How stressed are you?
How well does your body adapt to stress?
Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is a non-invasive technology that can be used to provide important information about overall health, stress levels and our body’s ability to adapt to stress. We do this by accessing the heart rate. There should be small variations between each beat, which is a reflection of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) adaptive nature to internal and external stressors. This is our bodies self-regulatory system that helps to keep us in balance. Although too much variation can be detrimental, too little variation can also be problematic and is associated with poor health and chronic illness. Therefore HRV is a way to access the ANS.
The ANS is part of our peripheral nervous system and governs the processes in our body that occur without conscious awareness such as heart rate, breathing, digestion, and blood flow. The ANS can be further divided into 2 main branches:
- Sympathetic Nervous System: the “fight or flight” division that is activated during times of stress
- Parasympathetic Nervous System: the “rest, digest and repair” division that facilitates sleep and optimal digestion
In addition to indicating the body’s overall ability to handle stress, HRV also tells us the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions of the ANS. The function of the sympathetic nervous system is to prepare our body for a potentially life threatening situation and to shut off when the threat subsides. However, in today’s hectic society, it generally isn’t the “life or death” situations that set off the fight or flight response, but rather numerous smaller stressors that result in nearly continuous sympathetic stimulation. Consequently, many people become “stuck” in sympathetic dominance which results in symptoms such as: chronic tension, agitation, anxiety, insomnia, high blood pressure, heart palpitations, and sub-optimal digestion. Without proper support, including ideal nutrition and effective stress management, the body will eventually burn out and can become parasympathetic dominant. Individuals with over-activity of the parasympathetic nervous system often experience extreme fatigue, lethargy, spasms in the digestive tract or lungs, and depression.
HRV is an extremely valuable tool in that the ANS influences many processes in the body and facilitating sympathetic and parasympathetic balance can have a dramatic impact on overall health and well-being. However, in order to achieve this balance it also necessary to identify stressors, both physical (eg infections, food intolerances, blood sugar imbalance, toxicity, poor nutrition) and psychological (eg work demands, relationship disharmony, negative beliefs/self-talk) and address them accordingly.