Even if you don’t really understand the ins and outs of heart rate variability (HRV), you’ve probably heard that high HRV is “good,” while low HRV is “bad.” That generalization is a bit too simplistic, but it’s more or less correct.
HRV is a measure of how much the intervals between your heartbeats vary. When your heart beats like a metronome, with little variability in between-beat intervals, HRV is low. That indicates that your body is stressed and your sympathetic (“fight-or-flight”) nervous system is highly activated. On the other hand, when your heartbeat is more irregular, HRV is high. That signals low physiological stress; your parasympathetic (“rest-and-digest”) nervous system is relatively more dominant.
It’s not exactly intuitive, I know. Here’s all you need to remember: All else being equal, higher HRV is better than lower HRV. High HRV means you’re rested and recovered, probably sleeping well, and not overly stressed. That’s why athletes use HRV monitoring to plan their workouts and rest periods, PR attempts, and deload weeks: it eliminates the guesswork. Even if you’re not an athlete, HRV is a strong diagnostic biomarker for general health and resiliency.
Here we face a quandary, though. What constitutes a high versus low HRV? An excellent question to which there is no easy answer. “High” and “low” are relative for each individual. We all have a baseline, normal HRV around which we fluctuate based on how stressed or relaxed we are, whether we worked out hard or imbibed too much the previous day, and so on. What’s high for me might be low or middling for you, and vice versa. Furthermore, average HRV differs as a function of age, sex, and how active versus sedentary you are.
The goal is to keep HRV high whatever that means for you.Unless you’re one of the rare individuals who is happy unbothered all the time, that means engaging in practices that help your body buffer the stress you inevitably experience in the course of modern life. Here are 14 ways you can do that.
How to Increase Heart Rate Variability
The following tips are researched-based methods for increasing your HRV. In an ideal world, your chronic stress would be as low as possible all the time, and you’d be checking all these boxes on a regular basis—but that’s not realistic. No one can do them all; I certainly can’t. Failing to accomplish one or several or even most of these won’t necessarily result in rock bottom HRV. Maybe you have a job you love, but the commute is long. Maybe green tea makes you jittery and nauseated. I’m just giving you all the information I have so that you can find a system that works for you.
Oh, and I won’t go into the normal stuff that positively impacts our HRV, like getting enough sleep1 and regular, not-too-draining exercise.2 The basic health stuff we talk about all the time here is all important for HRV, but the benefits are implied and don’t require further explanation or justification.
Let’s get on with it:
After stressful events that tax our bodies, throw us out of homeostasis, and bias us toward the sympathetic nervous system, we must rest in order to restore our HRV. I’m talking about both beneficial stressors like intense exercise and the hard stuff life throws at us.
So make time to rest. Exposure to any stressor that increases sympathetic nervous system activity should be followed by some rest, even if it’s just chilling out with a good book. The amount of rest you need is proportional to how much stress you faced.
Drink green tea (or take L-theanine).
Green tea is an interesting beverage, containing both stimulating (caffeine) and calming properties. In an animal model of diabetes, green tea consumption increased heart rate variability (among other cardiometabolic biomarkers).3 If you hate green tea, no worries. One of the active compounds found in green tea, L-theanine, has also been shown to increase HRV.4 That’s actually a big reason why I include L-theanine in Adaptogenic Calm—for its ability to reduce sympathetic nervous system activity.
Take studies of university students during exam periods for example. Studies show that heart rate variability unsurprisingly drops during this stressful time. 5 [/ref]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19852338/ [/ref] Also not surprising, procrastinators end up more stressed than their peers who are are better at time management. They also get sick more often.6
Don’t work too much or commute too far.
Ha, I know. Easier said than done. Regardless, long working and commuting hours don’t just prevent you from seeing friends and family, doing things that you enjoy, and getting adequate sleep. They’re also strongly associated with reduced HRV.7
Try active commuting unless it’s through an area of high pollution.
Although it didn’t measure HRV directly, one paper found that active commuting (walking in this case) increased resilience to stress and reduced stress reactivity8—two indices that generally correlate with higher HRV. However, active commuting amidst high pollution might be counterproductive. Air particulate exposure is bad enough for your health and HRV, but it gets worse when you add in running or cycling. Active commuters who commute through high-pollution areas breathe in more air particulates and see greater reductions in HRV.9
Find a job that gives you enough reward for the work you put into it.
