Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is a condition that leads to irregular heartbeats, but understanding atrial fibrillation triggers can help you better manage the condition.
If there are abnormal electrical signals in the atria, different areas of the heart can beat too quickly, too slowly, or in an uneven rhythm. Some people experience a heartbeat that is too quick during AFib, which is called rapid ventricular response. There are also those who go through transient episodes (paroxysmal AFib) that are brought on by certain triggers.
There are some common AFib triggers and some lesser-known triggers that can have a negative impact on your heart. Most AFib sufferers are able to pinpoint some of the triggers. If you know your triggers and can decrease the frequency of AFib attacks, you can lower your risk of suffering a stroke.
Common AFib triggers
AFib triggers vary from person-to-person. Some of the triggers can be surprising, since they can happen when you seem otherwise happy and healthy. The list below outlines AFib triggers to avoid:
- Fatigue and illness: Some common triggers include physical illness, a recent surgery, or even lack of sleep. In other words, when the body is not really as strong and you’re suffering from some sort of physical stress, an AFib attack can happen.
- Emotional triggers: When you’re upset, angry, or sad, you can get tight muscles, experience anxiety, and eat improperly. This can lead to heart racing or make you feel as if your heart is skipping a beat. Strong emotions are known to trigger AFib.
- Hormones: Research shows that there can be a connection between hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle and supraventricular tachycardia in women. SVT can be caused by AFib.
- Exercise: This is a less common AFib trigger, but physical exertion can bring on the signs of atrial fibrillation. Having said this, exercise is an important habit to maintain. A certain level of exercise can help those who suffer from AFib. Discussing exercise with your doctor is the best approach.
- Medications: There are some medications, such as over-the-counter cold remedies and nasal sprays, that can trigger problems for some people who have heart arrhythmias. Medications should always be discussed with your doctor. They can recommend alternative medications that may not trigger an AFib episode.
- Dehydration: Changes in fluid levels can impact various bodily functions. This includes the heart. Certain types of drinks may also trigger an AFib episode. For example, some individuals find that alcohol and caffeine can increase the risk of attacks. Staying hydrated and not consuming too much salt is important.
- Travel: While many people don’t give it much thought, when you travel, you can become overtired and stressed. Many people also experience a change in their sleep patterns. All of these can trigger the fight-or-flight response, which in turn can activate AFib.
- Air pollution: This is one of the lesser-known triggers. Some research indicates that atrial fibrillation may be linked to air pollution. One study involved over 100 people with AFib who had implanted defibrillators that came on when an attack occurred. Two years of data showed that more attacks of AFib took place when air pollution was high.
- Recreational drugs: Experts suggest that marijuana and cocaine can raise your heart rate by 20 to 100 percent for several hours.
While you should obviously avoid triggers, such as recreational drugs and stress, many cardiologists say that keeping everything in moderation can help you stay heart-healthy.
Foods That Trigger AFib
There are foods that can trigger AFib as well. When it comes to beverages, some people with AFib find that just one or two drinks can bring on symptoms, while others don’t feel negative effects unless they drink heavily.
- Alcohol: Vagal tone is the level of activity in the vagus nerve running from the brainstem through the neck. It can impact many different organs, including the heart. Medical journals have reported a potential link between alcohol consumption and vagal tone, specifically as it relates to AFib. As it turns out, those who experience AFib episodes due to alcohol are also more likely to have increased vagal activity, leading to transient atrial fibrillation attacks.
- Caffeine: This has been the subject of a lot of research and discussion when it comes to our health. Countless studies have linked caffeine consumption to insomnia, irritability, and stomach problems. As far as being an AFib trigger, there seem to be conflicting views. Caffeine is a stimulant that can enliven the central nervous system and raise heart rate. In some individuals, this “kick” as some people call it can cause an AFib episode. Since everyone is different, you have to determine if caffeine makes your atrial fibrillation worse. If you believe it does, avoid coffee, tea, and caffeinated sodas.
- Fat: Doctors often suggest you reduce certain fats if you suffer from AFib. The most dangerous fats for someone with AFib are trans fats, so those need to be avoided. Trans fats are found in margarine and foods produced with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. This includes some crackers, cookies, potato chips, and other fried foods. Since obesity and high blood pressure can increase the risk of AFib, it is important to exercise and eat healthily. Following a low-calorie, low-sugar diet that includes a lot of vegetables is a good idea.
- Salt: This is one of the biggest culprits when it comes to making high blood pressure worse. Cardiologists like to emphasize the importance of reducing sodium in your diet to help maintain a healthy heart and avoid conditions like AFib. Remember, there are a lot of foods that use salt as a preservative, so read labels carefully. Sticking with fresh foods and not adding salt is the healthier option. The recommendation is to aim for 1,500 milligrams of sodium or less each day.
- Gluten: This is a type of protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. Products such as bread, pasta, packaged foods, and even condiments can have gluten in them. Some people are gluten intolerant or have a wheat allergy that can cause inflammation. Inflammation has the potential to impact the vagus nerve and thus make you more prone to AFib symptoms. Mention gluten to your doctor if you think you might be sensitive to it.
- Tyramine: The compound tyramine occurs naturally in certain foods. A study published in Heart has suggested that foods containing tyramine may raise blood pressure and activate AFib episodes. Cured meat, aged cheeses, fava beans, and fermented cabbage all contain tyramine.
While many AFib triggers outlined here are common, each person is different and there may be lesser-known triggers like certain emotions, travel, and pollution that bother you. If you have been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, it may take some time for you to figure out what your personal triggers are. Being aware of what can provoke an AFib attack can play a big part in helping you control symptoms.
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