Welcome back to the Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast episode #125 on Heart Rate Variability that I just heard as being “The Most Important Biomarker for Tracking Health, Recovery and Resilience”[i] to Optimize Our Results by Dr. David Rabin on Neurohacker[ii] The Collective Insights Podcast with Heather Sandison. ND.
My name is Andrea Samadi, I’m a former educator who has been fascinated with understanding the science behind high performance strategies in schools, sports and the workplace for the past 20 years. If you have been listening to our podcast for some time, you will know that we’ve uncovered that if we want to improve our social and emotional skills, and experience success in our work and personal lives, it all begins with an understanding of our brain.
Our podcast took a turn towards the importance of health and well-being with the Top 5 Health and Alzheimer’s Prevention Strategies last September 2020 with our episode #87[iii] and we have put a serious focus on these health staples and their importance on cognitive performance, ever since.
I want to thank you for listening, and for keeping us in the TOP 100 charts on iTunes in the USA (for How-To/Education Category), Great Britain, Sweden, Mexico, Hong Kong, and many other countries. We appreciate everyone who supports the podcast which helps us to continue to produce content that will help you to further increase productivity and results in schools, sports and the workplace.
I’m always looking for ideas and strategies that we can all use to optimize our lives, especially these days, a year after COVID-19 shut down the world, changed the way many of conduct business, run our schools, communities and live our own personal lives. As the focus has taken a serious shift to health, with mental health at the forefront, and well-being in our schools and workplaces, I want to share the most important strategies that I come across and make them actionable for everyone to implement. This brings us to this week’s topic, understanding Heart Rate Variability.
What is Heart Rate Variability (HRV) and Why is it Considered the Most Important Biomarker[iv] --a measure that captures what’s going on in a cell at any given moment that can serve as an early warning system for your health.
Unless you have been training with a forward-thinking coach, you’re an elite athlete, or someone who has taken a serious interest in measuring their performance, most of us have not heard of, or really understand what exactly heart rate variability means, or why Dr. Rabin, a board-certified psychiatrist and neuroscientist, would consider it to be “the most important biomarker for tracking health.”
I started to hear about heart rate variability while interviewing and researching certain guests, starting with Dr. Daniel Stickler[v], who raised his arm in the interview and mentioned that he wore the Whoop[vi] device that tracks his performance, and then again with Kelly Roman[vii], the CEO and Co-founder of Fisher Wallace Laboratories, when we were talking about his wearable medical devices for anxiety, depression, stress management and sleep that were shown to improve heart rate variability.
I wrote down the term, thinking, it’s got to be connected to heart rate somehow, and had plans of looking it up to see what exactly it was, so I could learn more about it. The problem was, when researching this term, I seemed to come across very high-level explanations. For those listening who are teachers, we know that when learning a new topic, it really does help to begin at the starting point and build from there.
One morning, I came across a post on Instagram from Neurohacker Collective[viii] that caught my attention. I’ve shared the Instagram post in the show notes, where they highlighted one of their recent podcasts that explained the importance of heart rate variability. I immediately sent an email to myself with the link to this podcast, and listened to it, and highly suggest this episode if you want to dive a bit deeper into understanding the importance of HRV.
Heather Sandison, from Neurohacker Collective, interviews Dr. David Rabin on this episode where he explains that HRV shows each person’s ability to bounce back from stress, and why two people exposed to the exact same stressor, might respond differently. One person has a complete meltdown, and the other seems to bounce back easily and quickly. It’s all explained with how our brains have been individually trained to recognize safety, and threats, and also how we handle these threats. We did cover the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system on episode #59 with Suzanne Gundersen[ix] that’s a good review for ways to bring balance back to our brain and body (like breathing techniques) and Dr. Rabin mentions on the Neurocollective Podcast the importance of gratitude, being able to name what emotion you are feeling to tame them as positive ways to respond to stimuli which trains our brains to stay calm while under stress.
With HRV, it all begins with taking a closer look at our heartbeat.
“Our heartbeat is not regular like the ticking of a clock beating once every second. A healthy heartbeat is irregular. This irregularity is desirable and an indicator of how ready the body is to adapt to stress. This stress could be bad like a fight with your boss or good like a promotion. When HRV is high, you can handle the incoming stress. When HRV is low you are less adaptable and less able to handle the stress.
HRV is a measure of our autonomic nervous system and the balance between our parasympathetic and sympathetic branches. The parasympathetic branch is our “Rest & Digest” and correlates with a high HRV. The sympathetic branch is our “Fight or Flight” and correlates with a low HRV.”[x]
Our HRV (or the distance measured between our heartbeats) tells you that “your nervous system constantly changes the length of time between your heartbeats in response to your environment. “[xi] When we are rested and alert, our HRV will show that we can respond well to how the world changes around us. When we have high levels of stress, and are not managing this stress very well, it will show in our HRV score.
High HRV: Improved performance, high adaptability, improved cognition because your body is highly responsive to your environment.[xii]
Low HRV: Fight or Flight, easily exhausted, low adaptability, decreased cognition because either your sympathetic or parasympathetic system[xiii] is inhibiting the other.
“The higher your HRV (the more variability you have between heartbeats), the more your nervous system is in tune with your environment, and the better you’ll perform. A lot of things affect your HRV, with stress as the most common factor.”[xiv]
I mentioned that it was Dr. Daniel Stickler on episode #96 who held up his arm during our interview to tell me that he measures everything with a WHOOP (a wrist-worn heart rate monitor that tracks health data including your body’s recovery, respiratory rate, and activities to help you to optimize your well-being). What better place to learn more about HRV than with the company that was designed to help high performers, top performers, do what they do.
