Over the next several posts I’d like to share my thoughts on ways that you can increase your HRV to improve your health, fitness and responsiveness to training. I will tie in some research with anecdotal experience and encourage you to keep in mind that some of this may be a bit theoretical at times. These thoughts are based on my current knowledge level and experience with HRV as well as discussions I’ve had with other like minded individuals (many of which are much more experienced than I).
I’ve spent a lot of time lately reading about the relationship between inflammation and HRV and therefore this will be the focus of today’s discussion. I highly recommend checking out this article where Dr. Miller presents and summarizes some of the research pertaining to nervous system regulation of inflammation and HRV. I don’t yet fully grasp this relationship as the physiology of inflammation can get pretty technical to say the least, but I would still like to offer some thoughts. Before I get into further detail about anything I’ll go over some preliminaries.
What is inflammation?
Inflammation is the protective or destructive response of body tissues to irritation or injury in attempt to maintain tissue homeostasis. Inflammation may be acute or chronic. The hallmark signs of inflammation are; redness, heat, swelling, pain and is often accompanied by loss of function. Too much inflammation or too little inflammation can be indicative of, or lead to a variety of diseases.
At the most basic level inflammation is a sympathetic response. This isn’t exactly black and white however as I’ve come across some research that shows how the SNS can actually play a small role in reducing inflammation in certain organs under certain conditions (Straub et al, 2006). However, for the purpose of this discussion I’ll generalize the SNS as being predominantly involved in inflammatory responses.
Parasympathetic activity on the other hand, modulates inflammation by inhibiting the secretions of pro-inflammatory cytokines (Mravec, 2011). Inflammation is not just caused from physical stress (training, injury, etc) but can also be brought on by; ingesting certain foods, excessive alcohol intake, smoking and exposure to pollution and certain chemicals. It appears that even psychological stress can cause inflammation (Steptoe et al, 2001).
It should be obvious that inflammation is pretty important to one’s survival. Inflammation is a major part of the healing process. For example, inflammation is necessary for hypertrophy (muscle growth) as it participates in protein breakdown, removal of damaged muscle fibers and production of prostaglandins (Pedersen & Hoffman-Goetz, 2000).
To effectively adapt from a stress (like training) we need to allow our body to go through the process of healing itself. In doing so, we increase our tolerance to the initial stressor. With adequate adaptation to strength training, we increase our strength (this applies to endurance, hypertrophy or any other quality you train to develop). So this explains why making sure we are sufficiently adaptable is important.
The simplest and most effective measure of your adaptability in my opinion is through heart rate variability (HRV) monitoring. In short, HRV tells you when your body can tolerate stress well (such as training) and when it can’t. It does so by providing the user with information about the balance of the autonomic nervous system. It does this by measuring the variability between your heart beats over a given period of time.
High HRV = low inflammation, good recovery, good testosterone-cortisol ratio, high tolerance to stress (good adaptability) → A green light for training.
Low HRV = an increase in inflammation (not always), insufficient recovery, reduced testosterone-cortisol ratio, low tolerance to stress (poor adaptability) → Reduction or cessation of training suggested.
It can get a little more complicated than this but for now this explanation will suffice.
Back to inflammation…
So even though I just explained why inflammation is important I’ll switch gears here and say that we are not doing ourselves any favors by contributing to further inflammation via nutritional, environmental and/or psychological factors.
Some of this is out of our control such as pollution and mental stress. It can be difficult to control what’s in the air we breathe or the chemicals we absorb from different surfaces and products. We also can’t control our car breaking down or other mentally frustrating events. However, we can control things like what we ingest (and what we don’t for that matter), how much we sleep, our fitness levels, and so forth. Maximizing these controllable variables can really enhance your adaptability by reducing or preventing unnecessary inflammation and/or promoting parasympathetic activity.
The forthcoming installments to this series will focus on ways that can potentially help raise your HRV (nutrition, aerobic work, restoration, massage, etc.).
The plan right now is for the next post to be about nutrition. I’ve enlisted the help of a friend who’s completing his PhD in Nutrition at the University of Saskatchewan to explain how certain foods contribute to inflammation and why this is something we generally want to avoid. I feel that much of the information presented in the next post will really illustrate WHY you should be more conscious about what you eat. As a former athlete and current trainer of athletes I’ve seen what it’s like to be on either side. Athletes know that they’re supposed to eat certain foods and avoid others. But they usually don’t understand why. They have a hard time understanding how what they ate on the weekend can affect their ability to get stronger or faster. We’ll discuss not just the importance of reaching appropriate macronutrients (protein, carbs, fats), but touch on which sources are likely better than others. We’ll touch upon alcohol intake as well since that’s obviously a major factor in the life of college (and let’s be honest, high school) athletes.
