Sympathovagal balance: How should we measure it?

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There are complex interactions between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system inputs to the sinus node. The concept of 'sympathovagal balance' reflects the autonomic state resulting from the sympathetic and parasympathetic influences. Despite widespread usage of a variety of heart rate (HR) variability parameters as indexes of sympathovagal balance, no index has been validated as a measure of sympathovagal balance. This study evaluated the utility of HR, HR variability, and a new parameter termed the vagal-sympathetic effect (VSE) as indexes of sympathovagal balance. The ideal parameter had to satisfy the following criteria: 1) the index should vary similarly among subjects in response to different autonomic conditions; 2) the variability in the index among subjects exposed to the same autonomic conditions should be small; and 3) the response of the index to various autonomic conditions should reflect the underlying changes in physiological state and have a meaningful interpretation. Volunteers [8 men, 6 women; mean age 28.5 ± 4.8 (SD) yr] were evaluated for the effects of sympathetic and parasympathetic stimulation and blockade on HR and HR variability. VSE was defined as the ratio of the R-R interval to the intrinsic R-R interval. VSE and R-R interval consistently changed in the expected directions with parasympathetic and sympathetic stimulation and blockade. A general linearized model was used to evaluate the response of each parameter. VSE and R-R interval had r2 values of 0.847 and 0.852, respectively. Natural logarithm of the low-frequency power had an r2 value of 0.781 with lower r2 values for all the other HR variability parameters. The coefficient of variation was also lowest for each condition tested for the VSE and the R-R interval. VSE and R-R interval best satisfy the criteria for the ideal index of sympathovagal balance. Because it is impractical under most conditions to measure the VSE as the index of sympathovagal balance, the most suitable index is the R-R interval.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)H1273-H1280
JournalAmerican Journal of Physiology - Heart and Circulatory Physiology
Issue number4 45-4
StatePublished - Apr 1999
Externally publishedYes


  • Autonomic
  • Heart rate
  • Parasympathetic
  • Sympathetic

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Cardiology and Cardiovascular Medicine
  • Physiology (medical)


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