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Atrial Fibrillation: Characteristics, Causes & Treatment

Atrial Fibrillation
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What is Atrial Fibrillation?

Have you ever felt your heart skip a beat? Though this sensation can give you some cause for concern, it can be normal if it happens infrequently. However, it could also be a symptom of a condition called atrial fibrillation. Also known as A-fib, atrial fibrillation is an irregular heartbeat that occurs from irregular heart contraction. Some people might feel palpitations, nausea and fatigue, whereas others may not feel any symptoms at all (x).

Why Atrial Fibrillation is Dangerous

If you have atrial fibrillation, it’s important to know that you may be at risk for certain health conditions. That’s why it’s so important to take the medications as prescribed by your doctor. According to the American Heart Association, you have twice the risk of heart-related death and a five-times increased risk of stroke if you have untreated A-fib (x). It might be hard to imagine that your A-fib could be so lethal, especially if you look and feel great otherwise.

Let’s not get our hearts pounding. But we need to educate ourselves about our health. Some people may live years with A-fib without any problems (x). The key is to recognize the symptoms so you can go to your doctor for the appropriate treatment.

Symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation

It may be difficult to diagnose atrial fibrillation if you don’t have any symptoms. However, some people may find they experience the following:

Fatigue

Being tired more than usual could be a symptom of atrial fibrillation. One study found that people over the age of 65 were more likely to report fatigue as a symptom of atrial fibrillation (x). Scientists theorize that as we age, we may depend more on the upper chambers of our heart to fill the lower chambers more effectively in between beats. Because A-fib disrupts the rhythm of our heartbeat, this filling between each heartbeat becomes less effective.

Dizziness

If you have atrial fibrillation, you may experience feeling dizzy or fainting. The medical term for fainting is syncope. Your heart is not pumping as effectively in A-fib (x). Because blood isn’t flowing well to your brain as a result of that, you end up feeling faint. Other reasons you may feel dizzy is because when you have atrial fibrillation, your heart beats either too slow or too fast (x).

Chest Pain

Some people may feel chest pain or heart palpitations when they get atrial fibrillation. Palpitations may feel like your heart is skipping a beat or beating “funny.” One study found that younger people under the age of 65 reported chest pain more frequently, though it’s unclear why (x). In general, younger people with atrial fibrillation tend to have more rapid heart rates than older patients, which may explain this age correlation (x).

Shortness of Breath

Feeling like you can’t breathe could also be due to atrial fibrillation. People over the age of 65 are more likely to report this symptom (x), potentially due to the same reasons they may also feel more tired. Older people rely more on the resting period between heartbeats to fill the heart with blood for effective pumping. When this period of rest is shorter because of A-fib, your heart fills poorly, your blood doesn’t circulate as well, and you can feel short of breath.

Other Symptoms

Other symptoms or signs of atrial fibrillation include getting tired more easily and a vague sense that something is “wrong” (x). Many people will not have any symptoms to alert them to something amiss. One study found that women were more likely to experience symptoms than men (x). Usually, silent cases of A-fib come to light during routine evaluations for other health conditions (x). A health technician may find that you have an irregular or fast heart rate, or a doctor may discover it during a routine physical.

When to Seek Medical Attention

If you experience any of the above warning signs of atrial fibrillation, it’s a good idea to seek medical attention. As there are health risks associated with atrial fibrillation you should get evaluated by your doctor as soon as possible. Many factors contribute to the development of atrial fibrillation. If you have other chronic medical conditions or had recent heart surgery, you may be at higher risk.

Causes of Atrial Fibrillation

Are you at risk for atrial fibrillation? Many reasons may contribute to why your heart may be beating abnormally (x). In general, atrial fibrillation is the dysfunctional pumping in the upper chambers of the heart (x). Some people may have abnormal changes to the structure of their heart, while others have medical conditions that put them at higher risk.

Abnormal Heart Structure

If the shape and strength of the upper chambers of the heart are abnormal, they may not work correctly. In some cases of A-fib, the irregular rhythm arises from structural issues. Certain conditions, such as high blood pressure and heart failure, can damage the tissues of the heart, causing enlargement of the chambers (x). Furthermore, the damage this does to the heart muscle causes scar tissue to form, which is much less flexible and doesn’t pump as well (x). Abnormally large heart chambers are like huge balloons that cannot squeeze all the air out. Poor pumping ability can then lead to irregular heartbeats as the heart tries its best to compensate for its declining function.

High Blood Pressure

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (x), approximately 1 in 3 adults in the United States has high blood pressure. If you have high blood pressure or are taking medications to treat high blood pressure, you may be at risk for developing atrial fibrillation (x,x). As discussed above, high blood pressure puts strain on your heart chambers, which can lead to an enlarged heart as well as scar tissue in the heart muscle tissues (x). Both of these changes affect the structure of the heart causing it to pump less effectively, leading to the development of irregular heartbeats (x). It’s no wonder why high blood pressure is the most common medical problem shared by people who have atrial fibrillation (x). 

