Last week, I introduced the concept of heart rate variability – the variation of heart beat to beat intervals. Far from the metronome we might assume it to be, the healthiest heart beat follows a fractal pattern, with varying lengths of time separating each pulse. A higher heart rate variability (HRV) suggests a relaxed, low-stress physiological milieu, while a lower HRV indicates a need for recovery, rest, and sleep. 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, the HRV is a strong diagnostic biomarker for general health and resiliency. Today, we’ll be exploring 16 ways to increase it.
The following tips are researched-based methods for increasing your HRV, but they’re not deal breakers. Failing to check one or several or even most of these methods off 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 method that works for you. No one can do them all; I certainly can’t.
Oh, and I won’t go into the normal stuff that positively impacts our HRV, like getting enough sleep and regular exercise. Those are all important, so keep doing them, but the benefits are implied and don’t require further explication or justification.
Let’s get on with it:
We shouldn’t be aiming for perpetually high HRV, because that would mean we were never encountering any stressors. We couldn’t exercise. We couldn’t lift heavy things or sprint (not even once in awhile). We couldn’t watch scary movies. We’d never have anything to recover from and improve upon. But after these 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. So make time to rest. And remember – you don’t just need to rest after a hard workout. 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.
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). 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. That’s actually a big reason why I include L-theanine in Primal Calm – for its ability to reduce sympathetic nervous system activity.
Procrastination is that form of self-sabotage that almost everyone practices despite the near universal denunciation it receives. I’ve railed against it before, and I’ve even given you some tips and tools for combatting it. Well, here’s another reason to stop doing it: it kills your heart rate variability. In almost every available study of HRV in college students during exam week, heart rate variability plummets. The more anxious and unprepared you are for a test, the more its impending arrival will tank your HRV. What’s funny is that the kids who tended toward lower HRVs actually performed better on the tests, but that’s probably a function of actually caring about the tests enough to cram for them. The better way is to plan ahead and remain low-stress during exam week not because you don’t care about doing well, but because you’re prepared.
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 increased resilience to stress and reduced stress reactivity – 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.
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. 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. To me, this indicates that entrepreneurship might lead to a higher HRV, since despite all the stress that accompanies owning your own business, you definitely get the fruits of your labor (after taxes and overhead, of course).
Forgiveness practice is one of those methods that so-conventional-they’d-rather-die-than-take-a-supplement types would ridicule, but it’s got merit. One study actually examined the vagal ramifications of giving forgiveness compared to ruminating on a past transgression. Initially, both groups induced negative feelings by thinking about a time where they were wronged; this lowered HRV. Then, one group was told to forgive their transgressor and the other group was to continue ruminating on the transgression. In the forgiveness group, HRV increased while in the ruminating group, HRV remained depressed. Note that the forgiveness occurred entirely in the subjects’ heads. They didn’t actually contact their transgressors. Forgiveness can happen comfortably and exclusively from the confines of your own brain.
If you search the literature for heart rate variability and meditation, you get the distinct impression that as with yoga, nearly every type of meditation practice has the potential to increase HRV. Vipassana (mindfulness meditation), zen, and pranic meditation 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.
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 and exhale through your left nostril.
Inhale through your left nostril, keeping the right nostril blocked.
Continue for 9 more rounds.
Studies show that alternate nostril breathing can increase HRV.
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. 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.
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!
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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.