Sympathetic vasoconstriction is normally attenuated in exercising muscles of young men and women. Recent evidence indicates that such modulation, termed functional sympatholysis, may be impaired in older men. Whether a similar impairment occurs in older women, and what role oestrogen deficiency might play in this impairment, are not known. Based on the strong positive correlation between circulating oestrogen levels and functional sympatholysis previously reported in female rats, we hypothesized that sympatholysis would be impaired in oestrogen-deficient postmenopausal women, and that this impairment would be reversed by oestrogen replacement. To test these hypotheses, we measured vasoconstrictor responses in the forearms of pre- and postmenopausal women using near infrared spectroscopy to detect decreases in muscle oxygenation in response to reflex activation of sympathetic nerves evoked by lower body negative pressure (LBNP). In eight premenopausal women, LBNP decreased muscle oxygenation by 20 ± 1% in resting forearm, but only by 3 ± 2% in exercising forearm (P < 0.05). In contrast, in eight postmenopausal women, LBNP decreased muscle oxygenation by 15 ± 3% in resting forearm, and by 12 ± 4% in exercising forearm (P > 0.05). After 1 month of transdermal oestradiol replacement in these women, the normal effect of exercise to blunt sympathetic vasoconstriction was restored (rest, -19 ± 3%; exercise, -2 ± 3%; P < 0.05). These data indicate that functional sympatholysis is impaired in oestrogen-deficient postmenopausal women. The effect of short-term unopposed oestrogen replacement to correct this impairment implicates a role for oestrogen in the sympathetic neural control of muscle haemodynamics during exercise.
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