Over the last few years, heart rate variability (HRV) has emerged as one of the most potent biomarkers for wellbeing, with a variable heart rate suggesting a greater resilience to physiological and psychological stress. It is theorised by many experts in the field that one of the reasons it is such a powerful measurement is due to the fact that it provides an insight into the functioning of an individual’s autonomic nervous system, with an imbalanced (usually sympathetic dominant) nervous system being reflected in chronically lowered HRV.
There are a number of things you can do to increase your HRV – improving cardiovascular fitness is a good start – however one of the most effective ways is to breathe. I believe this is one of the primary reasons why practices like yoga and meditation are so beneficial to health; their practices are characterised by slow, conscious, diaphragmatic breathing.
Everyone has their own specific resonance frequency breathing rate, lying somewhere between 4 and 7 breaths per minute, which induces a state of ‘cardiac coherence’. Breathing at this rate has been shown to provide profound therapeutic benefits, with repeated practice training the autonomic nervous system to move towards a state of balance, getting out of the chronic sympathetic (fight or flight) state which seems to be an increasingly common affliction of modern living. The limited number of studies which have taken place confirm that this kind of training promotes improvements in a number of cardiovascular conditions such as asthma and hypertension, however, of greater interest to me is that these studies also suggest improvements in a number of more unlikely conditions, including depression, anxiety, fibromyalgia and IBS, which modern medical interventions have a hard time treating.
“If breathing’s so powerful, why haven’t I heard anything about it?”
While it’s widely accepted that the breath can have a powerful impact on physiology, it unfortunately cannot be patented. This means that there’s not a lot of money to be made and therefore little funding available for large scale studies. Trust me though, this is good stuff.
Now I’ve seen claims from people hyping resonance frequency breathing along the lines of “figure out what takes monks 10 years to discover in 10 minutes” and while I don’t think these claims are particularly useful or indeed accurate, I do feel that this kind of breathing training is likely to be far more accessible than meditation to your average person. It’s not much of a chore to follow along with an audio breathing cue when you’re driving to work, for example.
I strongly believe resonance frequency breathing has an important role to play in helping to rebalance the ANS, which is why I have spent an excessive amount of time reading about it over the last few months. It’s also one of the most direct ways in which we can improve the functioning of the vagus nerve; if you’ve not heard of the vagus nerve before I’d recommend a quick Google – it’s an extremely important nerve that everyone should know at least a little about. Or if that seems like too much effort, I’ve gone to the trouble of finding a fun article for you: The Nerve That Saved My Life.
For my dissertation I’m developing an app which will determine the user’s individual resonance frequency breathing rate, and allows them to undergo HRV biofeedback training sessions at this rate. The app will be created using Cordova (yeah I know, it’s for a school project alright), and available as an Android application on the Google Play store, hopefully some time around September. As this is a genuine passion I hope to pursue the idea further than my dissertation, and add more/refine features as I learn more about the underlying physiological mechanisms. I’ll probably put an add up somewhere as well: “Soccer-mum cures brutal IBS by following one simple trick. DOCTORS HATE HER.” And if someone other than my mum happens to download it, I may even consider rolling it out to iOS.
Over the next couple of months I’ll likely post further articles on the subject, and maybe even include some code snippets. 😀