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Keywords:

  • Alcoholism;
  • Autonomic Nervous System;
  • Heart Rate Variability;
  • Sleep

Background

Alcoholism is considered an important risk factor for cardiovascular (CV) disease. Autonomic nervous system (ANS) function is a major indicator of CV health. Sleep is a suitable model to investigate ANS activity free from wake-related confounders. We investigated nighttime ANS functioning, and the relation between ANS activity and severity of alcohol dependence in chronic alcoholism.

Methods

Fourteen recently abstaining alcoholics (age: 42.0 ± 9.0 years, 7 women) and 16 age- and sex-matched controls (age: 45.2 ± 9.1 years, 8 women) underwent a night of standard clinical polysomnography, including electrocardiographic recording. Time- and frequency-domain spectral analysis of heart rate variability (HRV) was performed across hours of the night and during artifact-free epochs of stable sleep and wakefulness (presleep wakefulness, rapid-eye-movement [REM], and non-REM sleep).

Results

Alcoholics had a poorer subjective and objective sleep quality compared to controls. Across the night, alcoholic men and women had elevated heart rate, reduced total HRV, that is, lower standard deviation of normal-to-normal interbeat intervals, and reduced high frequency (HF) activity (assessed by the HF power and by the square root of the mean squared of successive heart period differences). This ANS pattern was most apparent at the beginning of the night. None of the ANS measures was associated with lifetime alcohol consumption or duration of alcohol dependence.

Conclusions

Our results show that ANS functioning is disrupted during the night, even in undisturbed sleep periods, indicating poor CV functioning in recently detoxified alcohol-dependent men and women.