How Heart Rate Variability (HRV) Affects Mental Performance

Written by Erik Levi, FNTP — Updated on November 18, 2020

OVERVIEW:

  • Knowing your HRV allows you to track your body’s ability to overcome mental and physical hurdles.

  • There are many studies that show associations between HRV and cognition.

  • A higher HRV is better for overall health.

  • Age is one of the biggest determinants of HRV.

  • There are a number of wearable devices that you can use to track HRV.

Heart rate variability is one of the most important variables to measure when optimizing mental performance.

HRV is your heart’s interpretation of the influence of stress on your body and your ability to adapt to it.1Marek Malik, et al. Heart rate variability: Standards of measurement, physiological interpretation, and clinical use, European Heart Journal. 1996

To truly optimize your mind, you must eliminate as many stressors in your life as possible.

Knowing your HRV allows you to track your body’s ability to overcome mental and physical hurdles and shift into high performance.2Hye-Geum Kim, Eun-Jin Cheon, Dai-Seg Bai, Young Hwan Lee, and Bon-Hoon Koo. Stress and Heart Rate Variability: A Meta-Analysis and Review of the Literature, Psychiatry Investig. 2018

In this article, I’ll explain what HRV is, its effects on cognition, and the best tools for tracking and optimization.

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What is Heart Rate Variability

Heart rate variability or HRV measures the variation of the period between consecutive heartbeats over time.3U Rajendra Acharya, K Paul Joseph, N Kannathal, Choo Min Lim, Jasjit S Suri. Heart rate variability: a review, Med Biol Eng Comput. 2006

In other words, the fluctuation of the length of heartbeat intervals.

It’s important to understand that the heart is not a metronome, and its rhythm fluctuates throughout the day.

This happens due to the autonomic nervous system’s direct influence on the heart.

In fact, HRV is a great quantitative marker for depicting the activity of the autonomous nervous system.

This is because HRV represents the heart’s ability to respond to physiological and environmental events, including:4B Caruana-Montaldo, K Gleeson, C W Zwillich. The control of breathing in clinical practice, Chest. 2000

  • Breathing
  • Physical exercise
  • Mental/emotional stress
  • Metabolic changes
  • Sleep
  • Environmental toxicity

HRV data gives insight into whether your body is in parasympathetic (rest and digest) or sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system.5JP Saul. Beat-To-Beat Variations of Heart Rate Reflect Modulation of Cardiac Autonomic Outflow, Physiology. 1990

Ultimately this helps you understand how your body is reacting to stress and your overall health status.

HRV and Cardiovascular Health

This metric is also incredibly useful for analyzing overall cardiovascular health as well.

For example, it can assess the risk of sudden cardiac death in post-infarction and diabetic patients.6Dingfei Ge, Narayanan Srinivasan, Shankar M Krishnan. Cardiac arrhythmia classification using autoregressive modeling, Biomed Eng Online. 2002

For simplicity’s sake (as HRV can be a deep rabbit hole), we will focus on using HRV strictly for cognitive enhancement purposes throughout this article.

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What Is A Good HRV?

It’s generally accepted that a higher HRV is considered better than a lower HRV.

Good HRV’s are as follows:

AgeLow End of Healthy
(average)
Optimal Range (average)
35-444258-80
45-543750-69
55-643144-67
65-743148-115

Keep in mind that the above values are averages.  When tracking your HRV, you will see peaks and valleys.  The higher the peaks, the better.

It’s important to remember that age is one of the biggest determinants of HRV:7Eduardo Miranda Dantas, et al. Reference values for short-term resting-state heart rate variability in healthy adults: Results from the Brazilian Longitudinal Study of Adult Health-ELSA-Brasil study, Psychophysiology. 2018

As you age, the average lowers. However, HRV’s start trending up around 70 years old.

HRV and Mental Health

The balance between parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system states can have profound effects on your mental wellness.

In the brain, the amygdala interprets the severity of threats and ultimately calls on the HPA Axis to respond accordingly with stress hormones.8James P Herman, Michelle M Ostrander, Nancy K Mueller, Helmer Figueiredo. Limbic system mechanisms of stress regulation: hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenocortical axis, Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. 2005

The prefrontal cortex (PFC) and medial PFC (mPFC) regulate your amygdala’s interpretation of threat severity, and when the mind feels safe, the amygdala is inhibited by the ventromedial PFC (vmPFC).9Julian F Thayer, Fredrik Ahs, Mats Fredrikson, John J Sollers 3rd, Tor D Wager
. A meta-analysis of heart rate variability and neuroimaging studies: implications for heart rate variability as a marker of stress and health, Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2012

In fact, it’s been shown that HRV can measure the integration of the vmPFC, brainstem, and autonomic nervous system’s influence on the body.

