Heart Rate Variability, Oura & Chiropractic

29th February 2020by victoriafenton0

This post is a dual post both here and on aletheiaclinics.com written by Victoria Fenton.

Be aware that this post is NOT going to be a deep dive into chiropractic – and is especially not a satisfactory or adequate insight into the very unique, highly specific and hugely impactful Gonstead system. For more on that – head to our page on physiology/chiropractic, or indeed (and perhaps better) head to the Caley Chiropractic pages on chiropractic care and on the Gonstead system specifically.


Whenever I meet a new Healthcare concept my default is scepticism. The same was true when Dr Glenn Caley of Caley Chiropractic introduced me to the Gonstead system. I wanted an osteopath – not a chiropractor. I did NOT want to be ‘clunk-clicked’. But it was a friend who connected us, so… I had to humour him, right?

My first meeting with Glenn went well – he spoke the right language about the power of the nervous system and when it is in clear communication; brain and body being able to relay messages accurately about internal and external states, and therefore appropriately respond. It was the first time a chiropractor had talked to me in a way I would talk to my patients… so I agreed to a proper appointment.

After my first adjustment with Glenn it was like a lightbulb went off in my brain/body. I knew that this was actually something.

But anyone who knows me knows that whilst I completely accept the feeling and the energetic resonance of something, I also know that there must be an evidence base, or a scientific explanation – or at the very least, some kind of validation of what I experience. This evidence-base is actually not for me – I tend to just feel things and trust. But for other people it matters – and for the patients who I knew I was going to want to refer to get the kind of chiropractic support that I had – I really wanted to be able to say something beyond “go – it feels right – trust me” (though bless all my patients, they tend to take this type of guidance anyway!!)

But – with this Gonstead Chiropractic system I’d been introduced to – I did what I always do when something captures me: I bought every book that I could find and I researched the s**t out of it.

In one of the first books I read on Gonstead specifically, one of the first statements I came across was that Clarence Gonstead found “through correlated evidence… and from blood and urine analysis findings, that when the subluxation is corrected, the physiological response is immediate.” 

My brain flew into overdrive: what tests? what was measured? what was observed?

Unfortunately I can’t find good reference to this anywhere: not in the textbooks I have read, nor on an extensive Google hunt.

However, the seed was sewn: how, given today’s extensive abilities to measure metrics and biomarkers, could I gain objective measures of the impact of chiropractic adjustments? Obviously this would only be on me personally, at least to begin with, so not ‘evidence’ as such: but an interesting experiment nonetheless.

What I was searching for was a correlation between my own biomarkers and my lived experience. 

The obvious choice is wearables data. Easier than bloods, my wearables are regularly worn by me anyway. And in the Oura Ring we have the most powerful tool for measuring one of the most accurate markers of nervous system Health we know of: Heart Rate Variability (HRV). If chiropractic really did influence the nervous system, what was my HRV doing the night following an adjustment?

The Specificity of Gonstead Adjustments

One interesting thing about Gonstead’s approach that I truly resonated with was the differentiation between an adjustment of vertebrae which control (or have influence over) the Sympathetic Nervous System (the fight-flight-freeze branch) versus an adjustment of vertebrae which governed Parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) activity.

Within the Gonstead system, chiropractors are encouraged not to adjust vertebrae in both systems within the same session, perhaps for obvious reasons. If it’s not obvious – it’s because you are recalibrating the neural signals with a chiropractic adjustment. Doing this in both Sympathetic and Parasympathetic is sending very mixed messages. It’s not impossible or un-doable (in fact, I’ve had adjustments in both simultaneously). But to the sensitive (and I’m one of them) it just feels a bit weird.

But of course, this gave me a ‘metric’ issue: what would the impact of a sympathetic-focused adjustment be vs. a parasympathetic one? Was there a difference?

And, again, it throws me into the contemplation of “what does Healthy look like?”

I have several problems with wearables. The first is that they actually serve to DIVORCE the connection between self and physiology – by relying on a wearable to tell you how you actually feel you willingly outsource the very art of ‘tuning in’ to your own self.

The second is that we are merely guessing at Healthy at the moment. We know what ‘Healthy’ looks like for HRV (the higher the better). But there are countless variables: athletes are outliers, those with chronic illnesses and the elderly are outliers.

More than that – and this is something I’ve come to really grasp through looking at my own HRV in response to chiropractic adjustments: we do not yet know what HEALING (i.e. the very act of Healing during sleep) looks like.

