Acute Effect of Alcohol Intake on Cardiovascular Autonomic Regulation During the First Hours of Sleep in a Large Real-World Sample of Finnish Employees: Observational Study

JMIR Ment Health. 2018 Mar 16;5(1):e23. doi: 10.2196/mental.9519.


Background: Sleep is fundamental for good health, and poor sleep has been associated with negative health outcomes. Alcohol consumption is a universal health behavior associated with poor sleep. In controlled laboratory studies, alcohol intake has been shown to alter physiology and disturb sleep homeostasis and architecture. The association between acute alcohol intake and physiological changes has not yet been studied in noncontrolled real-world settings.

Objective: The aim of this study was to assess the effects of alcohol intake on the autonomic nervous system (ANS) during sleep in a large noncontrolled sample of Finnish employees.

Methods: From a larger cohort, this study included 4098 subjects (55.81%, 2287/4098 females; mean age 45.1 years) who had continuous beat-to-beat R-R interval recordings of good quality for at least 1 day with and for at least 1 day without alcohol intake. The participants underwent continuous beat-to-beat R-R interval recording during their normal everyday life and self-reported their alcohol intake as doses for each day. Heart rate (HR), HR variability (HRV), and HRV-derived indices of physiological state from the first 3 hours of sleep were used as outcomes. Within-subject analyses were conducted in a repeated measures manner by studying the differences in the outcomes between each participant's days with and without alcohol intake. For repeated measures two-way analysis of variance, the participants were divided into three groups: low (≤0.25 g/kg), moderate (>0.25-0.75 g/kg), and high (>0.75 g/kg) intake of pure alcohol. Moreover, linear models studied the differences in outcomes with respect to the amount of alcohol intake and the participant's background parameters (age; gender; body mass index, BMI; physical activity, PA; and baseline sleep HR).

Results: Alcohol intake was dose-dependently associated with increased sympathetic regulation, decreased parasympathetic regulation, and insufficient recovery. In addition to moderate and high alcohol doses, the intraindividual effects of alcohol intake on the ANS regulation were observed also with low alcohol intake (all P<.001). For example, HRV-derived physiological recovery state decreased on average by 9.3, 24.0, and 39.2 percentage units with low, moderate, and high alcohol intake, respectively. The effects of alcohol in suppressing recovery were similar for both genders and for physically active and sedentary subjects but stronger among young than older subjects and for participants with lower baseline sleep HR than with higher baseline sleep HR.

Conclusions: Alcohol intake disturbs cardiovascular relaxation during sleep in a dose-dependent manner in both genders. Regular PA or young age do not protect from these effects of alcohol. In health promotion, wearable HR monitoring and HRV-based analysis of recovery might be used to demonstrate the effects of alcohol on sleep on an individual level.

Keywords: alcohol drinking; autonomic nervous system; heart rate; heart rate variability; sleep; wearable electronic device.