This is useful since we know that heightened threat perception is at the heart of anxiety, PTSD, and depression.10Constance Hammen, Eunice Y Kim, Nicole K Eberhart, Patricia A Brennan. Chronic and acute stress and the prediction of major depression in women, JDepress Anxiety. 2009 11V C Goessl, J E Curtiss, SG Hofmann. The effect of heart rate variability biofeedback training on stress and anxiety: a meta-analysis, Psychol Med. 2017

Why HRV Is Not A Mental Health Parameter

It is important to remember that HRV is not a tool for diagnosing specific mental health conditions.

Many studies show associations between HRV and cognition.  However, these studies have not been interpreted for application in mental health treatment.

Using HRV can be a useful tool to identify the state of your autonomic nervous system and begin the work of tuning it properly.

HRV and Autonomic Nervous System: Parasympathetic vs. Sympathetic

HRV is the best indicator of your body’s internal stress response.

This is because HRV measures your autonomic nervous system, which is coordinated with your HPA axis.12Sivan Rotenberg, Jennifer J McGrath. Inter-relation between autonomic and HPA axis activity in children and adolescents, Biol Psychol. 2016

The HPA axis is your body’s internal emergency system that interprets stress and responds by releasing stress hormones.13Andrea H Marques, Marni N Silverman, Esther M Sternberg
. Evaluation of stress systems by applying noninvasive methodologies: measurements of neuroimmune biomarkers in the sweat, heart rate variability, and salivary cortisol, Neuroimmunomodulation. 2010

This stress response manipulates your autonomic nervous system (ANS) to promote physiological changes through the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).

Essentially, this is how your body maintains homeostasis and ultimately survives.

A low HRV indicates sympathetic nervous system dominance.  Higher HRV indicates more parasympathetic activity.

You typically experience both as your body’s HRV fluctuates throughout the day.

However, your body should spend more time in the parasympathetic nervous system and higher average HRV.

Sympathetic Nervous System

The sympathetic nervous response, also known as fight or flight, is your body’s physiological response to keep itself safe from stress.

Your internal fight or flight response evolved to protect you in dangerous situations.

We know this as the classic “running from a tiger” example.

Nowadays, stress comes in many forms, both physical and emotional, from internal and external stimuli.

Some examples of things that turn on the sympathetic nervous system include:

  • Competitive sports
  • Inflammation
  • Infection
  • Driving
  • Fights and arguments
  • Exercise
  • Toxic foods
  • Environmental chemicals
  • Mold
  • Stressful relationships
  • Social media
  • Stressful news

The release of epinephrine and norepinephrine mediates the sympathetic nervous system’s influence on heart rate.14H F Brown, D DiFrancesco, S J Noble
. How does adrenaline accelerate the heart?, Nature. 1979
.

This increases cardiac excitation frequency, excitation conduction velocity, and excitability of the sinoatrial (SA) node.

Using HRV can help you discover how you react to different stimuli like the above examples.

If your HRV trends low, you know your body is feeling the stress, which can be detrimental to your physical and mental health.

The most common stress-related diseases are cardiovascular diseases, metabolic diseases, psychotic and neurodegenerative disorders, and cancer.15Sheldon Cohen, Denise Janicki-Deverts, Gregory E Miller. Psychological stress and disease, JAMA. 2007

Parasympathetic Nervous System

The parasympathetic nervous system, also known as rest and digest, is your body’s way of alleviating the stress response and lowering HPA axis activity.

In a parasympathetic state, your body can relax and promote important physiological processes like digestion, recovery, and sex hormone production.

Parasympathetic activity also promotes brain-boosting neurotransmitters like acetylcholine16Jacob Tindle; Prasanna Tadi.. Neuroanatomy, Parasympathetic Nervous System
,
StatPearls [Internet]. 2020
and serotonin production.17Hannah Weinberg-Wolf, et al. The effects of 5-hydroxytryptophan on attention and central serotonin neurochemistry in the rhesus macaque, Neuropsychopharmacology. 2018

How Is Heart Rate Variability Measured?

HRV is a measure of the variation in beat-to-beat time intervals of the heartbeat.  Specifically the variability in the time series containing the time intervals between 2 successive “R” peaks of the QRS pattern on an electrocardiogram.18M J Cowan. Measurement of heart rate variability, West J Nurs Res. 1995

The R wave reflects depolarization of the ventricles’ main mass –hence it is the largest wave.19Ashley EA, Niebauer J.
. Conquering the ECG, Remedica; 2004.

The variability in R to R intervals is calculated in 2 domains: time and frequency domains.

This is important to understand since the heart does not beat in perfect rhythm, and understanding the time difference from one beat to the next can reveal much about your overall health.

