Building off my last blog post’s topic of stress, I would like to discuss a way in which we can measure stress. Heart rate variability (HRV) is a way in which you can check to see if my stress management advice is working for you.
The popularity of tracking heart rate variability is growing exponentially. There is a huge rise in the popularity (…and price!) of Whoop bands and Oura Rings. If you don’t believe me, just look around campus at peoples’ wrists. So, what is all this hype about? What does heart variability tell us? Here I’d like to discuss why you might want to consider heart rate variability for a measure of your own stress levels now as a student, as well as for your future patients.
HRV essentially measures the balance of our autonomic nervous system, between the sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”) and parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”). Put more simply, HRV is a measure of your resiliency to your stress response. This is especially cool because it means you can directly see if your day-to-day habits are contributing to or hurting your health. Start working out, sleeping and even taking beneficial supplements, and you’ll see your HRV start to soar. Go to the bar, take multiple shots of tequila, and stay up to 3 a.m. and you’ll see your HRV astonishingly drop the following morning. This situation is strictly hypothetical; I’m not at all speaking from experience here.
Even if if tracking your own HRV isn’t of interest, I still believe this is important information to keep in mind for patients. It’s safe to say that you will have patients whose conditions are affected by stress. HRV gives you a potential avenue to see if your lifestyle interventions are improving this component of your patient’s condition.
Some options to track your HRV include the aforementioned Whoop and Oura ring, which are based on a subscription-based model. If you already have an Apple Watch, there are free apps like Chippr and Athlytic that calculate HRV into a recovery score like the Whoop and Oura ring.
Keep in mind that HRV is highly individual. This means you shouldn’t be aiming to beat your best friend’s highest HRV score but rather improving on your own baseline.
For more helpful information about HRV, see this NUHS blog by Dr. David Hopper, 4 Reasons Why HRV (Heart Rate Variability) is the Health Metric of the Future.