From An Upper Cervical Chiropractic Perspective


heart rate and heart rate variability and the nervous system

Set yourself on fire with this – heart rate and variability and health

Are heart rate and heart rate variability a window into longevity? (If this doesn’t inspire you to raise your cardiac capacity, I don’t know what will.)

I collect information for articles and email newsletters and I have pages of jottings on this and that…

For years I have written a private email newsletter that goes directly to my patients, and its content rarely shows up on my website…Kind of a privilege of membership.

Recently I was asked to start putting some of my writing into a single shareable form, so this is my first attempt at stringing multiple emails into a single article.

For the sake of keeping the (slightly annoying? quirkiness) of my emails, I’m leaving it mostly intact as it went out. So, here we go, in three parts.


Heart rate and heart variability – can it restart your health goals?

Heart rate and heart rate variability has been on the back burner to show up in this email (now blogpost) for a long time.

Well, no more.

I was inspired to condense this information because I finally found a summary that put a big, beautiful bow on the subject.

(You can read that summary on Quora here.)

You see, right now in mid January 2020, there’s a bunch of people falling off their resolution bandwagon because they don’t have enough fuel to fire their desire for change.

They were on fire for something better in their lives just a few weeks ago. But now that fire is going out.

If they made it beyond the first week, then we’re now into that first plateau stage where the new habits aren’t fully cemented yet…

It’s easy to start missing a few days, and oops, by the start of February it’s back to 2019 status.

So, if you know someone who was determined to being intentional about exercise, and confesses that it’s getting tough…share this information with them.

There appears to be a relationship between heart rate and longevity

In general the rule is this: the faster the resting heart rate, the shorter the life span.

A resting heart rate greater than 75 beats per minute means a 2x likelihood of death from any disease, and a 3.5x of death from a heart attack!

There also appears to be a relationship between heart rate variability and longevity as well!


Variability is the randomness of the interval of the individual heart beats.

Contrary to popular belief, a heart that beats as steady as a drum or a watch is not a healthy heart.

Heart Rate Variability Monitors
Reliable HRV readings are now available through smart phone apps which hook to small monitors like this one.

There should be a variety of intervals between beats. Not having that variety is called low heart rate variability (or low HRV), and this an indicator that the heart is not being influenced by the rest and relax side of the nervous system (the parasympathic nervous system).

A resting heart rate greater than 75 beats per minute is a sign of stress. And so is low HRV.

An ideal situation would be to have a heart rate in the high 50s or 60s at rest, and to (on average) have high HRV.

(FYI: HRV can now be measured with some reliability by your smart phone and will fluctuate throughout the day, so you’re looking for a trend over time.)

In general you could say you’re lowering your risk of disease and potentially increasing longevity if you can lower your resting heart rate and increase your heart rate variability.

What lowers resting heart rate?

Aerobic exercise and resistance exercise is the simplest answer. There are more complex considerations for people with more complex health problems related to heart, hormones, and metabolism.

What increases heart rate variability?

Anything that stimulates the activates the parasympathetic nerve system, especially the Vagus Nerve, can help with raising HRV.

That can include meditation, some breathing exercises, and perhaps even posture/head position, among others.


The beat (my heart) goes on (and how it goes matters) — heart rate variability as a marker of human stress

Last email we went over the link between heart rate (beats per minute) and its link to longevity, and spent a short time on HRV (or heart rate variability).

In honor of February being American Heart month, let’s take a few minutes to explore heart rate variability and why it could be important to you and your stress response.

(I’ll be dropping in song titles to heart-related pop songs as an added bonus. See if you can spot them all.)

So, a quick review: a resting heart rate over 75 beats per minute may be linked to shorter life span and an increase in likelihood of heart attack

But hearts aren’t just limited to how often they beat per minute, there’s also a quality to their beat.

Heart and soul?

While you can count out a heartbeat over a minute or so, there’s something more to it than the rhythm we perceive with the naked ear.

There’s variation in the timing of the beat, and this variation has been measured and studied since at least the mid 1960s, and it’s called HRV.

