Every human being has to tackle daily different physiological and environmental stimuli, which impose to the organism a continuous adaptational effort. The Autonomous Nervous System (SNA) plays a fundamental role since it helps the subject to adapt itself to the environment by adjusting all the physiological processes, both in normal and pathological conditions, through the variation of excitatory and inhibitory actions.
Since the autonomic nervous system plays a fundamental role in the psycho-physical state of health of each individual, it has been attempted to be developed a non-invasive evaluative technique of all the sympathetic and parasympathetic functions of the autonomic nervous system. This technique is called Heart Rate Variability (HRV), and it is able to acquire the patient’s data on his state of health through an extremely rapid, simple and non-invasive assessment, based on the functions of the autonomic nervous system, and it can be applied in different clinical settings.
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Heart Rate Variability in the cardiological field
Historically, his clinical interest emerged in 1965 when Hon and Lee found alterations in the R-R intervals of the recorded electrocardiographic signal to monitor fetal distress. Subsequently, in 1977, HRV has been identified in the cardiological field as a reliable index of mortality risk in patients who had suffered an acute myocardial infarction.
In detail, the variability of cardiac rhythm is an indirect signal of the adaptational degree of the internal and external stimuli. This variability characterizes a healthy individual with efficient mechanisms of regulation of the autonomic nervous system. On the contrary, a low variability of heart rate is often an indication of abnormal and insufficient adaptation to the external factors with reduced physiological function of the patient as direct consequence. Furthermore, by analyzing the result of an HRV analysis, it is also possible to determine the prevalence of the sympathetic or parasympathetic activity.
Over the years, besides witnessing an increase of its applications within the cardiology field, this technique has been proven effective and reliable also in other operational fields, among which psychology, psychiatry, psychotherapy, sports and wellbeing medicine. As such, simpler and more immediate measurements have been produced, even with potential integrations in several smartphones.
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Stress and related diseases
The concept of “stress” is widely known because of the frenetic daily pace of life people need to deal with. Today, the concept of stress has been extensively investigated and two different types of stressors – positive and negative- have been outlined.
In particular, we can define:
Eustress (positive) situation in which the stressors have an effect on the individual, producing a positive reaction.
situation in which the stressful factors exceed the limits of tolerability of the individual, producing a destructive reaction.
Nowadays, we can confirm everyone is exposed to stress and it is normal to feel “stressed” in different periods of time. However, it is dangerous and unpleasant if this phenomenon is continuous and lasts over time.
In fact, our body is able to perceive all the changes and it is able to release continuous signals related to the accumulated tension. As often these signals get repeatedly ignored, many different pathologies affecting different systems of the body consequently emerge.
The medical literature indicates the wide correlation between stress and disease. For example, a study conducted by the Department of Clinical Studies of University La Sapienza of Rome in collaboration with AISIC, the Italian Association of Stress and Cellular Aging, has noted that 70% of Italians die from stress-related diseases.
In fact, chronic stress is one of the foremost factors causing the most common pathologies in industrialized countries, such as cardiovascular diseases, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, intestinal diseases, even tumors, which together constitute more than 70% of the causes of death in our country.
The stress is due to several and diversified factors like: environmental, cognitive, lifestyles, insecurity, aggression, uncertainty about the future, but also smoking, alcohol, a sedentary lifestyle, drug abuse and inappropriate nutrition.
For this reason, it is important to become aware of stress-related pathologies and stress-generating mechanisms. In addition, it is important to manage the stress working on parameters such as nutrition, physical activity, breathing, rest and sleep and our daily mental attitude.
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