Atrial fibrillation – AFib for short - is the most common type of irregular heartbeat (cardiac arrhythmia). Some people with AFib have no symptoms at all, while others can have symptoms so severe they result in stroke, heart attach, or heart failure. Symptoms of AFib can include dizziness, fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath, and chest pain. It may feel like you hear "skips" a beat. See a doctor if you have any symptoms of AFib or other symptoms that concern you.
AFib alone raises stroke risk. Put that together with high blood pressure (the most common cause of stroke), or diabetes (people with diabetes are four times more likely to have a stroke than those without) and you increase your chance of stroke even more. If you have AFib, keep your diabetes in check by eating a healthy, balanced diet low in sugar. Maintain a healthy weight and exercise regularly to lower your risk of high blood pressure.
Eat a heart-healthy diet to reduce your risk for AFib. The American Heart Association recommends a diet low in fat and cholesterol. Choose nutrient-rich foods including fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, skinless poultry and fish, and nuts and legumes. Limit saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, red meats, and sugar.
Smoking is detrimental to your body and your health in every respect, and it can increase your chances of developing atrial fibrillation, heart disease, and stroke. Try smoking cessation aids such as the nicotine patch, gum, or lozenges. Talk to your doctor about kicking the habit, as there are also medical treatments available to help you quit.
Taking blood thinners (anticoagulants) can reduce the risk of having a stroke in patients with AFib by up to 70 percent. But it's important to know that these medications can interact with some foods, supplements, or other medications. Talk to your doctor to find out what foods you can eat, and which ones you should avoid, while you are taking anticoagulants.
If you have atrial fibrillation, it's probably ok to have a drink or two on occasion. Moderation is key. But large amounts of alcohol should be avoided as it can increase your risk of developing AFib by 50%. Alcohol can also affect blood thinners you may be taking, and increase your risk of bleeding.
Some over-the-counter drugs including stimulants such as decongestants with pseudoephedrine may also cause irregular heartbeats and should be avoided if you have AFib.
While caffeine has not been shown to be a risk factor for developing atrial fibrillation, caffeine can raise your blood pressure and increase your heart rate, which may trigger an episode of AFib if you already have it. Moderate coffee intake of 2-3 cups per day is usually ok, but if you are not used to caffeine it may affect you more strongly.
Exercise and physical activity are important for overall health and well being. Regular activity can keep your weight in check and reduce your risk of complications from heart disease and other illness. However, vigorous activity may trigger or aggravate AFib so before starting any kind of exercise program, it's important to talk to your doctor and find out what kind of exercise program is best for you. Start slowly by walking and increase the amount of time or the intensity of the activity as you become more fit.
People who have heart disease, including atrial fibrillation, are at higher risk for developing complications from the flu (influenza). Stay healthy and get your flu vaccine each year.
Stress is a major factor in triggering episodes of arrhythmia in people who have AFib. In addition, chronic stress is often associated with habits that are bad for your heart such as smoking and excessive alcohol intake. The good news is that a study in the American College of Cardiology found practicing yoga just one hour, twice a week improves your heart rhythm and lowers blood pressure and heart rate – which may reduce the frequency of AFib episodes. Yoga can also improve your overall mood and outlook by decreasing depression and anxiety – which decreases stress.
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- American College of Cardiology: "Alcohol and Atrial Fibrillation: A New Look", "Atrial Fibrillation", "Patients with AFib Can Benefit Greatly From Yoga"
- AFibMatters.org: "Living with Atrial Fibrillation"
- American Heart Association: "Prevention Strategies for Atrial Fibrillation", "Nutrition Center"
- AHA Journals: "A Patient’s Guide to Living With Atrial Fibrillation"
- CDC.gov: "Flu and Heart Disease & Stroke"
- Diabetes/Metabolism Research and Reviews, Volume 19.4: "Diabetic atrial fibrillation patients: mortality and risk for stroke or embolism during a 10-year follow-up"
- Heart Rhythm Society Journal, Volume 8.8: "Smoking and incidence of atrial fibrillation: Results from the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) Study"
- National Stroke Association: "Medical Risk Factors"
- Oxford Journal, Clinical Infectious Diseases, Volume 45.2: "The Association between Pneumococcal Pneumonia and Acute Cardiac Events"
- StopAFib.org: "What Causes Atrial Fibrillation?"
- UpToDate.com: "Overview of Atrial Fibrillation", "Atrial Fibrillation (Beyond the Basics)"