Proper function and balance between the two branches of the ANS is important for good health.

The above graph shows the typical HRV pattern of someone feeling frustrated or edgy. When you feel edgy inside, you are likely to experience this type of heart rhythm. This excess wear and tear can create a chain reaction in your body. For example, when you’re frustrated, your nervous system is out of balance, your blood vessels constrict, blood pressure rises and you waste a lot of energy. If this happens consistently, you can become hypertensive and greatly increase your risk of heart disease. Hypertensive individuals are two to three times more likely to develop coronary artery disease and four times more likely to suffer a stroke. It’s estimated that one in four Americans, approximately 60 million people, are hypertensive.

Heart disease now accounts for slightly more than 40% of all deaths reported in the U.S.

The above graph also illustrates the heart rate variability pattern of frustration or anger (top) which is characterized by its random, jerky pattern. Sincere, positive feeling states like appreciation (bottom) can result in highly ordered and coherent HRV patterns, generally associated with enhanced cardiovascular function.

On the other hand, feelings of sincere appreciation create the HRV pattern you see in below graph, which is a smooth, even rhythm. This pattern is an example of cardiovascular efficiency. What’s happening is that the two branches of the autonomic nervous system are "entraining" and working together at maximum efficiency instead of fighting each other. Think of entrainment as being "in sync." When your body and mind are working harmoniously together, you have more clarity and inner balance–and you feel and function better.

Another very important part of the heart/brain communication link are the nerves that carry information from the heart to the brain

It is now known that the heart has a complex nervous system, which has been described as a "brain" of its own. Considered a single entity, the brain in the heart is an organized network of nerve cells and nerve plexi (centers) that send messages to each other using neurotransmitters and proteins. The heart has a complex circuitry that enables it to act independently, learn, remember, and as the saying goes, produce the feelings of the heart.

Heart rate variability is an excellent measure of nervous system balance. Therefore, heart rate variability is an important indication of how well you are balancing your life.

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