We can’t all do jobs we love or deeply care about. I get that. But if we can find a job that gives back as much as we put into it, our HRV might benefit. One study found that job stress as measured by the work:reward ratio inversely correlated with HRV.10 People who felt they got sufficient reward for the work they put in (low stress) had higher nighttime HRV. People who felt they were putting in more than they received had lower nighttime HRV. Another study in young Finnish women had similar results.11
To me, this indicates that entrepreneurship might lead to a higher HRV, since despite all thestress that accompanies owning your own business, you definitely reap the fruits of your labor (after taxes and overhead, of course).
Forgiveness practice is one of those methods that certain folks might ridicule, but it’s got merit. When you ruminate about the ways someone did you wrong, you increase the pain and stress associated with the offense, and that’s reflected in lower HRV. If you can instead practice forgiveness, HRV is protected.1213
The same is true for self-forgiveness. When you give yourself grace instead of beating yourself up for perceived transgressions, HRV improves.14
There are dozens of yoga varieties, and most of them have been found to improve heart rate variability,15 whether it’s hatha yoga,16yoga nidra,17 laughter yoga,18 or isha yoga.19 Even just lying in a single pose (savasana, or corpse pose) with relaxing music playing increases HRV.20
If you search the literature for heart rate variability andmeditation, you get the distinct impression that as with yoga, nearly every type of meditation practice has the potential to increase HRV. Vipassana (mindfulness meditation),21 zen,22 and pranic meditation23 all work. I’ve never had much success with meditating myself—guided meditation podcasts/Youtube videos worked better than trying to sit on my own—but it clearly works for many people.
Listen to the right kind of music.
In young women without experience listening to either, baroque music seems to improve HRV relative to heavy metal.24 Same goes for men.25 While I’d bet the kid with Metallica posters (I’m showing the pitiful extent of my heavy metal knowledge here, aren’t I?) on his walls would have a different HRV response to heavy metal than people without a prior relationship to it, maybe Viking death metal isn’t the best choice for anyone looking to relax and increase HRV.
Breathe deeply and slowly.
Slow breathing consistently raises HRV.26 Don’t get hung up on the pattern of the breath, which doesn’t matter so much as long as the rate is slow.27 Of course, I wouldn’t recommend deep breathing exclusively. That would just be weird.
Try alternate nostril breathing.
Huh? It sounds odd, but it’s simple and it works:
Raise your right hand in front of your face. Place your ring and pinky fingers at your left nostril and your thumb at your right nostril.
Block the left nostril using your ring and pinky fingers and inhale through your right nostril.
Block the right nostril with your thumb, open up your left nostril, and exhale.
Inhale through your left nostril, keeping the right nostril blocked.
Switch so your left nostril is blocked and the right nostril is open. Exhale and inhale on the right side.
Continue, alternating back and forth, for ten rounds total.
Studies show that alternate nostril breathing can increase HRV.28
Go for a walk in nature.
The Japanese therapy known as “forest bathing,” which involves taking a short, leisurely visit to the forest,increases HRV and reduces stress.29 Since all trees (and plant matter in general) give off the volatile organic compounds thought to be responsible for the benefits, any nature setting should do the trick.
Take fish oil or eat seafood.
Several studies indicate that taking omega-3 supplements can increase HRV. In patients with high triglycerides, a largish dose of EPA and DHA (3.4 grams/day) increased HRV at rest and in times of stress (when a high HRV can really help).30 A smaller dose (0.85 g/day) did not. In men who’ve recently had heart attacks (a population in dire need of improved heart rate variability), omega-3s increase HRV.31 These results jibe with the well-known inhibitory effect of marine omega-3s on stress hormones.32
While you’re at it, travel back in time and ask your pregnant mother to eat seafood or take DHA supplements. Pregnant mothers who take DHA supplements (or eat foods high in DHA, like fish) improve the heart rate variability of their fetuses.33
Okay, that’s it for today, folks. With any luck, everyone will find something new and useful to implement into their life. Even if you’re not into the HRV stuff, most of these recommendations have the added benefit of simply being pleasant and good for overall quality of life.
Any experts out there with personal experience care to add their methods for improving HRV? I’d love to hear. Take care, everyone, and thanks for reading!
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.