What Does My Data Say?

Firstly, I could never make a research scientist. I’m way too emotional. For me, an adjustment always changes my very core sense of self.

Adjustments in my parasympathetic are the best – they make me feel finally able to stop running, I lock into feeling safe and at home in my own skin and I finally connect to the absolute exhaustion that my body is going through.

Adjustments in my sympathetic are amazing though. My symptoms of reactivity tend to completely stop. Any gastric motility issues tend to dissipate. I feel like I’m not completely clenched through my upper oesophagus and chest.

But all of this excessive emotionality/connection/feeling into myself is properly unhelpful for science… I have not always worn my Oura Ring after adjustment days. I just didn’t want to – didn’t remember – didn’t feel it was right… typically over-emotional and deeply un-scientific.

So… after several month of inconsistent but cumulative DATA? What does this show?

Completely bizarrely (to my mind) – the below is completely typical of a night post-sympathetic adjustment. For context, this is utterly RUBBISH in terms of a Health metric. i.e. a Sympathetic adjustment “should” relax me a little – decrease the tension (or something like that). I’d expect GOOD HRV scores. A max of 67ms is… actually worrying:

And the below is typical of a night post-parasympathetic adjustment – actually remarkably “Healthy” in comparison – even though these adjustments tend to tire me and make me feel ‘sluggish’:

Ignore the timings – my sleep schedules are a work in progress. The important thing is that these are WILDLY different – and this is despite every other behaviour being the same. And you will note – on the nights that I feel a parasympathetic adjustment has ‘relaxed’ me, my HRV scores are excellent… and the opposite is true of sympathetic adjustments.

This was actually completely opposite to the way I was expecting.

But MOST importantly – this is supremely consistent. A parasympathetic adjustment will give me exceptional (for me) HRV scores – a marker of true adaptability and Health. A sympathetic adjustment tanks my HRV – supposedly a marker of ‘issues’.

This “tanking” would be conventionally thought of as ‘unHealthy’ – or at the very least a signal that I’ve been ‘overtaxed’. But I don’t think this is a fair representation. Altering sympathetic activation suppressing HRV is completely expected, if you think deeply about it. Sympathetic activity is a stress response. Altering that stress response is highly likely to drop the body into a more ‘survival/Healing’ mode, rather than a ‘firing on all cylinders/high HRV’ mode. Could this, in HRV terms, mean that lower HRV = a Healing signal?

What Does This Mean?

I am not an HRV, nor an Oura expert. I work with them, and I include many of their experts as friends. The data gleaned from wearables is now being used in actual studies because the tech is getting really good. But I’m still just one person – and the scientists who work to use Oura data don’t need to be bothered by my small self-experimentation.

But – in terms of consistency of a repeatable experiment – the above HRV alterations are completely uniform. I waited to release this post until I was a) out of London and b) in somewhere I felt more relaxed and c) had had BOTH types of adjustment (from the same chiropractor) in ALL of these scenarios.

Every time, without fail, the above happens. Chiropractic consistently, reliably and uniformly alters Heart Rate Variability.

It’s funny because I also understand that the impact may even be completely diametrically opposed for someone else. However, what I would expect, after months of tracking this, is that chiropractic adjustments WILL alter HRV – in SOME way.

Dr Caley doesn’t know I’ve been evaluating his discipline like this. And, truth be told, I wouldn’t personally have cared if I had seen NOTHING from this data because how I FEEL after adjustments is everything.

However, to those patients (and IG followers) who I am irritating with my chiropractic posts… THIS is why. If I recommend a supplement to you, you won’t see this direct result. If I recommend a dietary strategy, you won’t see such swift or observable results at all.

This experience of mine – both personally, but also through the data I have been gathering – has completely affirmed my physical, lived experience. This chiropractic work – specifically Gonstead (don’t tell Dr Caley, but I cheated on him during this process and NOTHING happened with my HRV 😉) – makes a huge difference. There is a majesty in connection – internally, throughout your own nervous system, and then to the outside world. It completely changes your neurological responses. And that, in turn, transforms your Health.

This is why I work very hard to find chiropractic and physiological support for Aletheia patients – wherever they are in the world. The body keeps the score, holds the wounds and feels the fears. True Health strategies MUST include for physiological support, and preferably vertebral adjustments – to facilitate the finding of neurological alignment and connection. With this foundation of connection, the body itself can access Healing. It happens no other way.

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