What’s so special about HRV? HRV is a diagnostic test, like other diagnostic tests that doctors use…but not many in the general public know of it.

And that’s probably because it’s complicated and while we call it heart rate variability, it’s not really a measure of heart health directly…

It’s a measure of the human nervous system and its balance.

So, heart rate variability actually measures the nervous system?


Confusing, right? So what does it tell us?

Give your heart a break

Hearts don’t just run on their own. They are hooked into a complicated electrical system called the Autonomic Nervous System (or ANS).

Put in the simplest terms, HRV tells us how active and in balance the ANS is. And this activity is ultimately a measure of (our future) health.

(If you want to read further, HRV measures action of the hypothalamus, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system on the heart.)

  • When the ANS is active and balanced as it should be, the heart beats with a greater variability (or higher HRV).
  • When the ANS is depressed, unbalanced, or under stress the hearts beats with less variability (or lower HRV).
  • It’s natural to have a lower HRV when we’re actually stressed.
  • It’s not natural for this low HRV to persist after the stress passes.

When the ANS is depressed or unbalanced more than normal, that can be a predictor for chronic disease, like diabetes and heart disease.

  • And this is why beats per minute and heart rate variability can help us predict longevity for the general population.
  • A higher resting heart rate means stress. And a lower HRV means stress on the autonomic nervous system.

And stress on the nervous system is okay in small amounts. But extended stress over time can mess us up, just like inflammation can.

An inappropriate stress response is like your body believing it lives in a war zone when you really live in a cul-de-sac of retirees at the end of a quiet neighborhood.

The shape of my heart

A low HRV may show up in a heart that is not healthy. But until that time low HRV tells us that the body has a less ability to adapt to demands.

In other words, it stresses out over little things. Low heart rate variability can mean that the nervous system is sweating the small stuff.

And as that genius self-help book says:

“Don’t sweat the small stuff.”

Heart of Gold?

Should I really care about this?

In a world where we often feel like we have too much information this is a fair question. After all, we have to do a lot of work to cut through the clutter.

And this is why we might want to consider thinking about HRV.

Heart rate, blood pressure, HRV, sleep apps and other diagnostic tools actually do help us cut through the clutter.

For example, if we’re attempting to get healthier through exercise, and we find that our HRV levels are falling (getting worse), that can reveal to us that something is wrong with our workouts giving us invaluable information that can save us weeks or months of doing the wrong thing for our bodies.

Don’t believe me, believe Harvard Medicine

“Over the past few decades, research has shown a relationship between low HRV and worsening depression or anxiety.

A low HRV is even associated with an increased risk of death and cardiovascular disease.

People who have a high HRV may have greater cardiovascular fitness and be more resilient to stress.

HRV may also provide personal feedback about your lifestyle and help motivate those who are considering taking steps toward a healthier life.”

(From Harvard Health Publishing: Heart rate variability: a new way to track well-being)

Can I raise my HRV and lower my stress response? Yes, yes you can. Part of raising HRV is knowing what lowers HRV

Things that decrease HRV (short-term)

  • Stress
  • Poor sleep
  • Poor diet
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Illness
  • Acute overtraining
  • Some medications

Things that decrease HRV (long-term)

  • Chronic disease or inflammation
  • Chronic stressors or burnout
  • Chronic lack of sleep
  • Lack of fitness
  • Chronic Overtraining
  • Unhealthy home or work environment

(From: Quick and Dirty Tips: What is heart rate variability and how to improve it)

There are also may be some specific actions we can take that may raise our HRV

  • Sleeping in a proper sleep cycle
  • Deep breathing exercises
  • Aerobic exercise, but just below our aerobic capacity
  • Taking cold showers (seriously)
  • Eating a “Mediterranean diet”

(According to iThlete: Five ways to increase your HRV)

There are also others outside this list.

Rhythm of my (chiropractic) heart

One proven way to lower HRV over time is chiropractic care. Yes! Chiropractic adjustments influence HRV and can improve our stress response.