HRV Explained on the Whoop Podcast
So I went to Whoop.com and found their podcast to see how they explain HRV. You can tune into WHOOP’s podcast episode #29[xv] with Kristen Holmes and Emily Capodilupo that covers everything you want to know about HRV.
What Impacts HRV Levels:
Whoop’s HRV episode was interesting, reminding me that HRV is a signal that your nervous system is balanced and of the importance of finding our baseline HRV by measuring daily and then looking at the number to see trends over time. Emily Capodilupo explains that HRV is “your nervous system manifesting in your heart” which made me think about how everything changed for Paul Zientarski when they added heart rate monitors to their Zero Hour PE program, but what if they had added the understanding of HRV. They would have had a whole new level of understanding of their students and what they were capable of.
This number is becoming more popular as a tool for athletes, because “the basic idea is that when HRV is high, an athlete is primed for optimal performance”[xvi] but Whoop discovered a phenomenon known as “parasympathetic saturation” where the body is “peaking physically” but also has a low HRV score. With only using HRV as an indicator, the opportunity to push this athlete at this time would be lost.
So HRV goes low when you are exercising at a high capacity and really pushing it and goes back up when you allow your body the rest and recovery needed for repair. Your HRV levels can show to be lower when you are tired and go higher when you get enough sleep. Activity level, stress, illness, hydration, alcohol consumption, nutrition and how tired you are can all impact your HRV levels. The key is to fuel your body properly and understand that if you are going to put anything in it that we know is bad for us (like alcohol or processed foods) it will lower our HRV level.
Why Should We Care?
We don’t have to be endurance athletes to want to improve our performance, but if you are, I hope that you know of the importance of that Razor’s Edge Advantage, that my mentor Bob Proctor would talk about all the time. He thought this concept was so important he dedicated a whole chapter to it in his book, You Were Born Rich[xvii], that you can access from his website, that talks about the potential we all have, but many of us don’t use.
“The line which separates winning from losing is as fine as a razor’s edge.” (Bob Proctor).
Knowing what our HRV levels are can help us to gain insight into our own performance in a whole new way as we learn to understand when we are operating at our peak levels, and when we are operating at lower levels, so that we can fix our own productivity with rest, sleep, hydration or nutrition. The top 5 health staples that we’ve been talking about for the past few months.
HRV Levels and the Covid Vaccine:
Whoop featured an episode that dives deep into this topic and I found this podcast[xviii] to be fascinating as many people are beginning to receive their vaccines around the world, here in the US, most people in my age group have received their second vaccine, and those people who are in the Whoop Community[xix] had an opportunity to add a metric to their daily log that allowed them to notice how HRV scores were impacted by the vaccine.
The results showed that “28.9% of members showed significantly depressed heart rate variability (defined here as at least 20% below their 14-day baseline)”[xx] which made sense to me when I put together that however you might feel after your vaccine, it’s “just your immune system being activated and a sign that the vaccine is working.” Emily Capodilupo explains.
How Can You Use HRV in Your Life?
Here are some steps that you can follow if you want to discover what your HRV measurement is, so that you can take this information, and use it to make changes.
Download an App to Help You Measure HRV:
I’ve only been measuring my HRV since April 17th, and have been measuring through the Welltory App[xxi] that measures HRV by you placing your fingers over the camera, and it monitors your heart rate this way. They say this measurement is extremely close to using a chest strap. I looked at my data from my Apple Watch (using the Breath App) and it was very close, and much easier to measure when I wanted to with this app.
Measure Your HRV Daily to Find Your Own Trends:
HRV is a highly personalized/individualized score. It’s you competing against yourself and it wouldn’t do you any good if you were to glance at the score of an elite athlete and compare your numbers to see who is higher. There are so many variables involved, but well worth you learning how to optimize your own daily performance. On the Welltory App, you receive a score of your productivity level, energy and stress levels, and can gain deeper insights with the paid version of this app and learn how to upgrade or downgrade your performance.
(Andrea's HRV Scores from April 17th-22).
Take it To Another Level
It wasn’t long after learning about HRV, measuring my own data with the Welltory App, that I decided to become a member of the WHOOP Community[xxii] or try out this device for a year. You can join for as little as $30 for one month. I have not spoken to anyone from WHOOP yet (other than contacting Kirsten Holmes, VP of Performance Science from WHOOP on Linkedin) to see if she would come on the podcast at a later date. I was sold on learning more about this device months ago, when Dr. Stickler held up his arm and showed me how he monitors his daily activities. He mentioned that he has seen people who were not sleeping well, just fix that one parameter, and all other areas of their life fell into balance.
My WHOOP Strap arrives this Thursday, the day after I plan to release this podcast. I will plan on doing another episode with my results, and hopefully will get Kristen Holmes to come on and answer some of the many questions I have on understanding HRV, but until then, I hope this has given you a starting point, like it gave me, to begin to measure your HRV for free, through the Welltory app, and see what you discover with your own data.
This information could be helpful to motivate behavioral change and gives you direct access to how you “live and think, and how your behavior affects your nervous system and bodily functions.”[xxiii] My hopes are that this understanding will help us to better manage the stress we face, with a new angle of awareness.