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

How to increase HRV – Part 1: Inflammation

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.

Generally speaking,

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.