Excellent post about inflammation! As a Certified Athletic Trainer, I have noticed that a lot of people and clinicians do not realize that all inflammation is not bad. When talking about inflammation at the tissue level, it has a dual function. First being to defend the body against foreign substances and secondly to dispose dead and dying tissue so that repair and regeneration of new healthy tissue can take place. Without inflammation there would be no healing.
When an athlete gets injured, one of the first things I always see is the athletic trainer giving the athlete Ibuprofen. Now everyone knows that Ibuprofen is a Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory drug and pain reliever. So the question is, if we are being taught that inflammation is good and a necessity, why are we trying to inhibit it? We can control pain and swelling through rest, ice, compression and elevation. It seems as if the principles we are being taught in the classroom are not being implemented clinically.
So how does all of this tie in with HRV? It pretty simple because the same type of systemic inflammation that you talked about earlier occurs when an athlete gets injured. During the inflammatory response phase (after initial injury), ultrastructural, chemical, hemodynamic and metabolic changes occur in the body. Ultrastructural changes are the breakdown of the actual cell membrane. This is what causes ankle to “swell up” because the cellular contents are leaked into the extracellular spaces. After this occurs there are three chemical mediators that are released. They are cytokines, bradykinin and histamine. They are responsible for telling the rest of the body that an injury has occurred and are also responsible for removing cellular debris so that repair can take place. Hemodynamic changes, meaning the movement of blood, transport nutrients to the injured site. A hemodynamic change that occurs 3-5 minutes post injury is vasodialation of blood vessels. When this occurs blood is immediately transported to the area carrying leukocytes (white blood cells) which will build up around the injured tissues promoting healing. Lastly, metabolic changes occur within the body post injury. ATP (Adenosine TriPhosphate) is what gives cells energy to function properly. When a cell gets injured, it is deprived of oxygen (hypoxia) and cannot perform its normal function and has to get energy from somewhere. This is when injured cells rely on glycolysis, the conversion of glucose to lactic acid, to supply their energy demands. If the cells cannot get adequate injury they will die and tissue death will occur leading to secondary injury.
I am willing to bet that if you took a healthy athletes HRV level pre injury and post injury that there would be a significant decrease in the numbers. With all of the inflammation that is occurring in the body it is easy to see why. Now, as an athletic trainer what I would like to see is if an HRV score can help a clinician determine how hard to push an athlete during rehabilitation and help make a safe return to play decision. Although the research may be limited, if we can get a good idea of what is going on inside the body without asking the simple question of “how do you feel today” and relying on the athlete to determine how hard we should push them, we may be able to shorten our rehab times and ultimately return the athlete at a safer and faster pace.
Thanks for the elaborate response. If you ever use HRV in the re-hab setting be sure to let me know what you find!
My Garmin is now tracking HRV and aligns with your findings. It tells me I cannot train while strained because my HRV is generally between 35-45. Which sucks because I have an incurable disease called Indolent Systemic Mastocytosis. Long story short, I have chronic inflammation that never goes away. Yet I can run a 3:30 marathon. So I wish someone would explain that to me because obviously at 48 years old I train hard to sustain 8+ minute miles for 26.2 miles.
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Thank you for such a good start point for those of us looking to gain understanding of HRV who are not from a medical background. My particular interest is to track stress relation to PTSD and HRV. My personal HRV is in the 30’s according to my device I use. I train 3 to 4 days a week and eat a protein based diet with lots of greens that is also high in fats as well and consider myself to be in good shape. I have just started to track my HRV in the last week as I discovered it on London Real podcast with a guy named Ben Greenfield. I have built a baseline and been tracking for a weeek now…and just discovered this article. My goal is to raise my HRV and I will be applying the information gained from this series as well. Diet will be my next big shift. I plan to include blood testing and a gut test as well.
I will share my progress as I move along as my goal is to raise my HRV at least 10 points for now. I have inflammation from injuries aquired over multiple deployments and I am looking for ways to improve via lifestyle changes. I am very interested in ways of improving treatment without medication, which is what the VA gave me as soon as I walked through the door. That is not a long term solution so I am now looking at other options.
For some reason your comments were marked as spam. I’m just seeing them now. Sorry about that. Give me a progress update if you’re still keeping up with this.
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Thanks for writing thhis