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6 Ways to Improve Your Heart Rate Variability
by Karen Ansel, MS, RDN

Tracking your heart rate variability, or HRV, is a great way to keep tabs on how effectively your body bounces back from stress and exercise. But if you’ve been monitoring your HRV, you might be wondering if there are ways to improve this metric. According to recent research, the answer is a big yes. Here’s how.

Eat like a Mediterranean. “When heart rate variability is high the body is believed to be functioning in a healthy and resilient manner,” says Hayley Anne Young, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Swansea University in Wales. “And a healthy diet and lifestyle are associated with greater HRV.” 

While there are many healthy diets, the Mediterranean diet gets exceptionally high marks. The reason? This seafood-rich diet is filled with omega-3 fatty acids that boost HRV by regulating heart rhythms.

Drink up. When you’re dehydrated, your heart has to work extra hard to pump blood throughout your body. But you don’t need to be clinically dehydrated for your HRV to suffer. 

Medically speaking, dehydration occurs when you’ve lost more than 2 percent of your body weight in water. Yet, according to recent research, even slight lapses in hydration can cause HRV to decline. So don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink up. Invest in a few water bottles, and keep one by your desk, in your bag, and in the car. If you’ll be working out, remember to rehydrate afterward by replacing 125 to 150 percent of the body fluid you lost during exercise.

Give meditation a go. If you’ve been monitoring your HRV, you might have noticed that stress makes it take a nosedive. That’s completely normal, says Mehmet Kaya, PhD, an associate professor of biomedical and chemical engineering and sciences at Florida Tech University. 

However, when stress becomes chronic and ongoing, it can send your nervous system into fight or flight mode. That can take a significant toll on your HRV. On the upside, new research reveals meditation can help reverse the trend. How? “Meditation focuses on positive thoughts, slow movements, and controlled breathing, which all do the opposite of stress in terms of HRV,” says Kaya.

Be kind to your ticker. “Reduced heart rate variability is linked to cardiovascular diseases and is an independent risk factor for cardiovascular morbidity and mortality,” says Kaya. 

Could limiting saturated fat and sodium help? Absolutely, says a 2018 Behavioural Pharmacology review. Just like a diet that’s low in sodium and saturated fat can do good things for your blood pressure and cholesterol, it may also benefit your heart rate variability. Aim for less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium (1,500 milligrams is even better) and a maximum of 10 percent of calories from saturated fat a day.

Maintain a healthy body weight. “There is evidence that being overweight might reduce heart rate variability by altering the function of the peripheral nervous system,” says Young. In one study, overweight women who dropped 9 pounds in 3 months lowered their resting heart rate and cholesterol, and increased their heart rate variability to boot. 

Weight management may also help by controlling blood sugar, and here’s why. When BMI increases, fasting blood glucose levels also tend to rise. Trouble is, high blood sugar is often linked to lower HRV. By maintaining a healthful weight, you can keep blood glucose in a healthy range and protect HRV in the process.

Take it easy on the alcohol. Once upon a time, the thinking was that a daily drink could help prevent heart disease. Today, experts aren’t so sure. And, in the case of heart rate variability, that glass of wine might even backfire. Despite alcohol’s heart-healthy image, even light drinking decreases HRV and the more you drink, the stronger its effects. If better HRV is a goal, save the beer or mojito for a special occasion—and when you do imbibe, try and stick with one drink tops.

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This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.