This month is Atrial Fibrillation Awareness Month. I wrote about atrial fibrillation a while ago as one of the four chronic diseases I hope I never get. Atrial fibrillation is a scary irregular heartbeat that decreases your oxygen delivery to your body and is one of the most common risk factors for having a stroke. Atrial fibrillation is usually treated with blood thinners for stroke prevention and cardiac medications to control heart rate and rhythm, but here are some steps you can take to prevent atrial fibrillation altogether.
What Is Atrial Fibrillation
Atrial fibrillation topped my list of diseases I hope I never get. With this irregular heartbeat, instead of the normal, “lub-dub” heart beat, your atria are in a constant state of “lub-lub-lub-lub-lub” where they’re essentially quivering, instead of actually contracting. Because of this you lose about thirty percent of your cardiac output – meaning you get less oxygen to the rest of your body. Atrial fibrillation can be a scary heart rhythm because while your atria fibrillate, you lose a lot of turbulence of the blood within your heart. Because of that, your blood can clot inside your heart. If a clot forms, when it leaves your heart it can go straight out to your aorta, up your carotid arteries, and into your brain. The clot will travel further into the smaller vessels until the vessels get so small that it blocks blood flow and oxygen delivery into your brain, causing a stroke. Because of the high risk for stroke and atrial fibrillation, people are often put on blood thinners to prevent clots. Atrial fibrillation can be a life changing diagnosis, fortunately, there are something that you can control to prevent atrial fibrillation from happening in the first place.
Seven Ways To Prevent Atrial Fibrillation Without Medications
Control Your Weight
Controlling your weight is probably one of the single most important things you can do at preventing atrial fibrillation. Being overweight can cause sleep apnea which is a risk factor for atrial fibrillation. Sleep apnea is a condition where the weight of the tissue around your throat, causes your airway to become occluded at periods throughout the night. These periods will cause you to stop breathing. Your spouse or partner might notice periods during the night where you wake up gasping for air. During these subtle moments where you’re not breathing, oxygen levels can drop and carbon dioxide levels can rise, messing with the electrical stability of the heart. There’s also some evidence out there to suggest that because of the chemical changes going on on your body during periods of not breathing, pressure in your lungs can increase. This makes it more difficult for your atria to have to pump out blood to the longs, and any time your heart has to work harder, it gets larger. Increased muscle mass in the heart can change the electrical pathways of the heart, putting someone more at risk for atrial fibrillation (1).
Control Your Blood Pressure:
Much like how sleep apnea can cause the atria to work harder, high blood pressure can cause the rest of your heart to work harder. When your blood pressure is chronically high, your heart has to work harder to pump out blood to the rest of your body. When your muscles have to work harder, they enlarge. The enlarging of the heart can cause electrical changes to the heart, putting you at risk for atrial fibrillation and other irregular cardiac rhythms.
While the risk due to atrial fibrillation is more common in people who drink alcohol regularly, it can also happen after even consuming just moderate amounts – you might have heard of this as being called, Holiday Heart Syndrome. Excessive alcohol can cause your sympathetic nervous system to be overactive – causing rapid heart rates. Drinking too much alcohol can also your electrolytes to change in your cells, specifically sodium and potassium. All these changes together can cause electrical instability of the heart which can lead to atrial fibrillation (2).
Stay Away From Cocaine and Amphetamines
You would think this one would be obvious, right? Unfortunately, for millions of people, it isn’t. The use of cocaine, amphetamines, or other stimulants similar to them can have some pretty tremendous effects on the heart. These drugs cause a chemical release in the body that can raise blood pressure, leading to long term changes in the physical and electrical structure of the heart. Cocaine and amphetamine can also cause heart attacks – even in those people who have no previous history of heart disease. Any time your heart is without blood flow/oxygen, tissue damage can occur. Depending on where the damage was done, it makes you more likely to have irregular heartbeats such as atrial fibrillation (3).
Eat Enough Potassium
Your body’s cells can be pretty sensitive to the amount of potassium in your cells. For the heart it helps conduct electricity and any imbalance can change the way your heart beats. Low potassium can be a common cause for heart beat irregularities. Make sure you’re eating enough potassium in your day – in forms other than bananas. You need about eight bananas to get your daily potassium needs. Some foods to keep on your radar for more potassium: beets, avocados, mangoes and papayas, halibut, and potatoes.
Wash Your Hands
It sounds weird, but seriously wash your hands. Any kind of illness that can cause stress, dehydration, or inflammation in the body can put you more at risk for having irregular heartbeats. Irregular heartbeats from an illness are usually caused by electrolyte imbalances and dehydration. The most important thing you can do while you’re ill, is stay hydrated.
Eat Less Sugar
There is also some research out there that suggests that the worse the insulin resistance is in your body, the bigger risk you’re at for developing atrial fibrillation. One theory is that chronic inflammation plays a role in the development of atrial fibrillation (4). Those with atrial fibrillation and diabetes have high CRP levels in their blood, a blood test that indicates levels of inflammation inside the body. Chronically high inflammation also increases the risks for coronary artery disease and heart attacks. Having a heart attack can cause tissue death to your heart and change the electrical makeup of your heart leading to atrial fibrillation.
The takeaway: A diet high in sugars can promote inflammation in the body. You can also avoid oils that are full of omega-6 fatty acids – they’re pro-inflammatory. Aim for healthier fats such as omega-3 which reduce inflammation.
Preventing Atrial Fibrillation
When looking to prevent atrial fibrillation, most medical doctors don’t discuss things you can do in your daily life to prevent atrial fibrillation from recurring, or prevent atrial fibrillation altogether. Instead, medical doctors look to only treating atrial fibrillation using blood thinners and arrhythmic medications – neither of which can be fun. Hopefully some of these things can help you prevent atrial fibrillation.
1. Ammash, N., Ballman, K., Friedman, P., Gersh, B., Kanagla, R., Muralli N., Shamsuzzaman, A., Somers, V. “Obstructive Sleep Apnea and The Recurrence Of Atrial Fibrillation.” Circulation. American Heart Association. 12 May 2003. Web. 25 August 2015.
2. Budzikowski, A., Daubert, J., Smith, R., Weiss, H. “Holiday Heart Syndrome.” Medscape. 22 September 2014. Web. 25 August 2015.
3. Ghuran, A., Nolan, J. “The Cardiac Complications Of Recreational Drug Use.” Western Journal Of Medicine. December 2000. Web. 25 August 2015.
4. Hu, D., Sun, Y. The Link Between Diabetes and Atrial Fibrillation: Cause or Correlation? Journal Of Cardiovascular Disease. January-March 2011. Web. 25 August 2015.