Effects of alcohol on sympathetic activity, hemodynamics, and chemoreflex sensitivity

Philippe Van De Borne, Allyn L. Mark, Nicola Montano, Decio Mion, Virend K. Somers

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

91 Scopus citations


Alcohol intake has been shown to worsen obstructive sleep apnea and increase nocturnal hypoxemia. The mechanisms of this action are unclear. Animal studies suggest that a reduction in chemoreflex sensitivity may be implicated. Using a double-blind, randomized, vehicle-controlled design, we tested the hypothesis that oral alcohol intake depresses chemoreflex sensitivity in humans. We examined the effects of oral alcohol intake (1.0 g/kg body wt) on blood pressure, heart rate, heart rate variability, muscle sympathetic nerve activity, forearm vascular resistance, and minute ventilation in 16 normal male subjects. Peripheral and central chemoreflex sensitivity were measured in response to hypoxia (n = 10) and hypercapnia (n=6), respectively. Plasma alcohol increased from 0 to 23.2±1.5 mmol/L (107±7 mg/dL) at 60 minutes and 20.2±1 mmol/L (93±4 mg/dL) at 85 minutes after alcohol intake (P<.0001). Alcohol induced an increase in heart rate from 59±2 to 66±2 beats per minute (P<.01) and increased the ratio of low- to high-frequency variability of heart rate (P<.05). Although alcohol increased sympathetic nerve activity by up to 239±22% of baseline values (P<.01), forearm vascular resistance after alcohol was lower than that after vehicle (P<.05). Blood pressure did not increase compared with the vehicle session. Oxygen saturation during hypoxia after alcohol was 4±1% lower than it was during hypoxia after vehicle (P<.05) although arterial blood PO2 was unchanged. Alcohol did not affect the cardiovascular, sympathetic, or ventilatory responses to either hypoxia or hypercapnia. Acute increases in plasma alcohol increase heart rate and sympathetic nerve activity; blood pressure is not increased, probably because of vasodilator effects of alcohol. Alcohol does not alter chemoreflex responses to hypoxia or hypercapnia; thus, alterations in chemoreflex sensitivity are unlikely to explain the effects of alcohol on sleep apnea. Alcohol may reduce the affinity of hemoglobin for oxygen.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1278-1283
Number of pages6
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 1997


  • alcohol
  • anoxia
  • autonomic nervous system
  • blood pressure
  • hypercapnia
  • sympathetic nervous system

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Internal Medicine


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