Traditional Chinese Medicine has been tracking and making healthcare based decisions off of a persons heart rate for centuries (actually, even longer than that based on a lot of accounts!). This is because the rate, quality, and regularity of the heart beat is a direct marker of the state of your entire body…and since the heart rate is always present and easy to access, it’s a really handy thing to trend!
Nowadays, heart rate monitors are often used as a marker of activity and calorie consumption. And while they don’t give you information on the quality of your heart rate, I believe they can be used for much more than just losing some fat.
Additionally, compared to a lot of other health markers, heart rate monitors come in a variety of forms and most of them are relatively affordable. (Like anything having to do with preventable medicine, it’s important to consider what $250 means to you as compared to thousands of health care dollars down the road for worsening of your health.)
In this post, I’m going to discuss what you can learn from following you heart rate and how I use it to assess my health status on a consistent basis.
Note: as with everything with medicine, one marker alone isn’t isually sufficient to really give you a good picture of what’s going on. I also keep an eye on my digestion, tongue, sleep patterns, and skin health for this exact reason.
The heart gets input from a over the body. The central meccous system, vessels, inflammatory markers, hormones, and even toxins all have effects on the heart. As a result, tracking our heart rate, in addition to other aspects of our body, can indirectly reflect the health of all these systems.
Common Things That Impact Your Heart Rate
So let’s go through the common things that impact the heart rate one by one. By the end, I hope you’ll have a newfound appreciate for that organ pumping away in your chest and how much more information you can get from your heart rate monitor. (I used to look at my heart rate monitor as a marker of calories burned as a marker of how much Ben and Jerry’s I could eat! Oh, how times have changed!)
Please note: you may have all, none, or just some of the same heart rate changes as me. This list isn’t necessarily meant to be exhaustive…it’s to give you examples so that you have the tools to help you figure out what’s going on with you!
#1. Heart rate changes in response to gut problems.
One of the ways I can tell that I’ve eaten something that didn’t agree with me is because my baseline heart rate goes up by that night, or at the latest, the next morning. Now, if I’ve eaten gluten, I’ll know because I also get violently ill…but not all food sensitivities are that overt.
Oftentimes, food sensitivities have reactions so delayed that it can really difficult to pinpoint the culprit. Since the baseline heart rate can increase as soon as a few hours after food ingestion, it can be a really handy extra tool to use to help you figure out what’s going on.
#2. Adrenal dysfunction (and lots of other hormones) impact the heart rate.
I don’t really think I need to mention that being stressed can increase your heart rate acutely. What a lot of folks tend to not realize is that chronic, low levels of stress can also lead to long term changes in the resting heart rate. Side note: This leads to increased workloads for the heart (not great long term for cardiovascular health) and increased wall stress on blood vessels (again, nor great for cardiovascular health).
What’s more, other downstream (and even upstream…thanks to negative feedback loops!) hormones, such as sex hormones, thyroid hormones, and hunger hormones in the adrenally-related hormone loops are all impacted in this process. That’s the problem with hormones…once one part get really screwed up, the whole cascade starts to get a little wonky.
Adrenal and hormonal imbalances can be a HUGE cause of poor sleep and, sadly, these are often the people who need good sleep the most! If you’ve been struggling with this and want help, Megan and I are kicking off our Healthy Hormones Group Program kicks off twice a year (spring and fall!).
It’s a 3 month group program complete with hormonal, adrenal, and neurotransmitter testing, a customized protocol created just for you based off your lab results, bi weekly videos, instructional emails, group calls, and a private FaceBook group. It’s filling up fast so make sure to get in touch with me if you’re interested in joining us!!
#3. The central nervous system gives direct input into the heart.
Once of the primary determinants of the heart rate (besides the intrinsic firing of nodes in the heart) is central nervous system. Thanks to this complex signaling web of nerves (simply put), we can go about our business with our hearts responding appropriately without our conscious input!
What happens when your central nervous system ramps up is that the heart rate logically follows. This is yet another reason why mental stress so obviously impacts your cardiovascular state.
#4. Poor Sleep Places Stress on the Body
Since we’ve already established not one but two ways that stress can increase your resting heart rate, it’s easy to see why both acute and chronic sleep deprivation can impact what your heart is doing. If you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter, you probably noticed that your heart was feeling a little pound-y and weird…and you probably attributed to all that coffee you drank to stay up.
Turns out, the sleep loss alone will mess with your heart. We all know we should get enough sleep…but it doesn’t often happen like it should. Your heart rate can serve as a very real and very persuasive marker of what you’re doing to your body when you skimp. (For more on this topic, read this article called Melatonin, Cortisol Release, and Why You Should Go to Bed Earlier.)
#5. Your Heart Can Be Your Response to Poor Habits
We all have bad habits that we’re not proud of. A lot of them you’ve probably already kicked…but have you ever found them creeping into your life again?? In some way or another, everyone can relate to this because we all have something.
Bad habits like excessive alcohol use and cigarettes (just to name a few!), just like being super sleep deprived, show up in your heart rate. (This is especially true for alcohol because it increases aberrant firing of the heart pacing centers.) Once you can see what you’re doing your body in real-time with these habits, it can be a big help in getting them out of your life food good.
#6. A Sedentary Lifestyle
You’ve probably heard of this before but I’m including it here anyways: a sedentary lifestyle doesn’t give your heart the exercise it needs (also, read this article about another physiologic link between a sedentary lifestyle and cardiovascular disease). Staying active, fit, and at a healthy weight range decreases stress on the heart and, over time, will lower your resting heart rate to a certain extent (this is true even if you’re not a professional athlete!). As much fun as watching the time of your minute mile and the scale tick down, it helps to have other markers–like your heart rate–to cheer you along!
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