Time Domain

The time-domain represents the variation in the R-R intervals by computing indices such as the standard deviation of the intervals (SDNN) or root mean square of successive heartbeat interval differences (RMSSD).

Many popular wearables use RMSSD metrics as their HRV number.

Higher values in time-domain measures are considered indicative of overall heart function resilience in adults.20C.K. Chen ; S.L. Lin; C.Y. Huang; T.C. Wang; T.Y. Yao; C.L. Wu. Analysis of Dynamic Cardiopulmonary Signals and Heart Rate Variability for Distinct Cardiopulmonary Fitness Norms under Graded Exercise and Recovery Periods, IEEE Eurasia Conference on Biomedical Engineering, Healthcare and Sustainability (ECBIOS). 2019

Frequency Domain

The frequency-domain is based on a power spectrum analysis that examines R-R interval time series to provide a portion of the time series’ power falling within given frequency spans.

These spans include very low, low, and high-frequency spectra of oscillations.

  • High Frequency (0.15-0.4 Hz)
  • Low Frequency (0.04 to 0.15 Hz)

High frequency (HF) power in the heart rhythm spectra is consistently considered a marker of vagal dominance or vagal “tone,” a factor often associated with reduced physiological stress reactivity and/or improved emotional stability.21DeWayne P Williams, et al. Resting heart rate variability predicts self-reported difficulties in emotion regulation: a focus on different facets of emotion regulation, Front Psychol. 2015

There is also Resonance frequency (RF), which is tied to a complex set of psychophysiological interacting influences.

RF factors include:

  • arterial trunk and aorta response
  • blood pressure
  • respiratory rate

These factors reflect an optimum state of function for oxygen uptake as well as emotional self-regulation.22Patrick R. Steffen, Tara Austin, Andrea DeBarros, and Tracy Brown. The Impact of Resonance Frequency Breathing on Measures of Heart Rate Variability, Blood Pressure, and Mood, Front Public Health. 2017

Heart Rate Variability vs. Heart Rate

Heart rate variability measures:

Heart rate measures how many times your heart beats per minute

Both HRV and HR can be strong indicators of cardiovascular and overall health.

HRV is inextricably linked to heart rate since the autonomic nervous system directly influences your heart rate.

Heart rate is a reflection of the balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous systems.

For example, increased sympathetic nervous system activity or diminished parasympathetic nervous system activity results in accelerated cardiovascular activity.25J Malcolm Arnold, MD FRCPC, et al. Resting heart rate: A modifiable prognostic indicator of cardiovascular risk and outcomes?, Can J Cardiol. 2008

On the other hand, increased parasympathetic and decreased sympathetic nervous system activity can lead to a slower cardio response.

HRV provides information about the functioning of your nervous system’s control on the HR and the heart’s ability to respond.

How To Improve Heart Rate Variability

Ultimately you want your autonomic nervous system to shift into the parasympathetic mode as much as possible.

Because of unavoidable factors in the modern world, you have to accept that your sympathetic nervous system will be used throughout the day.

The key is to instill practices and habits that allow your heart rate variability to rise and train your body to use the fight or flight mode when necessary.

Some practices that can help include:

Best HRV Monitor

As the importance of regularly monitoring HRV has become more mainstream, so have HRV monitors.

Many high-quality devices on the market can monitor HRV.  These include:

  • Oura Ring
  • Whoop Band
  • Apple Watch

These monitors can be expensive, and some come with monthly fees.

Not to mention you have to wear them throughout the day and while you sleep.

A good, affordable, non-invasive option is the Coresense finger clip monitor by Elite HRV.

This monitor is only worn a few times throughout the day for spot tracking.  It’s the least expensive out of all other HRV options and gives you a ton of value for the low price.

Conclusion

Heart rate variability, aka HRV, is one of the most important metrics to use for mind/body health.

Knowing how your heart is responding to your daily life can be a powerful tool for optimizing cognition.

Eliminating things that cause stress and getting more of the things that relax you allows your nervous system to make the right hormones and neurotransmitters that boost your brain.

About the author:

Erik Levi, FNTP

Erik Levi is a co-founder of HolisticNootropics.com and a certified holistic nutritional therapy practitioner.

As an NTP Erik takes a nutrition first approach to health. He has worked with many different people to help them use nutrition to optimize their quality of life.

Erik believes that mental health is a physiological process and cognitive enhancement is not something that can be achieved by just taking some pills with good Amazon reviews.

Instead, true cognitive enhancement comes with the right balance of nutrients, movement, and gratitude. Erik continues to stay up to date with the most current nootropic and holistic health research and promises to deliver the best solutions possible.

You can check out his personal health blog/podcast/YouTube Channel all under the name Holistic A-Hole.

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I'm a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner who helps people reach peak cognitive performance through diet and lifestyle.

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