Caloric restriction (CR) increases maximum lifespan but the mechanisms are unclear. Dominance of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) over the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) has been shown to be a strong risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Obesity and aging are associated with increased SNS activity, and weight loss and/or exercise seem to have positive effects on this balance. We therefore evaluated the effect of different approaches of CR on autonomic function in 28 overweight individuals participating in the Comprehensive Assessment of Long-term Effects of Reducing Intake of Energy (CALERIE) trial. Participants were randomized to either control, CR: 25% decrease in energy intake, CREX: 12.5% CR + 12.5% increase in energy expenditure, or LCD: low-calorie diet until 15% weight reduction followed by weight maintenance. Autonomic function was assessed by spectral analysis of heart-rate variability (HRV) while fasting and after a meal. Measurements were performed at baseline and 6 months. HR and SNS index decreased and PNS index increased in all intervention groups but reached significance only in CREX. HR and SNS index increased and PNS index decreased in response to the meal in all intervention groups. The results therefore suggest that weight loss improved SNS/PNS balance especially when CR is combined with exercise.
Trial registration: ClinicalTrials.gov NCT00099151.