Effect of alcohol on vagal regulation of cardiovascular function: contributions of the polyvagal theory to the psychophysiology of alcohol

Exp Clin Psychopharmacol. 1999 Nov;7(4):484-92. doi: 10.1037//1064-1297.7.4.484.


Research was conducted to evaluate the influence of acute alcohol consumption on vagal regulation of heart rate. Nine men with histories of polydrug use participated in this residential study. On 5 separate days, they drank liquids consisting of cold water (on 2 days), a moderate dose of alcohol (0.64 g/kg), a high dose of alcohol (1.12 g/kg), and a placebo. Continuous recordings of heart period were quantified to produce 3 measures of heart rate variability, reflecting the amplitude of 3 neurophysiologically mediated rhythms. Heart period, respiratory rhythm (i.e., respiratory sinus arrhythmia [RSA]), and the 0.064-0.10-Hz vasomotor rhythm were significantly lower during the high alcohol dose condition, relative to the placebo and water conditions. Because the neural regulation of the heart by the vagus contributes to these variables, these findings suggest that alcohol reduces cardiac vagal tone. In support of this explanation, alcohol also decreased the coupling between changes in heart period and changes in RSA. This study demonstrated that alcohol produces a dysregulated state in which heart rate is relatively uncoupled from vagal activity.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Alcohol Drinking / physiopathology
  • Alcohol Drinking / psychology*
  • Arrhythmia, Sinus / physiopathology
  • Central Nervous System Depressants / pharmacology*
  • Electrocardiography / drug effects
  • Ethanol / pharmacology*
  • Heart Rate / drug effects
  • Hemodynamics / drug effects*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Psychophysiology
  • Reward
  • Vagus Nerve / drug effects
  • Vagus Nerve / physiology*


  • Central Nervous System Depressants
  • Ethanol