Previous Heart Surgery

Whenever you have heart surgery, the surgeon will inevitably change the structure of your heart. Because of that inherent risk, heart surgery may increase your risk of developing atrial fibrillation (x).  In addition to having surgical modifications to your heart physically, the inflammation that ensues after the operation, as well as other pre-existing medical conditions all contribute to your risk (x). Many changes after surgery may result in a dysfunctional heart that leads to A-fib (x).

Sleep Apnea

Ever hear your partner complain that you snore too loudly at night or even stop breathing? Though it may seem innocent, sleep apnea can increase your risk for a variety of severe health problems, such as A-fib (x). In a recent study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association (x), sleep apnea increased the risk of developing A-fib.

Atrial Fibrillation Symptoms

Other Causes

There are also many other medical conditions associated with the development of atrial fibrillation in addition to the causes mentioned above. These include a blood clot in the lungs, heart disease, thyroid problems, and medication side effects to name a few. These causes affect the physical structure and electrical signaling that drives our heart to pump blood. Other factors associated with increased risk include having chronic health conditions such as diabetes or kidney disease, and obesity (x, x, x).

Atrial Fibrillation Remedies and Supplements

If you have A-fib, it’s important to get treatment as soon as possible. Staying up to date with your doctor appointments and taking your medications on time is very important for managing atrial fibrillation. Besides antiarrhythmic medicines, there are a few homeopathic remedies you can try to help prevent and treat A-fib.

Taurine

Taurine, a natural metabolite in our bodies, is a natural ingredient found in meats and fish (x). It’s an amino acid, which is a component that makes up proteins (x). It’s believed that taurine can help to treat various medical conditions, such as HTN, ischemic heart disease, and artherosclerosis (x). It has been used as a supplement in cystic fibrosis too (x). Taurine may be a helpful alternative remedy to treat and prevent atrial fibrillation. Though the mechanism is not understood, Chinese researchers found that taurine interfered with the electrical and physical changes of the heart associated with atrial fibrillation in rats (x, x). Other scientists point to the antioxidant effects of taurine preventing scarring and promoting stronger heartbeats (x). 

The National Institute of Health cautions women who are pregnant or nursing to refrain from using taurine (x). In addition, people with heart failure should only use taurine under direct medical supervision. While there is no limit determined as to how much taurine you can take safely (x), some researchers have suggested a safe level of maximum 3g per day. Healthy adults can start with 500mg per day, then increase to twice a day (x). Taurine is available as a purified supplement or in energy drinks. So far, there haven’t been any side effects observed in daily taurine supplementation. However, it is suggested to interact with drugs that are metabolized by the liver. As always, check with your doctor before starting any new supplement.

Coenzyme Q10

Another supplement naturally found in our bodies is coenzyme Q10 (x). This substance is an antioxidant that helps your cells grow and stay healthy (x). Coenzyme Q10 is also found naturally in grains, fish, and meat, and the levels decline as we age (x). People with heart disease also have lower levels of Coenzyme Q10 (x). Researchers recently performed a small study that suggests its benefit in preventing atrial fibrillation in heart failure patients (x). Coenzyme Q10 may also have antioxidant effects that help promote heart health, preventing heart disease and improving outcomes after heart surgery (x).

You can take between 50 to 200mg of coenzyme Q10 every day (x).  There are no serious adverse effects reported with coenzyme Q10 supplementation (x). Because we don’t know the safety profile, it’s recommended to avoid this supplement if you are pregnant or breastfeeding (x). Mild side effects you could experience include stomach upset, diarrhea, rash, insomnia, and dizziness (x). Coenzyme Q10 may interact with your medications. Ask your doctor about taking this supplement with your blood pressure medications or antidepressants (x), also if you are taking any blood thinning medications. It’s always important to consult with your doctor about taking coenzyme Q10, especially if you have other medical conditions.

Exercise

It’s unclear whether exercise can help with atrial fibrillation, but some studies suggest that light to moderate exercise could help.  Though strenuous exercise may put you at higher risk of developing an irregular heartbeat, light activities like walking may lower the risk. If you have atrial fibrillation, it’s best to avoid high-intensity training (x). However, a carefully tailored exercise regimen could help manage your heart condition. One study found a benefit to patients if they performed aerobic exercise for up to only 85% of their peak heart rate for a total of 200 minutes each week (x).  Though more studies need to be done to see what exercise regimen works best, doctors are hopeful that certain lifestyle changes, such as weight loss and exercise, can help people with A-fib.   

The Bottom Line

Atrial fibrillation is a heart condition where your heart is beating in an abnormal rhythm. Having atrial fibrillation can put you at risk of severe health conditions, such as stroke and heart attack. You may not notice any symptoms of A-fib, but warning signs can include feeling faint, dizzy, palpitations, and chest pain. Some people may also have difficulty breathing. Many factors contribute to your risk of developing A-fib, including other medical conditions or previous heart surgery.  If you have A-fib, it’s important to take all medications as prescribed by your doctor. Homeopathic remedies available include supplements like taurine and coenzyme Q10, which are substances naturally found in our bodies. Exercise may also be beneficial if following a lower-intensity regimen. As always, make sure you talk to your doctor about alternative therapies before you try them.

About the author

Ingrid Jacobson


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