Alcohol use, urinary cortisol, and heart rate variability in apparently healthy men: Evidence for impaired inhibitory control of the HPA axis in heavy drinkers

Int J Psychophysiol. 2006 Mar;59(3):244-50. doi: 10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2005.10.013. Epub 2005 Dec 1.


Alcoholism and heavy drinking are associated with a number of physiological, behavioral, affective, and cognitive problems. One such problem involves dysregulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, with alcoholics showing higher basal cortisol levels and reduced inhibitory feedback control. In addition, alcohol consumption is associated with decreased heart rate variability (HRV). In the present study we examined the relationships among alcohol consumption, cortisol excretion, and HRV in 542 apparently healthy men. Men in the top tertile of self-reported alcohol consumption had higher cortisol levels and lower HRV compared to men in the lower two tertiles of alcohol consumption. In addition, the inverse relationship between cortisol and HRV was greatly attenuated in the heavy drinking group even after accounting for a number of potential confounding factors. These results support prior research on the HPA axis dysregulation in alcoholics and suggest impaired inhibitory control of the HPA axis in heavy drinkers. The findings are consistent with the neurovisceral integration model, which links central and peripheral processes, and may provide a comprehensive framework for the future investigation of the complex mix of physiological, behavioral, affective, and cognitive factors which comprise the heavy drinking phenotype.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Alcohol Drinking / adverse effects
  • Alcohol Drinking / physiopathology*
  • Alcoholism / physiopathology*
  • Amygdala / physiopathology
  • Electrocardiography
  • Electrocardiography, Ambulatory
  • Feedback / physiology
  • Heart / innervation
  • Heart Rate / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / urine*
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiopathology*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neural Inhibition / physiology
  • Parasympathetic Nervous System / physiopathology
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiopathology*
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiopathology
  • Reference Values


  • Hydrocortisone