Why I Quit Drinking: Resting Heart Rate, Variability, and Telomeres

Excessive alcohol consumption shortens telomeres.

I love to drink!  It’s fun, often social, and something to look forward to.  Some of the best, gut bustingly “I can’t breathe” funniest, most memorable times of my life involved alcohol and good friends.  Nevertheless, I’ve decided to pretty much totally eliminate alcohol from my life.  “Why?” you wonder.  My reasons are manifold and I will explain them in detail below.  Feel free to attempt to talk me out of this life changing decision.

I am truly not trying to convince anyone of anything.  I am neither a teetotaling “alcohol is the root of all evil” proclaiming evangelist, nor am I trying to convert you to my way of thinking.  Rather, I am just presenting the facts as I see them and sharing with you what I am doing and why I am doing it.  If you disagree with me, do tell me.  How else is one to perform “better” or gain deeper knowledge and understanding without furious debate?  As I continue to learn about and research aging, my views remain in a constant state of evolution.

 

Resting Heart Rate
Resting heart rate measures how many times your heart beats in a minute while completely at rest.  A normal resting heart rate for adults ranges from 60 to 100 beats a minute.  Generally speaking, a lower resting heart rate suggests more efficient heart function and better overall cardiovascular health.  An elite athlete might have a normal resting heart rate closer to 40 beats a minute.  The healthier and fitter you are, the lower your resting heart rate is likely to be.  In fact, this is so obviously critical to overall health, I have decided to make Resting Heart Rate a “Reversing My Age Biomarker of Aging”.  It shocks me that more emphasis is not placed upon it.  According to Harvard University, “One of the easiest, and maybe most effective, ways to gauge your health can be done in 30 seconds with two fingers. Measuring your resting heart rate (RHR) — the number of heartbeats per minute while you’re at rest — is a real-time snapshot of how your heart muscle is functioning.

In fact, research has found that a RHR near the top of the 60 to 100 range can increase your risk for cardiovascular disease and even early death.  For example, a 2013 study in the journal Heart tracked the cardiovascular health of about 3,000 men for 16 years and found that a high RHR was linked with lower physical fitness and higher blood pressure, body weight, and levels of circulating blood fats. The researchers also discovered that the higher a person’s RHR, the greater the risk of premature death. Specifically, an RHR between 81 and 90 doubled the chance of death, while an RHR higher than 90 tripled it.1

 

My Epiphany
My realization that something was not quite right began about a month into my quest.   My fitbit is constantly tracking my heart rate and I often glance down at it to see how I am physiologically responding to a given situation.  Sometimes, I am surprised by the way my heart is reacting to a given stress or situation.  I began noting that some days my resting heart rate was inexplicably high.  My heart rate variability also dropped precipitously during those very same days.  “What gives?” I wondered.  As the weeks wore on, I established a connection between even modest alcohol consumption and a distressing effect on both my resting heart rate (RHR) and  heart rate variability (HRV).

You can see it spikes and stays high for a few to several days after I drink moderately or more.  Perhaps that’s what explains how I could have started this endeavor with a resting heart rate of 75 beats per minute.

I had my DNA partially sequenced going into this endeavor.  One of the things I learned was that I am sensitive to alcohol.  I did not know what that meant.  In fact, I looked into the matter, researching it everywhere I could find information on the subject, and still did not find a satisfying explanation that I fully grasped.   I now believe that my wildly fluctuating resting heart rate is a reflections of this genetic sensitivity.  While alcohol consumption may not affect your resting heart rate or variability, it seems to clearly effect mine.

