Understanding Heart Rate Variability & the Role of Nutrition in Health, Fitness & General Well-being
We live in a world that’s obsessed with data collection and number tracking. In the area of health and fitness, we have the ability to track a large array of markers including weight, body fat percentage, caloric intake, how many steps we take in a day, our heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar...and the list goes on!
More recently, heart rate variability (HRV) is a new biomarker of health and fitness that has gained a lot of attention by both researchers and tech companies. An electrocardiogram in a doctor’s office is the gold standard for measuring HRV, but thanks to our high tech world there are heart rate monitors and apps that allow for individuals to monitor their own HRV on a daily basis. Many of these methods are still being examined, and it’s important to understand that there is currently no regulation of these devices. Let’s take a closer look to understand what exactly HRV is and how diet plays a role.
HRV and the Autonomic Nervous System:
HRV measures the time difference between one heartbeat and the next, and plays a significant role in regulating blood pressure, heart rate, breathing patterns, and even digestion and gut health. It’s controlled by the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which includes both the sympathetic system, better known as our “fight or flight response,” and the parasympathetic nervous system, or our “relaxation response.”
As our brain continuously processes information, it signals our body to either rev up or relax its various functions. The presence of consistent triggers like stress, sleepless nights, unhealthy eating habits, and physical inactivity can easily disrupt the balance in our ANS, causing the sympathetic nervous system to overcompensate. When this happens, HRV drops and the changes between heartbeats is low. On the contrary, when things are more balanced, a healthier ANS results in a more relaxed state, and therefore better resilience and flexibility as switching gears between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems is more efficient, and HRV increases.
A higher HRV is associated with optimal cardiovascular fitness, resilience to stress, better response to physical training and overall better health, whereas lower HRV is associated with the development of chronic conditions including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, inflammation, obesity and psychiatric disorders. To put it simply, this biomarker has the potential ability to offer feedback on the impact that a variety of inputs have on our health, athletic performance and general well-being. One of the most pervasive of those inputs happens to be diet.
Nutrition and HRV:
Although there are multiple factors that affect HRV, it’s clear that diet plays a role in the big picture of both positive and negative aspects of how HRV affects health, and while we can’t always control inputs like stress from relationships and work, diet is something worth considering as a tool that can improve HRV and subsequently improve health and fitness. A mostly plant based, anti-inflammatory diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, for example, is associated with a higher HRV. On the other hand, diets that contain excess undesirable saturated and trans fat, processed inflammatory foods and refined sugars yield undesirable results and a lower HRV. An anti-inflammatory approach to eating (can you tell how much I like to avoid the word “diet”?) is a common thread that can be beneficial for everyone, and also one that is a more controllable factor in contributing to a higher HRV.
What is an anti-inflammatory approach to eating?
Simply put, inflammation is our body's direct response to external threats. Acute inflammation is temporary (think injury or infection), whereas chronic inflammation is more of a long term silent condition in the body that may not be noticeable, yet is associated with just about every negative health condition in modern society.
Pro-inflammatory foods include processed foods that are full of additives like food coloring and flavoring, refined white flour and sugar, deep-fried foods, excessive caffeine and alcohol. Ingesting these causes the body’s immune system to flare up, initially into an acute inflammatory state. Persistent intake of these types of foods leads the body into a constant state of chronic inflammation.
On the flip side, there are many foods which are anti-inflammatory that can reduce symptoms of inflammation and reduce our risk for chronic disease as well as improving HRV and overall health and physical fitness. Here’s the good news: you don’t have to completely cut out entire food groups to reduce inflammation in your body. Instead, it’s about eating more of the good foods and less of the bad (think of this as like an 80-20 rule).
Here’s a brief list with just a few examples of foods to limit and foods to add just to get you started…
Pro-inflammatory foods to keep at a minimum:
Sweets (candy, cookies, doughnuts, muffins)
Sweetened beverages (soda, juice, sweet tea, sugar in coffee, etc.)
Processed snack foods (chips, pretzels, puddings)
Refined oils and dressings that are soybean or canola based
Better yet, let’s focus on anti-inflammatory foods to eat more of:
Fruits and vegetables (duh!); particularly broccoli, kale, spinach, tomatoes
Healthy fats: Avocado oil, olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocado, fatty fish, flax meal, hemp, chia
Fermented foods (Greek yogurt, miso, kimchi, sauerkraut, apple cider vinegar, kombucha)
Tart cherry juice
No two people are the same when it comes to finding an ideal eating plan. Depending on a person’s current health status, activity level, genetics and food allergies/sensitivities, similar ways of eating can produce largely varied results from one person to the next. Even in various stages of one person’s life, they can have drastically different responses to an eating plan as stress levels, hormones, activity level, and health are ever-changing. This is why a customized approach to both nutrition and fitness is the best option.
We would love to help you succeed on your health and fitness journey! Whether it’s through a personal nutrition or fitness plan, group classes, or physical therapy to help move you to where you want to be. I love working with my Functionize family to provide a customized and collaborative approach for our clients!
For nutrition inquiries, feel free to visit my website allysonbalzuweit.com or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find free tips and recipes on Instagram at @allysonbalzuweit.
Thanks for reading!
Allyson Balzuweit, MPH, RDN, LD