Alcohol consumption is associated with a broad array of physiologic and behavioral effects including changes in heart rate. However, the physiologic mechanisms of alcohol effects and the reasons for individual differences in the cardiac response remain unknown. Measuring changes in resting heart rate (measured as beats/min) has not been found to be as sensitive to alcohol's effects as changes in heart rate variability (HRV). HRV is defined as fluctuations in interbeat interval length which reflect the heart's response to extracardiac factors that affect heart rate. HRV allows simultaneous assessment of both sympathetic and parasympathetic activity and the interplay between them. Increased HRV has been associated with exercise and aerobic fitness, while decreased HRV has been associated with aging, chronic stress, and a wide variety of medical and psychiatric disorders. Decreased HRV has predictive value for mortality in general population samples and patients with myocardial infarction and used as an indicator of altered autonomic function. A significant inverse correlation was found between HRV and both the severity of depression and the duration of the depressive episode. HRV analysis provides insights into mechanisms of autonomic regulation and is extensively used to clarify relationships between depression and cardiovascular disease. This article will review the methodology of HRV measurements and contemporary knowledge about effects of acute alcohol consumption on HRV. Potential implications of this research include HRV response to alcohol that could serve as a marker for susceptibility to alcoholism. At present however there is almost no research data supporting this hypothesis.
Copyright © 2011 by the Research Society on Alcoholism.