Excessive alcohol consumption has been shown to shorten telomeres.
Excessive alcohol consumption has been shown to shorten telomeres.
Your heart will only beat so many minutes in a lifetime.  I have reduced my resting heart rate by a whopping one third in less than three months.  Now, I don’t expect to live 33% longer, which would be the equivalent of roughly 25 years, but I do, however, expect to live significantly longer and significantly healthier for a longer period of time.  Perhaps I may even attain longevity escape velocity.  Time will tell…
Heart Rate Variability
Heart Rate Variability (HRV), on the other hand, is the change in time between successive heart beats.  HRV examines the small fluctuations of the heart that occur in response to internal and external stimuli.  HRV is a direct link to your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and can therefore be used to gain insights into your nervous system, stress and recovery activity.2  According to Jason Moore of Elite HRV,Your Autonomic Nervous System controls your body’s unconscious processes (with the help of the endocrine system, etc.) such as blood sugar, adrenaline, digestions, pupil dilation, heart rate, and much more. The ANS has two main branches: the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS).The Sympathetic Nervous System controls your body’s “fight or flight” reactions in response to internal or external stressors. It stimulates blood glucose, pupil dilation (to see tigers better), slows digestion/peristalsis, and increases heart rate.  The SNS is ideally activated to overcome short term stress situations and typically ignores long term health.The Parasympathetic Nervous System controls your body’s “rest and digest” responses and is associated with recovery. Parasympathetic activation conserves energy, constricts pupils, aids digestion, and slows heart rate. The PNS is meant to help build for the long term and is needed to grow faster, stronger, healthier.Both branches are always working and both are needed to maintain homeostasis in your body.  With every single heartbeat, your nervous system is saying “slow down – speed up” based on feedback from all your senses, emotions, etc.  A healthy nervous system has a balanced but strong push and pull between the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic branches.3I begin each and every morning with a routine that involves stepping on my body fat scale that is synced with an app on my phone and then wetting a Polar H10 heart rate monitor and strapping it to my chest. I then sync my heart rate monitor with an app called Elite HRV and take a few minutes to take a recording of my RHR and HRV. Generally speaking, the lower the RHR and the higher the HRV, the better. But one’s HRV can be too high, which is an indication of a nervous system that is out of balance with one’s parasympathetic system dominating.  It is all relative to one’s baseline.  The results of each HRV test tell me how ready I am to train on that given day.  On some days, it tells me to train really lightly.  In a few cases, after punishing my body relentlessly, it was in the red zone, indicating I should not train at all.When I consume alcohol, my resting heart rate goes up.  My HRV is inversely correlated to my RHR, so as my RHR goes up, my HRV drops.  This is extremely bad and yet another reason I’ve decided to give up alcohol.  Studies support my observation noting that alcohol exerts a dose dependent effect on HRV.4  One might experience no HRV effect from one or two drinks, but certainly will if he or she consumes more.  The effect will intensify the more drinks one consumes.   Gone are my days of drinking two six packs.  I sure am going to miss those days…

I believe Heart Rate Variability will be the next big thing in health, fitness, and medicine.  HRV has already become well established as a biomarker of biological age.  The Palo Alto Longevity Prize is offering a Homeostatic Capacity Prize of $500,000 to the team that restores homeostatic capacity of an aging reference mammal to that of a young adult using Heart Rate Variability as the measuring tool.5  Supporters of the Palo Alto Longevity Prize believe aging may be halted or reversed by restoring homeostatic capacity to that of a healthy young adult.6  I wholeheartedly agree.

HRV wasn’t even on my radar when I began this quest.  My primary objective remains to lengthen my telomeres.  In the process of doing that, I fully expect to simultaneously improve several biomarkers of aging.  Among those biomarkers I expect to improve is HRV.  Perhaps I may even restore my own homeostatic capacity.

 

Alcohol’s Effects on my Sleep
Another reason I decided to quit drinking is the effect it has had on my sleep.  Whenever the subject of sleep used to come up, I thought, “I’m tough, I don’t need no stinking sleep.”  Or, “I’ll sleep when I am dead.”  I now realize that macho way of thinking regarding sleep was not only grossly misinformed, it was plain and simply stupid.  Quality of and length of sleep is as at least as important as what one eats and how one exercises.  During sleep is when the body heals itself.  Lack of sleep is associated with a plethora of non communicable diseases, including cancer.

Below are screenshots of my Fitbit’s sleep analysis.  I thought this is pretty much what everybody’s sleep looked like:

