Objectives: Leptin, an important hormonal regulator of body weight, has been shown to stimulate the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) in vitro although the physiological relevance remains unclear. Increased SNS activity has been implicated in the pathogenesis of insulin resistance and an increased cardiovascular risk. We have therefore investigated the relationship between leptin, insulin resistance and cardiac autonomic activity in healthy young adults. 130 healthy men and women age 20.9 years were studied. Insulin sensitivity was assessed using the IVGTT and minimal model with simultaneous measures of leptin. Cardiac autonomic activity was assessed using spectral analysis of heart rate variability.
Results: Women showed significantly higher fasting leptin, heart rate and cardiac sympathetic activity, and lower insulin sensitivity. Men showed inverse correlations between insulin resistance and heart rate, and between insulin resistance and cardiac sympatho-vagal ratio. Women, in contrast, showed no SNS relationship with insulin resistance, but rather an inverse correlation between leptin and the sympatho-vagal ratio, suggesting that leptin in women is associated with SNS activity. The correlation remained significant after adjustment for BMI and waist-to-hip ratio (beta=-0.33 and p=0.008).
Conclusion: Insulin resistance and SNS activity appear to be linked, although the relationship showed marked gender differences, and the direction of causality was unclear from this cross-sectional study. Leptin appears to exert a greater effect on the SNS in women, possibly because of their greater fat mass.