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Clin Nutr. 2019 Feb;38(1):110-126. doi: 10.1016/j.clnu.2018.01.006. Epub 2018 Jan 9.

Effects of weight changes in the autonomic nervous system: A systematic review and meta-analysis.

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Faculty of Medicine, University of Porto, Porto, Portugal. Electronic address:
Basic and Clinical Immunology, Department of Pathology, Faculty of Medicine, University of Porto, Portugal; Serviço de Imunoalergologia, Centro Hospitalar São João, Porto, Portugal.
Faculty of Nutrition and Food Sciences, Universidade do Porto, Porto, Portugal.



Obesity has been linked to autonomic dysfunction, which is thought to be one of the main contributors for hypertension, cardiac remodelling and death. Exercise and diet-based weight loss are the mainstay therapy for obesity, but there is a paucity of data regarding the effect of weight changes in autonomic nervous system (ANS) activity.


To describe the impact of weight changes in autonomic nervous system.


A systematic literature search of four biomedical databases was performed evaluating effects of weight changes, thorough diet and/or exercise-based interventions, in the following ANS outcomes: heart rate variability, namely low frequency (LF)/high frequency (HF) ratio (LF/HF ratio), normalized units of LF (LFnu) and HF (HFnu), muscle sympathetic nerve activity (MSNA), noradrenaline spillover rate (NA-SR), standard deviation of normal-to-normal intervals (SDNN), root mean square of successive differences (RMSSD), baroreflex sensitivity and pupillometry. Quality appraisal was performed using the GRADE methodology and, where fitting, studies with comparable outcomes were pooled for meta-analysis.


Twenty-seven studies - 7 controlled clinical trials and 20 observational studies - were included. Weight gain was reported in 4 studies and weight loss in all the other studies. Interventions inducing weight changes included: hypocaloric or hypercaloric diets, exercise (strength, endurance or aerobic training) and hypocaloric diet coupled with exercise programs. Most studies which resulted in weight loss reported decreases in LF/HF ratio, LFnu, MSNA burst frequency and incidence, NA-SR, and an increase of baroreflex sensitivity, HF, HFnu and RMSSD, pointing to a parasympathetic nervous system activation. Meta-analysis regarding weight loss interventions showed a significant pooled effect size (95% CI) with a decreased of MSNA burst frequency -5.09 (-8.42, -1.75), MSNA incidence -6.66 (-12.40, -0.62), however this was not significant for SDNN 14.32 (-4.31, 32.96). Weight gain was associated with an increase in LF/HF, LFnu, MSNA burst frequency and incidence. The weight loss effects were potentiated by the association of hypocaloric diet with exercise. Nevertheless, weight changes effects in these outcomes were based in low or very low quality of evidence.


Diet and exercise based weight loss appears to increase parasympathetic and decrease sympathetic activity, the opposing effects being observed with weight gain. These findings are not uniformly reported in the literature, possibly due to differences in study design, methodology, characteristics of the participants and techniques used to estimate autonomic nervous activity.


Autonomic nervous system; Baroreflex sensitivity; Heart rate variability; Muscle sympathetic nerve activity; Noradrenaline spillover rate; Weight change


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