Heart rate (HR) is modulated by the combined effects of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Therefore, measurement of changes in HR over time (heart rate variability or HRV) provides information about autonomic functioning. HRV has been used to identify high risk people, understand the autonomic components of different disorders and to evaluate the effect of different interventions, etc. Since the signal required to measure HRV is already being collected on the electrocardiogram (ECG) channel of the polysomnogram (PSG), collecting data for research on HRV and sleep is straightforward, but applications have been limited. As reviewed here, HRV has been applied to understand autonomic changes during different sleep stages. It has also been applied to understand the effect of sleep-disordered breathing, periodic limb movements and insomnia both during sleep and during the daytime. HRV has been successfully used to screen people for possible referral to a Sleep Lab. It has also been used to monitor the effects of continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). A novel HRV measure, cardiopulmonary coupling (CPC) has been proposed for sleep quality. Evidence also suggests that HRV collected during a PSG can be used in risk stratification models, at least for older adults. Caveats for accurate interpretation of HRV are also presented.
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