Heart Rate Variability: Cardiology Terminology

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Filed Under: Heart Health
Last Reviewed 02/06/2014

Heart Rate Variability: Cardiology Terminology

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 time of day, drugs, foods and food additives you may be exposed to, and even electro-pollution.  

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.

However, heartrate variability is different.  It represents the subtle timingvariations in yourheart’s beat-to-beat intervals that occur with thesimple process ofbreathing. The terms “respiratory sinus arrhythmia”or “sinusarrhythmia” are often used to describe these slightfluctuations. The word arrhythmia is a bit of a misnomer here, becauseeven though theheart 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 whenyou breathe out, it decreases imperceptibly. We can see thesefluctuations on anelectrocardiogram.

With the development of sophisticated computerized devices such as 24-hour Holter monitoring and other computer programs like the NerveExpress, 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!

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

In fact, altered heart rate variability has beenaccepted as risk factor for sudden cardiac death that is independent of all the other usual American Heart Association heart risk factors, suchas 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 electro-pollution of radio frequency 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. In fact, I’ll be sharing the latest findings on that with you soon.

Electromagnetic disturbances can also push those people vulnerable to low heart ratevariability to develop cardiac, arrhythmia,stroke,and sudden cardiac death. Electro-sensitive adults andchildren reportcardiac arrhythmias as one of many symptoms theyexperience withexposure to radio frequencies.

People with lowheart ratevariability are often less able to “go with the flow” whenfaced withexternals stressors, and more prone to stress-relateddisorders such ascardiovascular problems.

While the news aboutheart ratevariability and vulnerability to heart disease and suddencardiac deathmay sound alarming, the good news is that if you canincrease your heartrate variability, you can reduce the likelihood ofstress relateddisorders, including cardiovascular disease and suddencardiac death.Stress management techniques that involve consciousbreathing arehelpful, including T’ai chi, yoga, Pilates, relaxation,and imagerysessions.

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 fish oil a day for healthypeople,and 2–4 grams for individuals with heart disease, taken in twodivideddoses.

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