How to increase HRV: Part 2 – Nutrition

In Part 1 of this series I discussed inflammation and its relationship with HRV. Through monitoring my HRV daily I’ve learned that nutrition plays an important role in improving or reducing your adaptive capacity. Eating foods that promote inflammation in the body creates stress that your body must deal with. In dealing with this stress we reduce our ability to adapt and recover from training. Below is a screen shot of my HRV trend over a week of eating large amounts of foods commonly known to promote inflammation. You can see my scores drop each day and only return once I resumed eating better foods. This experience inspired this article series. To discuss the details of nutrition and inflammation I’ve recruited the help of my friend and PhD candidate Marc Morris.


My name is Marc Morris and I am a PhD student in Nutrition at the University of Saskatchewan. First, I’d like to thank Andrew for the invitation to participate in the discussion surrounding the use of heart rate variability and strength training. The utility of HRV in strength training is very interesting to me. Being a competitive powerlifter, I am always actively seeking ways to improve my training cycles. Truthfully, I don’t know a great deal about this measurement. What I do understand, however, is the potential that exists in a real-time measurement of the autonomic nervous system. Monitored on a daily basis, HRV may provide a tool from which we can objectively auto-regulate our training.

The goal of a dedicated athlete should be to maximize his or her adaptability to training. This is done in part by minimizing unnecessary stress on the body outside of training. From a nutritional standpoint, what you eat (or don’t) can play a significant role in your recovery and adaptability. This is what drew me to nutrition in the first place. Is it possible to improve my performance and body composition through what I consume? Your lifestyle plays a very big role in your training status and may very well be the difference in the transition from mediocre to elite.

We’ve always been told what you eat can effect performance (I’ve also learned that it’s a good idea to learn why you’ve always been told something on your own terms – usually these beliefs fall into the class of dogma). But, outside of eating complete junk and feeling like garbage, this is a tough concept to see and feel. It may not noticeably affect your body composition, it may not affect your energy, but it may be hindering your recovery. Chronic inflammation is not easy to “feel”. At least not until you’ve over done it.

My job today, and hopefully in future occasions, is to discuss how nutrition may influence inflammation, and what you can do to position yourself to be more adaptable in a training cycle. Andrew noticed a decreasing trend in his HRV over a week of entirely uncharacteristic eating (discussed here). This included plenty of processed foods, trans fats, refined carbohydrates and so on. These foods are common culprits of inflammation in the gut. Andrew felt well rested and rated his overall stress levels as low however his diet that week was creating an apparent stress that he couldn’t feel.

In Part 1, Andrew did a great job distinguishing what we know as acute inflammation, our body’s immediate response to injury and infection, and chronic systemic inflammation. As of late, “inflammation” has been a buzzword in most health circles. It has fallen victim to the black and white, all is bad classification. Chronic inflammation is a lingering, low-grade condition that has been linked to just about every health condition in the modern world, from heart disease to cancer. Managing this type of inflammation will help you not only avoid chronic disease in the latter half of your life, but could improve your performance now.

Health professionals may use biomarkers such as C-Reactive Protein (CRP, an acute inflammatory protein) and interleukin-6 (IL-6, a cytokine involved in the inflammatory response) to assess chronic inflammation (despite having a half life of 19-hours, CRP seems to correspond to the chronic condition pretty well). This may be suitable for someone that regularly visits the doctor. But, if you’re a healthy individual these tests will be costly and invasive (blood drawn). Additionally, this type of test won’t allow for an ideal frequency.

The most pronounced effect of diet on inflammation involves the essential fatty acids (EFA). Without going into too much of the physiology about this, the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids act as substrates in cascades that control inflammatory products (De Caterina and Basta, 2001 [free review]). Neither are bad, per se, however, the typical North American diet contains larger amounts of omega-6 that largely affect the pro-inflammatory pathway. This topic is so vast it deserves an entire blog post itself. The take home message would be: increase omega-3 intake to balance fats by eating fatty fish (or at least supplement with fish oil).

The ingestion of trans-fats have been shown to increase inflammatory markers, such as the aforementioned markers, CRP and IL-6 (Baer et al. 2004). To minimize low-grade chronic inflammation this would be a fatty acid to avoid (Calder et al. 2011). Foods such as pastries, doughnuts, margarine, and other snack foods commonly have high amounts of this unhealthy fat. So, apart from minimizing excess calorie intake, the high trans fat content of “junk” foods and its effect on inflammation is another reason to avoid these.

The last dietary factor I would like to address today would be alcohol. In small doses (1-2 drinks/day), alcohol has consistently shown to have an anti-inflammatory effect. Above this moderate dose, this effect changes to pro-inflammatory. So a glass of red wine every once in a while isn’t such a bad thing. However, going out and having 10 drinks will have some unwanted effects on your recovery (inflammation being only one of many negative effects).

It is important to acknowledge that not everyone is the same. Dietary choices may have a differing inflammatory response in each person. Having said that, below this article there is a chart of foods that are typically anti-inflammatory verses foods that are typically pro-inflammatory.

That’s it for today. In future posts, I’d like to address the macronutrient composition of the diet and the hypothesized mechanisms for dietary related inflammation.