Chiropractic’s influence on the ANS is important to getting out of a fight or flight response and balancing the nervous system for many people.

The improvement of posture, specifically the position of the head and the neck will also influence the balance of the autonomic nervous system.

But we’ll get into that in detail in a future email.

Interested in measuring your personal HRV?

Is it time to hack into your own health with a personal HRV monitor?

It’s one way to explore a healthier lifestyle that includes immediate feedback on the steps you’re taking to get healthier?


Here comes the cherry on top – Vagal Tone and why it matters

Who doesn’t love a three part email series about a complicated health subject? Well, you’re almost through the thick of it and getting to the end.

I promise this will be the quickest and to-the -pointest yet.

4 weeks ago we read about the relationship between heart rate and health and longevity.

We said that, in general, a faster heart rate (75 beats per minute and above) was associated with a greater chance of early death and development of disease.

2 weeks ago, we got into depth on another heart related subject, called Heart Rate variability (HRV).

Hearts don’t just run on their own. They are hooked into a complicated electrical system called the Autonomic Nervous System (or ANS).

Put in the simplest terms, HRV tells us how active and in balance the ANS is. And this activity is ultimately a measure of (our future) health.

When the ANS is depressed or unabalanced more than normal, that can be a predictor for chronic disease, like diabetes and heart disease.

And this is why beats per minute and heart rate variability can help us predict longevity for the general population.

VAGUS, rhymes with the town but is spelled differently

I could have written all those above sentences this way: HRV reveals Vagal Tone.

What is Vagal Tone?

Vagal tone is how often/efficiently the Vagus Nerve is firing and maintaining it’s balance of the ANS, the parasympathetic side of the nervous system.

  • Sympathetic Nervous System (one half of the Autonomic Nervous System is for fight or flight stuff)
  • Parasympathetic Nervous System (the other half of the Autonomic Nervous System is for rest, digest, and repair stuff).

Put in the simplest terms, you have a rest, repair, and relaxation part of your nervous system that starts at the base of your brain and ends at your rear-end, it’s controlled by your Vagus Nerve.

Vagal Tone tells us how healthy and/or stressed this nerve is.

  • Poor Vagal Tone is bad
  • Strong Vagal Tone is good

And HRV is a window into if the Vagus Nerve is stressed or happy!

Okay, okay – but again, Dr. Z, why should we care?

Friends, this is why.

As the rest, relax, and repair nerve the vagus is involved in:

  • Healthy digestion (including gut flora balance, flow of digestive juices, and feelings of satiety – knowing when to quit eating, and avoiding inflammatory disease in the bowel)
  • Healthy heart rate and variability (see above)
  • Balanced blood pressure (affects the tone of the blood vessels)
  • Healthy inflammation (balancing the inflammatory cytokine system with your natural cholinergic system – your very own anti-inflammatory pharmacy!)
  • Healthy sugar handling (regulation of release of insulin)
  • Healthy stress response and emotional regulation (with a role to play in both PTSD and depression)

And this is just getting into the surface of what’s going on.

Simply put:

Vagal Tone is an underlying health function that we can monitor and encourage in order to live the best, healthiest version of our lives.

And we can access, support, and improve our vagal tone with structural chiropractic care, and with specific body work, and other supportive practices!

In other words, if you don’t like your vagal tone, I and you may be able to help change it! How about that?

References and read more:

The Cut: I now suspect the vagus nerve is the key to well-being

Stress, Heart Rate Variability, and the Immune Response to Infection from Dr. Jon Chung

Heart rate, life expectancy, and the cardiovascular system

Effects of Spinal Manipulation and Myofascial Techniques on Heart Rate Variability: A Systematic Review

The Impact of Cervical Manipulation on Heart Rate Variability

Effects of Upper and Lower Cervical Spinal Manipulative Therapy on Blood Pressure and Heart Rate Variability in Volunteers and Patients With Neck Pain: A Randomized Controlled, Cross-Over, Preliminary Study

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