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6 quick tips for boosting your Heart Rate Variability

Heart rate variability (HRV) is more than just a health metric; it’s a profound indicator of how well your body can adapt to stress and maintain physiological homeostasis (balance). This key measure tells us about the flexibility of our heart’s rhythm, which in turn reflects the overall health of our autonomic nervous system – the part of us that controls everything from our heartbeat to our digestive processes, without being instructed to do so with our conscious thoughts. A higher HRV suggests that your body is adept at managing stress and recovering from it, while a lower HRV might indicate an overload of stress and a potential need for changes to your lifestyle. Whether you’re looking to enhance your mental clarity, improve physical performance, or simply feel more centred and grounded day-to-day, boosting your HRV can be a gateway to achieving these goals. Let’s explore some accessible and effective strategies that can help you enhance your HRV, thereby improving your overall health and wellbeing.

1. Chill out with meditation

Meditation is more than just sitting quietly; it’s an active engagement with your mind to foster calmness and clarity. Incorporating regular meditation or mindfulness practices into your week can significantly enhance your HRV by triggering your body’s relaxation response. If a daily practice feels impossible, aim for three sessions per week, utilising techniques like guided meditation, progressive relaxation, or even restorative yoga. Or you might prefer to simply sit comfortably and with your eyes closed, give the air a colour and imagine it entering and exiting your body. These practices can help reduce stress hormones and elevate your mood.

2. Get moving

Physical exercise does wonders not just for your muscles but also for your heart and mind. Regular activity, such as walking, cycling, swimming, or sports helps strengthen your heart muscles and improves the efficiency of your stress response systems, which in turn boosts your HRV. The key is consistency; even short bursts of exercise can add up to significant benefits for your HRV and overall health. If the idea of ‘exercise’ is not appealing, think about ways you can move more throughout your day and simply embrace the practice of a daily walk.

3. Sleep on it

A good night’s sleep is a cornerstone of great health. Sleep acts as a reset button for your autonomic nervous system, which plays a crucial role in managing your HRV. Aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep per night. Establish a calming bedtime routine, reduce/avoid exposure to screens before two hours before bed, avoid caffeine after midday, and create a comfortable sleep environment to improve your sleep quality. You’ll wake up feeling refreshed and more equipped to handle the day’s stresses.

4. Nourish yourself

What you eat has a profound impact on your body’s stress response and HRV. A way of eating rich in omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and fibre can support your nervous system and help mitigate the effects of the constant relentless production of stress hormones. For omega-3 fats, include foods like sheep’s brains, fatty fish (wild-caught salmon, mackerel), grass-fed beef and lamb, flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts. All coloured plant foods contain antioxidants and berries are particularly high, while vegetables are a source of fibre. Aim for seven serves of vegetables a day (or at least ensure you get the minimum five serves recommended). These nutrients not only improve your HRV but also contribute to overall physical and emotional wellbeing.

5. Breathe low and slow

Breathing exercises are a quick and effective way to enhance your HRV. Practices like diaphragmatic breathing, 4-7-8 breathing, or box breathing can increase the activation of your parasympathetic nervous system, leading to immediate relaxation. Spend a few minutes each day focusing on your breath or check in with how you are breathing and slow it down every hour on the hour; this simple act can help elevate your HRV and reduce stress levels.

6. Embrace contrast therapy

Alternating between hot and cold temperatures, known as contrast therapy, can also significantly impact your HRV. This method, which can include activities like sauna sessions followed by brief cold showers or dips between an ice bath and a hot spa, encourages your body to adapt to varying stressors. The exposure to heat and cold can stimulate your autonomic nervous system in beneficial ways, improving your body’s ability to regulate stress and recover from it. Regularly engaging in contrast therapy can boost your HRV, enhancing your overall resilience and vitality. Please note, clinically, I’ve found that for some women, initially avoiding the cold end of this spectrum is better for them. Heat up in a sauna, but then allow yourself to simply adjust to room temperature as the ‘cold’ for a time. After your HRV has improved, even a little, you’ll benefit from the cold exposure. This appears to be particularly true for those who are iron deficient. Correcting the iron deficiency is also crucial of course.

Improving your HRV is about more than just monitoring a metric; it’s about adopting a lifestyle that fosters resilience and vitality. Start with one or two of these practices and gradually build a routine that feels sustainable for your lifestyle. Your body – and your nervous system – will thank you.

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