A circadian rhythm in heart rate variability contributes to the increased cardiac sympathovagal response to awakening in the morning

Chronobiol Int. 2012 Jul;29(6):757-68. doi: 10.3109/07420528.2012.674592.


Morning hours are associated with a heightened risk of adverse cardiovascular events. Recent evidence suggests that the sleep-wake cycle and endogenous circadian system modulate cardiac function in humans and may contribute to these epidemiological findings. The aim of the present study was to investigate the interaction between circadian and sleep-wake-dependent processes on heart rate variability (HRV). Fifteen diurnally active healthy young adults underwent a 72-h ultradian sleep-wake cycle (USW) procedure (alternating 60-min wake episodes in dim light and 60-min nap opportunities in total darkness) in time isolation. The present study revealed a significant main effect of sleep-wake-dependent and circadian processes on cardiac rhythmicity, as well as a significant interaction between these processes. Turning the lights off was associated with a rapid increase in mean RR interval and cardiac parasympathetic modulation (high-frequency [HF] power), whereas low-frequency (LF) power and sympathovagal balance (LF:HF ratio) were reduced (p ≤ .001). A significant circadian rhythm in mean RR interval and HRV components was observed throughout the wake and nap episodes (p ≤ .001). Sleep-to-wake transitions occurring in the morning were associated with maximal shifts towards sympathetic autonomic activation as compared to those occurring during the rest of the day. Namely, peak LF:HF ratio was observed in the morning, coincidental with peak salivary cortisol levels. These results contribute to our understanding of the observed increase in cardiovascular vulnerability after awakening in the morning.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiology*
  • Circadian Rhythm / physiology*
  • Female
  • Heart / physiology*
  • Heart Rate / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Sleep / physiology
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / physiology
  • Wakefulness / physiology*