Atrial Fibrillation: A Focus on Prevention

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Atrial fibrillation is the most common type of abnormal heart rhythm, and can occur when disorganized electrical impulses cause the heart’s two upper chambers to contract rapidly and irregularly. Atrial fibrillation doesn’t always have symptoms, but can lead to an increased chance of stroke and heart failure. While many men and women are able to live comfortably with atrial fibrillation, preventative care remains the best method of maintaining a healthy and regular heartbeat.

The best approach to managing atrial fibrillation is to focus lifestyle. With a healthy lifestyle, chances of developing a fib can be kept at a minimum.

  • Develop a heart-healthy diet. This includes eating fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains daily, as well as avoiding foods rich in sodium, saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol. The American Heart Association recommends two weekly servings of fish that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and limiting cholesterol to less than 300 mg per day.
  • Maintain an ideal weight. Being overweight increases your blood pressure, which in turn increases pressure inside your atria, contributing to a higher risk of irregular heartbeats.
  • Be physically active. By strengthening your heart muscle, regular exercise can improve blood circulation and capillary function. Capillaries are blood vessels that deliver oxygen to your body and carry away waste. Even walking for as little as 30 minutes a day can decrease your chance of atrial fibrillation. However, be careful not to push yourself beyond your body’s normal range of capability, as an overly intensive workout can trigger an atrial fibrillation attack.
  • Quit smoking. Smoking is one of the best-known preventable risk factors for heart disease. Through the combination of nicotine, carbon monoxide and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, smoking raises blood pressure, irritates the heart muscle and increases heart rate. These effects in turn can provoke rhythm disorders, including atrial fibrillation.
  • Limit caffeine and alcohol intake. Caffeine is a stimulant that can contribute to heart irregularities, while alcohol increases blood pressure and heart rate, both of which can be dangerous to individuals with atrial fibrillation. Heavy drinking in particular can cause blood vessels within the heart to die and the heart chambers to weaken, creating a potentially toxic situation. Even light to moderate drinkers have an increased risk of developing atrial fibrillation by about six percent as compared to non-drinkers.
  • Be wary of cold and allergy medicines. Decongestants are often direct stimulants to the heart and can contribute to high blood pressure. Some of the most common over-the-counter stimulating cold and allergy medicines include SUDAFED® (pseudoephedrine), Actifed® (chlorpheniramine and phenylephrine) and Contac® (acetaminophen and phenylephrine hydrochloride).
  • Manage stress. Hormones like adrenaline can be triggered by stress and have a similar effect on heart rate and blood pressure as caffeine. Furthermore, anger outbursts caused by emotional and psychological stress can increase an individual’s chance of developing an abnormal heart rhythm by up to five percent even if no other traditional risk factors are involved, such as smoking, poor diet, or being overweight. If other risk factors are involved, the risk increases significantly, up to 20 percent. Stress-reducing techniques, such as yoga, meditation, exercise and other forms of therapy can have a significant positive impact on your heart health.

A healthy lifestyle is the key to preventing atrial fibrillation before it starts. For individuals living with atrial fibrillation, lifestyle changes can help manage atrial fibrillation attacks and prevent further heart disease.