Dietary sodium influences the effect of mental stress on heart rate variability: A randomized trial in healthy adults

Alexander R. Allen, Leah R. Gullixson, Sarah C. Wolhart, Susan L. Kost, Darrell R. Schroeder, John H. Eisenach

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


Background: Dietary sodium influences intermediate physiological traits in healthy adults independent of changes in blood pressure. The purpose of this study was to test the hypothesis that dietary sodium affects cardiac autonomic modulation during mental stress. Method: In a prospective, randomized cross-over design separated by 1 month between diets, 70 normotensive healthy young adults (F/M: 44/26, aged 18-38 years) consumed a 5-day low (10mmol/day), normal (150mmol), and high (400mmol) sodium diet followed by heart rate variability (HRV) recordings at rest and during 5-min computerized mental arithmetic. Women were studied in the low hormone phase of the menstrual cycle following each diet. Results: Diet did not affect resting blood pressure, but heart rate (HR) (mean±SE) was 66±1, 64±1, and 63±1 bpm in low, normal, and high sodium conditions, respectively (analysis of variance P=0.02). For HRV, there was a main effect of sodium on resting SD of normalized RR intervals (SDNN), square root of the mean squared difference of successive normalized RR intervals (RMSSD), high frequency, low-frequency normalized units (LFnu), and high-frequency normalized units (HFnu) (P<0.01 for all). The response to low sodium was most marked and consistent with sympathetic activation and reduced vagal activity, with increased LFnu and decreased SDNN, RMSSD, and HFnu compared to both normal and high sodium conditions (P ≤0.05 for all). Dietary sodium-by-mental stress interactions were significant for mean NN, RMSSD, high-frequency power, LFnu, and low frequency/high frequency ratio (P<0.05 for all). The interactions signify that sodium restriction evoked an increase in resting sympathetic activity and reduced vagal activity to the extent that mental stress caused modest additional disruptions in autonomic balance. Conversely, normal and high sodium evoked a reduction in resting sympathetic activity and incremental increase in resting vagal activity, which were disrupted to a greater extent during mental stress compared to low sodium. Conclusion: We conclude that autonomic control of HRV at rest and during mental stress is altered by dietary sodium in healthy normotensive young adult men and women.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)374-382
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of hypertension
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2014


  • autonomic nervous system
  • mental stress
  • salt intake
  • sympathoexcitation
  • sympathovagal balance

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Internal Medicine
  • Physiology
  • Cardiology and Cardiovascular Medicine


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