Note: We are reluctant to categorize foods as in many cases it’s effect on the body is conditional. For example, lactose intolerant individuals will have a more adverse reaction to dairy than one who isn’t lactose intolerant. People with gluten sensitivity should obviously avoid gluten. So take this chart with a grain of salt as they are just intended to be generalizations.

Foods That Promote Inflammation

Foods That Reduce Inflammation

Pastries/Doughnuts Ginger
Margarine Tumeric
Dairy Onions
Gluten Garlic
Refined Wheat Products (breads, pastas) Citurs Peel
Peanuts Olive Oil
Hydrogenated Oils Organic, Grass Fed Meats
Vegetable Oil Wild Caught Fish
Grain/Corn Fed Meat and Fish Green Tea
Processed/Deli Meats Green Veggies (Broccoli, Kale)
Sugar Berries

Practical Applications:

  • Try and stick to grass fed meats and wild caught fish
  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables
  • Drink tea
  • Use spices and herbs when cooking
  • Use olive oil
  • Try to minimize refined carbohydrate sources

Note: We understand that eating this way isn’t entirely practical for students and busy folks. The key is simply to eat less of the foods you know may be hurting your progress and eat more of the ones you know will help.


De Caterina, R., Basta. G. (2001). European Heart Journal Supplements, 3 (Supplement D), D42–D49

Calder, P.C., Ahluwalia, N., Brouns F. et al. (2011). British Journal of Nutrition, 106, S3, 1-78.

Baer, D.J., Judd. J.T., Clevidence, B.A., et al. (2004). American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 79, 969–973

7 thoughts on “How to increase HRV: Part 2 – Nutrition

  1. Improved autonomic function may partly explain benefits of Mediterranean diet:

    Twin study

    JUNE 16, 2010 | Shelley Wood
    Bloomington, IN – A new study linking adherence to a Mediterranean-style diet and greater heart-rate variability in male twins may provide a new clue to understanding why a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, grains, and omega-3 fatty acids seems to reduce the risk of cardiovascular events, investigators say [1].

    The study, published online June 15, 2010 in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, showed that people with the highest scores—signifying that they ate a diet very similar to the classic Mediterranean diet—were significantly more likely than those with the lowest scores to have higher cardiac autonomic function, even after researchers controlled for genes and shared environment.

    As Dr Jun Dai (Indiana University, Bloomington) and colleagues explain in their paper, lower heart-rate variability, defined by a range of time and frequency domains acquired by ambulatory, 24-hour ECG monitors, is an established measure of cardiac autonomic dysfunction—a risk factor for cardiac death. Previous studies have linked certain foods and nutrients to different levels of heart-rate variability, but the Mediterranean diet as a whole (combining a range of grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, fish, and high olive-oil consumption) has not previously been examined in relation to heart-rate variability, they note.

    Their study looked at food-questionnaire results from 276 middle-aged, mostly white, male twins participating in the Twins Heart Study and analyzed these alongside ECG recordings. They found that men with the highest Mediterranean diet scores (divided by quartiles) had significantly higher measures of heart-rate variability across all of the time and frequency measures taken. Adjusting for shared genes or environment, other nutritional factors, and overall energy intake had no effect on the overall results. For every one-unit higher score, Dai et al write, heart-rate variability parameters increased by roughly 4% to 13%.

    “The study is the first, to our knowledge, to demonstrate an association between the Mediterranean diet and heart-rate variability,” the authors conclude. While the mechanisms underpinning the association are unknown, the findings nevertheless lend further support to recommendations to eat a diet rich in vegetables, fish, grains, etc, with a high dietary ratio of monounsaturated to saturated fatty acids.

    As Dai explained in an interview, the study specifically looked at twins in order to exclude genetic or environmental and social factors related to upbringing that would have predisposed the men to better or worse cardiovascular health—by the study design, the only major difference between twins was how well they adhered to a Mediterranean-style diet.

    “When you try to persuade people to follow a healthy diet, not everyone will take that advice. Some people will argue, ‘Oh, I don’t have good genes, so diet won’t help anyway.’ And people also argue that the Mediterranean diet works only in the Mediterranean area, because people there maybe have genetic factors [that predispose them to lower rates of heart disease]. In our study, we really wanted to know, does the Mediterranean diet protect the heart, independently of genetic factors?”

    The answer, she says, appears to be yes. Moreover, the finding that a Mediterranean diet may be specifically beneficial for cardiac autonomic function is an important new finding, she says. Previous work by Dai and colleagues has linked Mediterranean-diet adherence to reduced systemic inflammation and oxidative stress.

    “The Mediterranean diet affects the heart in multiple ways,” she told heartwire. “This new finding adds [another piece of evidence to explain] the cardioprotective effects of this diet” and suggests it may be particularly beneficial in patients shown to have reduced heart-rate variability on ECG. “This really gives physicians more incentive to persuade their patients to choose a healthier diet, like a Mediterranean diet.”

  2. Pingback: All about the ithlete HRV device | HRVtraining

  3. Pingback: How to increase HRV Part 3: Aerobic Exercise | HRVtraining

  4. Pingback: Planning the Recovery | HRVtraining

  5. Pingback: The Whole Picture: Nutrition | TrainingPeaks

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s