Now that I have quit drinking, my sleep looks like this:
The difference in sleep quality is visibly astonishing.  I still don’t get enough sleep; something I plan to focus on in the coming weeks, but you can see that I am now getting significantly more deep, restful sleep (dark blue bars) and waking up much less frequently.  I still believe I have obstructive apnea and will be seeing the doctor within the week to discuss getting a proper diagnosis and treatment.
Alcohol and Telomeres
What seems to be settled science is that everyone who is a very heavy drinker has significantly shortened telomeres.  According to the “BluePrint for Healthy Aging” I received with the analysis of my telomeres, “The telomere length of heavy drinkers was found to be half that of social drinkers, and the more drinks per day, the shorter the telomere length.  Those who drank more than 4 drinks a day had substantially shorter telomeres.  The effects persisted even when researches controlled for other known factors that potentially impact telomeres, such as BMI, vegetable intake, and genotoxic dietary exposure.”7Ben Greenfield wrote in his incredible book Beyond Training, “And that’s not all.  Cortisol works with aldosterone to balance electrolyte levels – so when you’re hungover, your body churns out more cortisol.  This not only contributes to even more fluid retention but also raises blood sugar levels by converting amino acids into glucose in your liver (also known as gluconeogenesis).  As blood sugar levels go up, the pancreas churns out more insulin, resulting in abnormal stress on both the pancreas and the liver.  These chronically elevated levels of cortisol can also cause catabolism (decreased protein availability in skeletal muscles) as well as a redistribution of body fat from your legs and arms to your belly.”8  I believe I actually suffered from this very affliction, as my arms and legs appeared quite lean, while the bulk of my body fat was concentrated in my torso.  This type of fat, visceral fat, is the most dangerous because it wraps around one’s organs.  I am still recovering from this condition.   As Ben Greenfield touched on, when you drink, you might as well be pouring highly refined sugar down your gullet, because that is the way your body processes alcohol.  I used to think if I drank low or zero carb alcohol, I was in the clear.  Michelob Ultra was my beer of choice for many years.  I now realize that is preposterous because of the way in which the body processes all forms of alcohol.  Having high blood sugar levels can lead to metabolic syndrome and diabetes.  I was prediabetic as of three months ago.  Insulin and cortisol both cause accelerated aging.  So, for someone who is trying to reverse his biological age, drinking as much as I used to is clearly out of the question.Nary a week passes in which I don’t come across a news article extolling the benefits of alcohol consumption.  These articles are often written by doctors.  The “French Paradox” is often cited as are the potential benefits of polyphenols and resveratrol.  As I read these articles, I always wonder, “Why not encourage people to eat grapes and take a resveratrol supplement to receive the same benefit instead?”  Glaringly NOT mentioned is alcohol’s strong associations with various types of cancers and other non communicable diseases. Why don’t doctors universally condemn alcohol or at the very least recommend a limit of one to two drinks infrequently, as any conceivable benefit seems to be decimated by known negative considerations.  Well, I’ve begun emailing the authors of these articles to ask these very questions.  Thus far, I’ve been ignored.
Five Headed Hydra of Death
Five Headed Hydra

 

Monsters Do Exist
There exists a five headed Hydra of Death whose heads are named Heart Disease, Cancer, Stroke, Alzheimer’s, and Diabetes.  If you live long enough to become a senior citizen, one or more of these heads is exceedingly likely to bite you.  Each is strongly linked to alcohol consumption.  While quitting drinking was not an easy decision for me, from a purely logical perspective, it was a no brainer.  I do not expect to escape Death forever; but when it comes for me, I do not think it will be in the form of the Hydra.  Rather, it will be a fluffy, white Golden Retriever puppy that wants me to play with it as I happily, and willingly, follow it into the hereafter.
Citations:
1  Solan, M. (2017, October 20). Your resting heart rate can reflect your current – and future – health. Retrieved December 17, 2017, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/resting-heart-rate-can-reflect-current-future-health-201606179806
2  Moore, J. What is Heart Rate Variability. Retreived December 17, 2017, from https://elitehrv.com/what-is-heart-rate-variability
3  Moore, J. What is Heart Rate Variability. Retreived December 17, 2017, from https://elitehrv.com/what-is-heart-rate-variability
4  Spaak, J., Tomlinson, G., McGowan, C. L., Soleas, G. J., Morris, B. L., Picton, P., … & Floras, J. S. (2010). Dose-related effects of red wine and alcohol on heart rate variability. American Journal of Physiology-Heart and Circulatory Physiology, 298(6), H2226-H2231.
5  Prize One. (n.d.). Retrieved December 18, 2017, from http://paloaltoprize.com/prize-one/
6  “Homeostatic Capacity.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 26 Mar. 2017. Retrieved December 17, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homeostatic_capacity
7  Telomere Diagnostics. (2016). Blueprint For Aging Well.  17.
8  Greenfield, Ben. (2014). Beyond Training. Las Vegas: Victory Belt Publishing, Inc., 250-251.

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