Heart Rate Variability: Why It Matters

02/19/2020 | 3 min. read

Dr. Stephen Sinatra

Dr. Stephen Sinatra

Heart Rate Variability

While most people aren’t familiar with the cardiology term heart rate variability, it plays a big role in evaluating the heart and determining your risk for future cardiac events.

As you probably know, your heart rate is not fixed. It fluctuates with physical activity and your emotions, as well as the time of day, medications, foods and food additives you may be exposed to, and even electropollution.

In this way, your heart rate is dynamic. It speeds up when you exert yourself or become stressed and slows back down with relaxation and sleep. That’s normal.

What is Heart Rate Variability?

Heart rate variability represents the subtle timing variations in your heart’s beat-to-beat intervals that occur with the simple process of breathing.

The terms “respiratory sinus arrhythmia” or “sinus arrhythmia” are often used to describe these slight fluctuations. Yet, the word arrhythmia is a bit of a misnomer here because even though the heart rhythm isn’t precisely regular, that’s considered “normal.”

Even though you can’t feel the difference, as you breathe in your heart rate increases just ever so slightly, and when you breathe out it decreases imperceptibly. We can see these fluctuations on an electrocardiogram.

With the development of sophisticated computerized devices such as 24-hour Holter monitoring, reams of data on heart rate variability have been collected. Think of heart rate variability as a window into how the autonomic nervous system—which controls physiological parameters like heart rate and blood pressure—communicates with the cardiovascular system. Truly fascinating stuff!

Why Is It Important?

What’s been learned with all of this high-tech monitoring is that heart rate variability represents an accurate assessment of your ability to cope with both internal and external environmental changes. Decreased heart rate variability—having too “fixed” a heart rate interval—is now regarded as the most accurate reflector of stress, and even a predictor of sudden cardiac death.

In fact, altered heart rate variability has been accepted as a risk factor for sudden cardiac death that is independent of all the other usual American Heart Association heart risk factors, such as age, chronic hypertension, diabetes, smoking, and so on.

A Lot of People Have Poor Heart Rate Variability

Medications, such as alpha-blocking drugs used to treat prostate disease, can decrease heart rate variability. More recently, we’ve learned that the overexposure to the electropollution of radiofrequency from cell towers, cordless telephones, and cell phones has the potential to reduce heart rate variability, and that fact is finally getting more mainstream attention.

Electromagnetic disturbances can also push those people vulnerable to low heart rate variability to develop cardiac, arrhythmia, stroke, and sudden cardiac death. Electro-sensitive adults and children report cardiac arrhythmias as one of many symptoms they experience with exposure to radio frequencies.

People with low heart rate variability are often less able to “go with the flow” when faced with externals stressors, and more prone to stress-related disorders such as cardiovascular problems.

How to Improve Your Heart Rate Variability

While the news about heart rate variability and vulnerability to heart disease and sudden cardiac death may sound alarming, the good news is that if you can increase your heart rate variability, you can reduce the likelihood of stress-related disorders, including cardiovascular disease and sudden cardiac death.

Stress management techniques that involve conscious breathing are helpful for improving heart rate variability, including Tai Chi, yoga, Pilates, relaxation, and imagery sessions.

Physical exercise is also good for heart rate variability, as are meditation and grounding. As far as supplementation goes, my standard recommendation is a total daily dose of 1–2 grams of omega-3s a day.

Dr. Stephen Sinatra

Meet Dr. Stephen Sinatra

Dr. Stephen Sinatra is a highly respected and sought-after cardiologist and nutritionist with more than 30 years of clinical practice, research, and study. His integrative approach to heart health focuses on reducing inflammation in the body and maximizing the heart's ability to produce and use energy.

More About Dr. Stephen Sinatra