Autonomic tone as a cardiovascular risk factor: the dangers of chronic fight or flight

Mayo Clin Proc. 2002 Jan;77(1):45-54. doi: 10.4065/77.1.45.


Chronic imbalance of the autonomic nervous system is a prevalent and potent risk factor for adverse cardiovascular events, including mortality. Although not widely recognized by clinicians, this risk factor is easily assessed by measures such as resting and peak exercise heart rate, heart rate recovery after exercise, and heart rate variability. Any factor that leads to inappropriate activation of the sympathetic nervous system can be expected to have an adverse effect on these measures and thus on patient outcomes, while any factor that augments vagal tone tends to improve outcomes. Insulin resistance, sympathomimetic medications, and negative psychosocial factors all have the potential to affect autonomic function adversely and thus cardiovascular prognosis. Congestive heart failure and hypertension also provide important lessons about the adverse effects of sympathetic predominance, as well as illustrate the benefits of beta-blockers and angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors, 2 classes of drugs that reduce adrenergic tone. Other interventions, such as exercise, improve cardiovascular outcomes partially by increasing vagal activity and attenuating sympathetic hyperactivity.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adrenergic beta-Agonists / adverse effects
  • Antihypertensive Agents / adverse effects
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiopathology*
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / physiopathology*
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / prevention & control
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / psychology
  • Heart Conduction System / physiopathology*
  • Heart Rate / physiology
  • Humans
  • Insulin Resistance / physiology
  • Risk Factors
  • Sympathomimetics / adverse effects


  • Adrenergic beta-Agonists
  • Antihypertensive Agents
  • Sympathomimetics