Effects of Deep Breathing on HRV

by | Apr 1, 2022

Reading Time: 3 minutes

If you’re interested in getting better sleep, you may be familiar with the benefits of deep breathing. You may know, for instance, that it can relax your mind and body while improving your quality of sleep. 

What you may not be familiar with is how deep breathing affects your heart rate variability (HRV). HRV is an important health indicator and can be improved over time with lifestyle changes. One of the quickest ways to a healthier HRV is to take a deep breath. 

What Is Deep Breathing?

Deep breathing is the act of consciously taking slow, diaphragmatic breaths. When you breathe deeply, your body starts to slow down and relax. 

Coherent breathing is similar to deep breathing and involves taking long, slow breaths at a rate of about 5 breaths per minute. This is much slower than the way we usually breathe. For most of us, the spontaneous breathing rate at rest varies from 9 to 20 breaths per minute in healthy adults.[*]

What Is HRV?

Your heart rate measures the number of times your heart beats each minute. Your heart rate variability measures the fluctuations in time between each heartbeat. 

It is normal for our heart rates and the time between beats to change throughout the day. Heart rate variations change by fractions of a second to adjust for changes in the body and environment. 

For example, your heart rate changes depending on what you’re doing. Our hearts beat slower when we’re at rest and faster when we’re active, stressed, or sense danger. 

Your HRV is a measurement that reflects how adaptable your body is to change. High HRV is associated with better cardiovascular health, less stress, and more feelings of happiness. When your heart can quickly react to stimuli, your body is more resilient to stress and illness.[*

Low HRV is considered a warning sign of current or future health problems. Low HRV tends to be more common in people who have high resting heart rates. When the heart has to beat faster, there is naturally less time between beats. This leads to less variability, which is linked to an increased risk of diabetes, hypertension, arrhythmia, asthma, anxiety, and depression.[*

It’s important to note that high HRV is not always a good thing. An unusually high HRV could indicate a health problem like heart disease or anxiety. HRV can only be measured with specialized devices like an electrocardiogram (EKG) or heart rate monitor from your healthcare provider. 

How Deep Breathing Affects HRV

Deep breathing is a simple way to improve HRV because taking slow, deep breaths helps to downregulate the sympathetic nervous system. This is the system that triggers the “fight or flight” response in the body. It activates any time we feel stressed or threatened. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, HRV tends to be lower.[*]

Fortunately, a few deep breaths can activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the system that causes a “rest and digest” response in the body. It is responsible for calming us down after a stressful situation. When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, HRV naturally increases.[*

Sleep and HRV

HRV tends to be lower when we’re stressed and higher when we’re at rest. Getting quality sleep is one way to improve your HRV and your health. 

A 2014 study found that people with insomnia were able to increase their HRV with regular deep breathing exercises. The study participants also reported that they fell asleep faster and stayed asleep longer once they started incorporating deep breathing into their nightly routines.[*]

Other Ways to Improve HRV

HRV is a reflection of how adaptable your body is to stress and changes in the environment. Fortunately, HRV is flexible and can be improved over time. Other ways to improve HRV include:[*]

  • Physical activity
  • Healthy diet
  • Mindfulness
  • Meditation
  • Sleep
  • Stress reduction
  • Biofeedback training 

HRV may also be affected by pacemakers, certain medications, and age. As we age, HRV naturally decreases. 

Deep Breathing Exercises to Increase HRV

Now that you’re ready to jump on the HRV train, let’s get specific. One of the simplest ways to improve your HRV is to practice deep breathing each day. 

A 2014 study found that a breathing pattern of 6 or 5.5 breaths per minute is associated with greater HRV than spontaneous breathing.[*] In other words, when you focus on taking deep, slow breaths (about 5 to 6 per minute), your HRV improves right away.

In the study, participants were asked to breathe in for 5 seconds and then breathe out for 5 seconds. This 5:5 ratio was found to significantly increase feelings of relaxation and improve HRV. The study participants also experienced better cardiovascular function, increased oxygen saturation, and decreased blood pressure. 

To get started, find a comfortable place where you can relax and close your eyes. Place one hand on your belly and one on your chest. Breathe in deeply for 5 seconds. Make sure you feel your belly rise as you inhale.

Once you have filled your lungs, slowly breathe out for 5 seconds. You’ll notice that your belly deflates like a balloon. Continue this ratio of 5:5 breathing for 10 minutes each day. Need a little support sticking to the ratio? Set your Somnox 2 sleep robot to 6 breaths per minute and relax into your deep breathing practice. No counting or keeping track required. 

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