After posting my first article about continuous HRV monitoring with Lief, my journey to improve HRV continues. Today, Lief is an indispensable part of my lifestyle and attaching it on my chest is one of the first things I do every morning. Seeing live impacts of an action, a habit, an event etc. on my HRV when they’re happening is so powerful, allowing me to fine tune various aspects of my lifestyle in order to improve HRV.
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Both physical and psychological/mental stressors can affect HRV. I’m a natural worrier, so in terms of HRV, the latter is the one I struggle mostly with. While physical stress is the one often associated with lowered HRV, I find this type of stressors straightforward to address; I know exactly what caused the lowered HRV (“An HIIT class yesterday”) and can take an appropriate action (“Today, I’ll rest.”). And voila, the next day, my HRV bounces back to its normal level.
Psychological stressors are trickier; Even we have powerful tools such as meditation, I personally struggle to utilize it effectively when I need it most. Don’t get me wrong – meditation practiced correctly not only reduces stress but also, in a long run, transforms the brain into a stress-resistant form. The problem is that I’m a bad meditator and find it difficult to still my mind, especially if I’m experiencing a major frustration, worry etc. Recently, the suspicion that I’m not accessing the full potential of meditation got confirmed by Lief that, on a day my mind was stuck with a greatly frustrating incident, my HRV stayed stunningly low the ENTIRE DAY despite several rounds of meditations – Talk about double frustrations! In fact, once I had to simply take off Lief, because seeing the HRV bar stay red no matter what only frustrated me more.
I do practice daily meditation and hopefully one day have mastered the art of stilling my mind with meditative practices. Meanwhile, to take control of my HRV at the time of a major stress, it was clear that I needed to find something else that worked RIGHT NOW. The first place I started to experiment were supplements:
· Alpha GPC and Huperzine A. Alpha GPC is a naturally occurring choline compound in the brain and is a precursor to acetylcholine that has a parasympathetic nerve stimulating effect. Huperzine A inhibits breakdown of acetylcholine. I usually take 500 mg of Alpha GPC with 200 mcg of Heperzine-A on an empty stomach.
· Honokiol in DHH-B form with other herbal extracts. Honokiol (magnolia bark extract) has known neuroprotective effects  and even seems to have an antidepressant-like effect , Though I haven’t seen any study that demonstrates Honokiol’s effect on HRV, I’m supporting my brain to fight against anxiety that I have a tendency towards.
They seem to keep my HRV in a healthy level on the days with no major stress. The problem is that they don’t improve my HRV in an emergency when I’m hit by stress; These supplements are like multivitamins that I can take to cover the body’s baseline micronutrition needs, but popping them may not help to recover from an acute illness. I still take them on most of the days but clearly needed a better strategy to improve HRV under stress.
When facing a stressful event, getting myself yet another one just may not seem intuitive; But this is exactly what I did on one day, when a problem at work was getting hold the better of me. My HRV started to drop predictably. Previously, I’d have taken a break to meditate but this time, I went outside to our balcony “to chill my head”. It was winter in Sweden, so there was no shortage of coldness (3 C/37 F), and it couldn’t be said even remotely relaxing or fun being outside in a thin layer of in-house clothing. Nevertheless, I sat on a chair and breathed deeply, six seconds in and six seconds out, just as I’d do during meditation. Unexpectedly, after a few seconds in the freezing temperature, my HRV started to increase. FAST. Within a few minutes, it had doubled, without me even trying!
Today, cold exposure is my go-to way to boost HRV, and I LOVE having a tool that reliably and consistently improve my HRV at times of emotional crises. Cold exposure seems to strengthen my vagus nerve tone in general, and after a few weeks of practicing it, I’m seeing a constant improvement in my resting HRV, both in the average and maximum HRV scores.
Try it – It’s easy and costs nothing. If you live in a warm climate, you can stand in front of an open freezer or take a cold shower. If none of the above is feasible, you can also put a bag of frozen peas at the side of your neck, where the vagus nerve runs, though personally, I find a whole-body cold exposure the most effective.
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