Heart Rate Variability, Stress and New Apps for Measurement

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My mom was diagnosed with cancer when I began high school, and we noticed that every time she was stressed her white blood cell count increased significantly. This increase in disease-fighting cells, or leukocytes, is referred to as leukocytosis.

While cancer alone elevates white blood cell counts, Mayo Clinic states that severe emotional stress or physical stress can affect white blood cell count as well. My mom felt fairly certain that stress and the resulting leukocytosis was no help for fighting disease.

In 2001, researchers from the US National Institute on Aging published a study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology that found an elevated white blood cell count was tied to heart attack and death. In 2002, scientists found an association between increased white blood cell count and insulin sensitivity. In fact, white blood cell count was often a predictor of type 2 diabetes.

Researchers are still trying to determine whether an increase in white blood cell count results in disease or vice versa, but there have since been a number of studies that indicate higher stress levels negatively impact health. Harvard researchers found high stress levels are a better predictor of death in cancer and heart attack patients than smoking, while another study tied stress to subsequent heart attacks.

If stress causes leukocytosis, and both leukocytosis and stress is associated with disease, tracking and reducing stress seems like a reasonable concept. Luckily, SweetWater Health is making stress management easier for the masses.

Innovative Ideas for Managing Stress

I met with the COO of SweetWater Health, Jo Beth Dow, at the Health 2.0 Conference in San Francisco, where she presented the company’s stress detection and management app, SweetBeat. What struck me was Dow’s genuine interest in helping others improve their health.

By strapping a waterproof heart rate monitor to your chest, you can track heart rate data on your iPhone (the device will soon be compatible with Android phones) so you can see how your activities affect your stress levels. While giving the presentation, Dow’s heart rate was very high, naturally due to the stress of speaking in front of a large audience.

The SweetBeat app is designed to encourage you to monitor your heart rate and heart rate variability, with the hope that you will be able to identify stressful activities and either mitigate these activities or practice helpful coping strategies, such as breathing slowly and regularly. In fact, a breath pacer appears when users of SweetBeat show high stress levels, as a reminder to just breathe.

Dow noted that drinking alcohol increased stress levels, and going from one alcoholic drink to two elevated stress levels remarkably. When we become aware of how our bodies respond to particular events, we can be more careful when making lifestyle choices.

Stress Management Tied to Weight Loss

Ronda Collier, the CEO of SweetWater Health, said stress management plays an important role in weight loss. Collier explains, “[s]tress releases hormones such as cortisol that can signal the body to retain fat or even cause fat cells to grow.” A study published in the International Journal of Obesity in March of 2011 found that lower stress levels were associated with weight loss.

Weight gain may also be a result of food sensitivities, according to Dr. Mark Hyman. In order to help individuals identify and eliminate foods they are sensitive to, SweetBeat offers a food sensitivity test, based on studies of immunologist Dr. Arthur F. Coca. Dr. Coca found an increased heart rate in subjects that ingested foods the body was sensitive to, so naturally, SweetBeat can help determine whether one is sensitive to a particular food or not.

Heart Rate Variability Indicates Wellness

The SweetBeat app captured my interest because I didn’t know much – if anything – about heart rate variability. Heart rate variability is just that: the varying time between heartbeats. Turns out, a high heart rate variability indicates good health, which was not what I expected.

Dow explained, comparing heart rate variability to a rubber band. When a rubber band is in good working order, it immediately snaps back to its initial shape. In this same sense, the heart is in good working order when it can respond quickly to stimuli from the nervous system. When a rubber band is old, however, it doesn’t have the same elasticity and may not spring back so easily, just as an older heart may not respond as quickly to the brain.

Low heart rate variability has been connected to heart attack, and monitoring heart rate variability is a good way of tracking your health and determining if necessary changes need to be made to improve overall well-being.

Dow shared that an athlete using SweetBeat noticed his low heart rate variability. Though SweetWater Health associates warned the athlete, his doctor dismissed any admonitions. Soon after, the athlete suffered a heart attack and the doctor contacted SweetWater Health to ask about the SweetBeat monitor.

The Health 2.0 showcased a number of applications that worked to improve patient health, and SweetBeat was among them. I look forward to seeing what technologies are on the market next year.

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