Characteristics of Heart Rate Variability in Alcohol-Dependent Subjects and Nondependent Chronic Alcohol Users

Victor M. Karpyak, Magdalena Romanowicz, John E. Schmidt, Kriste A. Lewis, John M. Bostwick

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


Heart rate variability (HRV) is an objective and sensitive measure of integrated physiological functioning reflective of heart rhythm responsivity to internal and external demands. Reduced HRV is associated with vulnerability to stress and deterioration of medical and/or psychiatric conditions, while increased HRV is associated with a favorable treatment response and recovery from various medical and/or psychiatric conditions. Our previous review found that acute alcohol consumption caused decreased parasympathetic and increased sympathetic HRV effects in both nonalcoholic and chronic alcohol users. This review investigates the effects of chronic alcohol consumption on HRV in alcohol-dependent subjects and nondependent users. MEDLINE, Scopus, and PubMed were searched for human experimental and clinical trials that measured the effects of chronic alcohol use on HRV. Only publications that included a description of their study designs and clearly stated methodologies for data collections, and outcome measures were reviewed. We have reviewed a total of 24 articles. In nondependent users, low dose (approximating the recommended daily amount of 1 standard drink in women and 2 in men) use is associated with increased HRV parameters compared to those who drink less frequently or abstain altogether. A further increase in consumption is associated with decreased HRV compared to both abstainers and more moderate drinkers. HRV changes during withdrawal generally follow the same negative direction but are more complex and less understood. In dependent subjects, an improvement in HRV was seen following abstinence but remained reduced compared to nonalcoholic controls. This review demonstrates that HRV changes associated with chronic use follow a J-shaped curve. It supports recommendations that limit daily alcohol intake to no more than 2 drinks for men and 1 drink for women. Future studies should investigate HRV as a biomarker of alcoholism development and treatment response as well as the physiological basis for alcohol effects on HRV.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)9-26
Number of pages18
JournalAlcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2014


  • Acute Alcohol Dependence
  • Heart Rate Variability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)
  • Toxicology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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